Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Tracking Down an Arsonist in 1889

On November 8, 1889, the Hudson Daily Evening Register reported that the culprit who had made "an incendiary attempt to burn the lumber yard and buildings connected with the carpenter shop of Harry S. Moul located at No. 318 Union Street, running through to Cherry Alley," had been apprehended. The incident occurred at 11 o'clock on a Sunday night, October 20, and was discovered and extinguished before it could cause much damage.

The story is interesting for a few reasons. First, the owner of the targeted property was Henry S. Moul, who in 1889 was still a carpenter but who in the next decade or so would make a name as an architect and move his business to 443 Warren Street.

Moul was the architect who designed the fourth Columbia County courthouse, which was destroyed by fire seven years after it was completed, the Synagogue Anshe Ammes, now Shiloh Baptist Church, and many homes around town, notably several on McKinstry Place.

Also of interest is the person charged with the crime: William Casey, Jr., whom the newspaper described as "a young man of 18 years of age of highly respectable parentage." Casey told the police that he was intoxicated when he tried to set fire to the lumber yard and affirmed that he had had "no confederates." He admitted to drinking with others during the evening but said the others were "too drunk to take a hand in this crime."

What is most interesting about the story is the clue that led the police to young Casey. Newspapers soaked in kerosene had been placed, as accelerants, throughout the buildings. Because the fire had been promptly discovered and extinguished, some of these newspapers were untouched by the fire, and it was the newspapers that led the police to the culprit. The report in the Hudson Daily Evening Register explains how.

After twenty witnesses came forward to provide evidence against him, Casey finally "admitted his guilt, confessing the whole."

The press today may sometimes play a role in solving crimes but never quite in this way.

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