The Cranberry Isles Firebug

1915-16

Background

In the fall and winter of 1915-16, Arthur Napier, a young man staying at Islesford, started several fires that destroyed houses and businesses on Islesford, Great Cranberry, and even Mt. Desert.  Of course, no one knew, at first, who was responsible for the deliberately-set fires.

Here is a running commentary, taken from newspaper accounts and excerpts from the excellent and engrossing Islesford Journals of Dr. Vincent Y. Bowditch, Vol. II: 1906-1917, published by the Islesford Historical Society.  order form

1915

From Dr. Vincent Y. Bowditch's Journal

Sept. 10, 1915.  Unusual excitements have prevailed in the past week.  Three or four days ago (Saturday the 4th) as we were out sailing from Seal Harbor we saw smoke from the direction of Islesford harbor & later upon coming to the dock could see that the old house on the "sandbeach" just vacated by Dr. Walter Seelye had been burned to the ground.  Various surmises having been made for the cause, "charred wood in the chimney", "oiled rags", "man with a pipe", etc. but nothing proved.  That evening an unoccupied house on Big Cranberry burned down & the same evening later, another house in Somesville.  No cause given!  During a two days' fog on the 8th & 9th, the "Morse" was rammed by the "Pemaquid" & the latter had to be beached near Stonington & all the passengers taken off and freight as well.

Last night just after the family had gone to bed, about 9 o'clock, I was sitting alone in the living room & suddenly heard a furious ringing of the church bell in the distance.  Suspecting something wrong, I ran out to the piazza and saw the fog aglow with fire-light towards the west & knowing the Seeley's (Ralph) to be also unoccupied I suspected the fire was there.  I aroused Scotty & Nina & the others & the ... and I ran to the village watching the brilliant light increase, with sinking hearts.  Questioning a woman hurrying towards us she said "Mr. Brooks' house is afire."  Later we reached the spot.  The whole house in flames & men gallantly working about having drawn out much of the furniture from the lower floor with the upper part burning.  In vain they tried for water enough to check the fire.  The house was a blazing, roaring fire ere long & within an hour a flaming smoking heap!  And no explanation!  Arthur Brooks had left two days before and his caretaker, Frank Bunker, had gone all through the house and made everything secure but some how fire had started in the second story.  Rumor is rife and suspicions of a "firebug" are broadcast but no one can place the guilt, if any.  A poor little artist at Dwelley's named Kinkaid is suspected by some but we reject the idea as preposterous.  Shall we ever know?  The islanders are much upset & made very nervous & we all feel more or less so.  I confess I dread shutting up the house lest it act as a temptation to some fire-fiend.  Mrs. Young hailed me as I passed today evidently wanting to air her view.  She confided to me she suspected "that feller at Dwelley's", "You never can tell & he may be a German"!

Dear old Bert Gilley has been very ill with severe bronchitis & very difficult as a patient.  I have been seeing him with Dr. Phillips and he is now improving & very grateful in his straight forward childlike way after a few days of "contrariness".  I love to be a help to these good people so appreciative of any kindness shown them.

