"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

Yet another case of Mystery Fires, as reported in the "Pittsburgh Press," August 20, 1948:

Macomb, Ill., Aug. 20--There wasn't much left for the "mystery fires" to destroy on Charlie Willey's farm today.

The "ghost flames" destroyed the second barn last night. Mr. Willey now has lost his five-room frame cottage and two barns to the fires, which seem to come from nowhere.

Mrs. Willey said she and her husband were sitting in their yard, next to the charred ruins of their home at 6 pm when the blaze broke out.

"I just looked up and the barn had burst into flames," she said. "We just stood and watched. There was no chance to save it."

The barn, which contained hay, burned in 26 minutes, Mrs. Willey said. Fireman were too late to save it.

"You wouldn't have been able to save it if you had been right there with the fire hose," James Peak, a passerby, told Macomb firemen.

The Willeys also reported an outbreak of small fires in their milkhouse. They have lived in a makeshift tent since their house burned last Saturday, and use the milkhouse as a dining room.

Mrs. Willey said that she opened the door to the milkhouse yesterday morning and noticed smoke. She put out a small blaze in shelf paper in a cupboard.

Like the other fires which have plagued the Willeys for two weeks, yesterday's blazes seemed spontaneous.

Just six buildings--three chicken brooders, a chicken house, a smokehouse and granary--remain on the Willey farm, about twelve miles south of here.

The blazes began two weeks ago, when the Willeys first noticed brown spots on their wallpaper. The spots spread and then burst into flame.

The Willeys doused the fires but more appeared--200 in a week.

Finally the Willeys moved out of their home. Saturday the house burned and the next day their first barn went up in flames.

Mr. Willey said the wallpaper couldn't be blamed since he had torn it off the walls and the barns weren't papered. It couldn't be defective wiring because the house was not electrified.

The family was virtually isolated by the fires today. In order to talk with them by telephone--which was moved to the granary--it was necessary to have the operator relay the messages.

Mrs. Willey said the family still wasn't frightened by the fires.

"There must be some natural explanation for them," she said. "And we're not going to let them lick us. We're still going to rebuild on the foundation of our old home."

Soon afterward, a "natural explanation" was indeed offered for the fires. Newspapers reported that Willey's 12-year-old niece, Wonet (or Wanet) McNeil, admitted to having set all the blazes. She had been living at the farm with her father, Mrs. Willey's brother Harold McNeil, ever since her parents divorced. Wonet said she had recently visited her mother in Bloomington, Illinois, and "didn't want to go back to the farm." She said she had set all the fires using nothing more than matches.

There were doubts expressed about this oh-so-tidy solution. Her aunt Lou Willey commented that Wonet must have been "awful slick" to set all those fires--over two hundred of them--without anyone spotting her. How could she have used only matches to set off these baffling, incredibly intense blazes? (No trace of flammable liquids were found at any of the fires.)  How to explain that many of the fires had started when Wonet was nowhere in sight? Mrs. Willey insisted that her niece was an amiable, obedient girl who had seemed happy with them.

There were suspicions that the Deputy State Fire Marshal, John Burgard, had "trapped" the child into admitting guilt, allowing him to quickly wrap up an increasingly frustrating crime.  When he first accused her of being the arsonist, she denied it. When Burgard continued to insist that she must be the culprit, she burst into tears and refused to talk. It was not until she was interrogated--alone--by Burgard and the District Attorney that she broke down and "confessed."

In the end, however, everyone had no choice but to accept this as the solution to the mystery. Whether it was an entirely credible one is, of course, a matter of personal opinion. Custody of the girl was given to her maternal grandmother, Mrs. John Johnson, and the Willeys disappeared from the headlines.

1 comment:

  1. The Willeys seemed to have been a sensible couple; if they didn't solve the mystery, they knew what wasn't the cause of the fires. It's interesting that wallpaper was mentioned. I wonder if fires started by paper (or the glue used) was common then.


Comments are moderated. The author of this blog reserves the right to delete remarks from spammers, trolls, idiots, lunatics, jerks, and anyone who happens to annoy me on days when I've gotten out of bed the wrong way. Which is usually any day ending with a "y."