Charlie and strings of suspicious fires

Tom McDermott
Posted 10/19/21

It was a warm, quiet evening on Aug. 11, 1936.

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Charlie and strings of suspicious fires


It was a warm, quiet evening on Aug. 11, 1936.

Fire Engine Driver E.W. Taylor was awakened by frantic pounding on the firehouse door. “Fire, Fire!” shouted Charlie as he pounded on the door to alert the fire department. There was a blaze at the back of Walters Tavern on Lincoln Highway. E.W. ran to the door and let Charlie in.

In minutes, the alarm was sounded, and Firefighter Taylor with Charlie were rushing to the scene. The fire was small and quickly brought under control. Damage was done to Walter’s Tavern and Maxson’s Restaurant, but the fire was stopped before it could spread to surrounding businesses.

E.W. Taylor thanked Charlie for his help and returned to the fire house. Fire Chief John Maxson had only been in his position for a few months, but he knew something was wrong. This was not the first time Charlie had stumbled upon a fire.

Actually, he had discovered several fires: Faley’s Bar, Eckert’s Tavern, Vaughn and Martin’s Traveland Inn and had bravely fought side by side with firefighters to put them out. Sheriff Otto Blanchard was called in and an investigation followed.

All involved proceeded with caution. Charlie had a family: a wife, two sons and a daughter. Also, he had been a fulltime driver for the fire department from 1918 through 1923. No one wanted to level an accusation without plenty of evidence behind the charges.

The facts piled up and Charlie was indicted. When standing before the judge, Charlie pled guilty and was sentenced to one to 10 years. Charlie’s new address was Joliet, Illinois at the state prison. Time passed and the conditions for Charlie’s family were truly desperate.

The community felt so much empathy for the family that a letter was written to the State Board of Pardons and Paroles. A petition was signed by hundreds of citizens. Prominent citizens and officials included personal letters pleading for lenience. The local paper supported his release with a heartfelt article.

Possibly his condition was a result of things he had seen on the battle fields of World War I. At any rate, three years was more than sufficient punishment to inflict on this veteran. He had paid his debt to society and should be paroled. His family needed him and justice should be tempered with mercy. 

Charlie was released, and returned home to his family. If the story ended here, a tragic story could have a happy ending. Sometimes though, happy endings are not meant to be. On Dec. 20, 1941 at 7:15 in the evening the fire department was called to Archie Morrison’s for a barn on fire.

As soon as the barn fire was brought under control, an alarm was raised for Druker’s Junkyard for a shed on fire. Another fire was reported and cancelled as the callers extinguished the small blaze. Five minutes later a blaze was reported at the Kennedy Cereal Mill.

Four fires within 70 minutes and only six blocks apart, something was wrong with the picture. An investigation was initiated and eight possible suspects were identified. These included persons who had reported the fires, people who were “hanging around” the fires and those who seemed overly interested in helping to fight the fires.

Six were quickly cleared and two were asked to take lie detector tests. At the end of the day, only one suspect failed to be cleared after close scrutiny.

Charlie ultimately confessed and was returned prison at Joliet to finish out his original sentence. Charlie’s family suffered during his time in prison and the carried the stigma of his deeds for the rest of their lives.

Charlie passed in 1952, and we can only hope that he had conquered his demons and found peace.

Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum Historian and Rochelle City Councilman.