Mon. Sept. 13.  A mild "reign of terror" has been over this usually peaceful little island for on the night of the 11th again buildings were [burnt.]  Fred & the poor old Capt. Hadlock's ice house & later his barn were totally destroyed in an amazingly short time & evidently from the hand of some incendiary.  Lizzie was the only one to hear the bell which rang again about 11 o'clock but I was fast asleep & she did not want to awaken anyone & could see no light so thought it of no importance.  To our dismay we learned the next day the facts from men who were patrolling the island with guns bent on shooting anyone who showed signs of being the culprit.  All sorts of rumors naturally started, everyone excited, the women of the island terribly upset not knowing when their own turn might come in this horrible way now that there was indisputable proof of a "firebug".  Conjecture was rife all talking and full of theories but no definite plan adopted.  Finally on Sunday morning instead of the usual service a "mass meeting" was held, after notice, in the little church.  I have rarely been at anything more intense, more in dead earnest.  Mr. Sawtelle was asked to act as chairman, after the reading of the 91st Psalm by Mr. Knight & a beautifully appropriate prayer by Dr. Rush Rheese who had just come.  Mr. Sawtelle deeply affected and evidently tired from two nights vigil addressed the meeting and then Dr. Smythe.  Then with a beating heart I arose and spoke of my having been on the island for nearly thirty years, of its being a "second home" in every joy and sorrow in which I always took part & that I deeply felt this latest calamity & that in watching the noble, splendid efforts of the men at the Brooks' house fire, I felt the necessity for our asking for state aid, whether of soldiers to patrol the woods, detectives or whatever.  Instantly the idea "took" and was endorsed.  The Fire Warden of Seal Harbor gave valuable suggestions and Alonzo Bryant our fire warden was given full power to act & a few remarks were made and the meeting closed, all feeling that something would be done soon to clear the horrid mystery.

Strange enough to feel the sense in this dear haven of rest that we must lock our doors, keep lights burning and show we are alert because the culprit thus far has confined his abominations to unoccupied houses.  No one is allowed to go out at night and must carry a lantern, not a "flashlight".  The woods and roads are being patrolled, a Govt. vessel last night kept a search light on the harbor to see that no boat left & Dr. Smythe's boats have been carried to the harbor so that no means of escape can be found for the perpetrator of the outrages.  Rumors of a "gray clothed man" having been seen running & shots fired at him by some young enthusiast on the island, & all sorts of statements and theories are keeping the island in a ferment; the poor women being the worst sufferers from tired nerves & bodies, many of them on the edge of hysteria.

Today there is change.  (Mr. Sawtelle & others) tell us "the ball is rolling" & evidence is accumulating.  State aid is coming on Wednesday & probably detectives to question everyone.  Is this some temporary mania in some usually wellbalanced resident or what?  Time will (possibly) show us; in the meantime I think this little family is the most cool one on the island, from my own observation, but there is a very uncanny and strange feeling in our hearts utterly foreign to the usual feeling of rest and peace in this heavenly spot.  The poor Smythes are very much upset & believe there was proof that a man was hidden in their wood bin a night or two ago; so Scotty & I searched our woodshed & storeroom well yesterday & the woodshed is locked after 5 P.M.  Horrid thought!  Pray Heaven we shall not hear again that church bell wildly ringing at night that brings a chill down one's spine.  I wonder what would happen were this dear little house to be sacrificed?

Wed. Sept. 15.  Still mystery but everyone is calmer.  Houses are lighted at night & patrols exist.  Scotty & I were deputed to go to the Gray bungalow & place a lantern on the piazza after dark & we went twice down there through the fog to see if all was quiet.  The lantern was put merely to show to any prowler that people were about.  An eerie sensation to creep through the woods at night on such an errand!  A detective is expected today & "state aid" from Bangor but I hold my tongue and don't ask questions.  All the villagers are gossiping of course.

