Sunday, November 13, 2016

Pursuing an 1889 Arson Case

A couple of weeks ago, Gossips published a report, from the Hudson Daily Evening Register for November 8, 1889, on the arrest of an arsonist, an eighteen-year-old named Willam Casey, Jr. The story was interesting because the fire had been set in a building in Cherry Alley that belonged to Henry S. Moul, who had not yet begun his prolific career as an architect in Hudson, and because authorities had been led to the culprit by newspapers found at the scene.  

As it turns out, the interest of the story doesn't end there. The next day, November 9, 1889, the Evening Register reported, with considerable indignation, that, despite twenty witnesses providing evidence against him and the accused's own confession, "respectability" was offered as a "palliation of crime," and the jury recommended clemency for William Casey, Jr. Indeed, it seems the jury was willing to accept that Casey's motive for starting the fire was not to cause destruction but to give himself an opportunity to show what a good fireman he would be. 

Photo courtesy Historic Hudson

The Evening Register, however, was having none of it and railed at length against the jury's verdict.
That is about the thinnest coat of white wash that was ever attempted to be applied to a self-confessed criminal, and every man who appended his signature to it ought to be ashamed of the act. The citizens of Hudson are in no temper to indorse [sic] such a verdict and recommendation to "clemency" in so aggravated a case.
The frequency of fires in Alley barns and sheds during the past few years prompted the city authorities to offer a liberal reward for the apprehension of incendiaries. Not long ago one of these juvenile fire bugs was apprehended and convicted. Through some unknown influence he was let off with light punishment. The Register at the time admonished the authorities that this sort of "clemency" must not be repeated. And now, when another clear case is presented and the evident ringleader of the gang is within the grasp of the law, a jury of intelligent citizens, summoned by a Coroner, recommend the criminal to "clemency" because of his "respectability" and ambition "to become a fireman." Let us hear no more of  "Dogberry opinions." *
These Alley fires are the most dangerous and dastardly crimes the city has to cope with. They have caused more annoyance and loss of property within a few years than all other causes combined. There is no amount of "respectability" that can shield the perpetrators of those cowardly and criminal acts. The fact that the accused is of highly respectable family, well educated, and surrounded by moral and elevating influences, adds to the heinousness of the offence. Had he come from the "slums," surrounded by depraved influences, ignorance and lack of moral culture might be pleaded in extenuation. But in this case there is not a redeeming feature or a palliating circumstance.
It is hardly creditable to assume that this was his first offence, or that he had no accomplices. The gang of juvenile incendiaries that infest this city must be broken up, at whatever cost. When one is captured, of which we have an instance before us, he should be punished. He should be made an example of, and that example should be so conspicuous that he will have no imitators, and the apprehension of the balance of the gang will be likely to speedily follow.
This remarkable verdict, moreover, contains an impiled [sic] insult to our firemen. Incendiarism is not a passport to membership in our fire department, which justly prides itself on the honor, integrity, vigilance and effective service of its members, and every true fireman in the city spurns this imputation upon their fair name.
Let the law take its course. If young Casey is guilty of the crime charged, he should be made to suffer the extreme penalty provided in such cases, and his associates in crime should speedily follow him. We may be harsh, but in such action lays the only safety of the community. The city cannot afford to foster these juvenile criminals, and the sooner it is rid of them the better it will be for the people and the offenders. Justice is not compatible with "clemency" is such cases.
 *  Dogberry is the constable of the Watch, a comic character, in Shakespeare's As You Like It. Used in this way, as an adjective, "Dogberry opinions," the writer probably intended it to mean "foolish, or incompetent."

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