Yesterday, to add to our excitements, we had an accident to our boat.  All our party but Scotty started in the "Witch" for Somesville to call on Mrs. Pryor & Mrs. Tweedy, picking up Polly Briggs at the Wheelwrights on the way.  All went well until we reached the bay at Somesville & acting on the suggestion of Mrs. Pryor to Polly over the telephone, we turned into the harbor which was supposed to be navigable at high tide.  "Clarence" should not have gone in not knowing the bottom.  Soon we scraped a rock; then Whack! Bang! & we were stuck fast on another and the tide ebbing!  Quick consultation, Clarence ... blew his horn for assistance to a launch at the regular float where Walter Hadlock was, but he did not hear.  Lizzie and I bundled in the skiff & Clarence said excitedly, "I'll take the oars; others stay on the boat."  As he was Captain, I obeyed orders and we flew to the dock, deposited Lizzie; got Walter to back out to our assistance & then flew back to the others on the boat now fast listing sidewise.  All scrambled on and got to the side of the launch ... scrambled on board, no time lost for the rapidly falling tide.  Clarance fastening the hawser from the launch to his boat; shouts from Walter who sounded rather desperate; a grating, grumbling sound and the sloop whirled off the rocks, nearly swamping the skiff in the process.  Finally we found the sloop was not materially injured so we went back to the float and after colloquy, in which I saw Clarence, white as a sheet, had been horribly frightened.  As he calmed down it seemed best to turn home immediately and give up our call at Mrs. Tweedy's house, Mrs. Pryor having come to greet us at the dock.  A few moments more on that sloop and they might all have been upset, (horrible thought) but no harm came to us and all were cool & collected fortunately.  "Puffed" home leaving Polly at No. East & then across in a thick mist with the new moon shining through a lovely sunset, so our dear little island still in the throws of the aftermath of the "firebug".  Truly a momentous visit to "Tree Top" this year!  The poor old Captain wanders about the ruins of his barn picking up pieces here & there, a pathetic sight.

Thursday. Sept. 16th.  Nat & Margaret arrived on the scene suddenly yesterday welcomed by all.  Mr. Sawtelle evidently is busy with getting detective service on the island & mysterious hints that the culprit is known are creeping about.  At supper we were all feeling free in our minds in consequence and were sitting in the parlor.  I stepped out on the south piazza to look at "Venus" (?) glittering in the southern sky through the woods when Nina said "Oh there's a fire in Seal Harbor!"  Looking directly across, there was a large fire beginning near the shore on the road to No. East Harbor & to the left of the Rockerfeller house.  For an hour and a half we watched it with a sickening sense that another "bug" had been doing his evil work.  Scotty & I then patrolled to the Gray bungalow & left the lantern there as usual but all was silent.  This morning we find it was the house (unoccupied for a few days) by a Mrs Boggs of Philadelphia.  No news at present except that detectives are here and working.

Good old Lucindy Fernald's chief solicitation was about her "little kitty" who at the time of the Capt's fire had disappeared for a day or two.  "I was so afraid my little kitty had been burnt" said she to me & so we combine the great and the little things of life, the sublime and the ridiculous.

Sat. Sept. 18.  Nothing new except the arrival of Mr. Wood the detective, from Boston well-known in this house twelve years ago when again we were living in a dime novel!

Yesterday upon meeting the Capt. (Hadlock) on the road for the first time since the fire, I said "Capt. we've all been thinking a great deal about you at 'Tree Top' lately."  He hesitated a moment & then said with a touch of his old humorous smile "Well to tell the truth Dr. I ain't been thinkin' much about you lately!"  The Capt. is a good one at covering up his real feelings whether of joy or sorrow.

A specimen of good Yankee frankness of speech & of kindness was shown me yesterday when the man who brought the coal, stopped at the ... who had kindly offered to help us out with ice since the ice-house fire, & brought it down to me here on his "jigger".  Upon my thanking him warmly for bringing it, he said laconically & pleasantly without taking his pipe out of his mouth, "Yours truly"! & took up his reins & drove away.  How this democratic way would make an Englishman stare!

A heavenly cool clear N.E. day after a good deal of warm rather close weather for some time, warm for Islesford but possible elsewhere we hear.

Nightly patrols to the Gray bungalow by Scotty & me to hang a lantern near there to keep off "firebugs".

In the afternoon with a lovely breeze & halcyon atmosphere, Livy, Nina, Martha & I sailed to the Big Cranberry walked to the village past the bungalow path over to the woods behind Mrs. Lucinda Stanley's house where we found the good soul delighted to see us, nervous & sleepless over the "Firebug" scare.  Poor old soul quite alone in her house altho' not far from her son's home, I don't wonder she feels lonesome and scared at night.

No new developments about detectives, etc.!

Daniel Duffy is cutting dead brush out of my woods at $2.00 day.  Mrs. Stanley says his father was an excellent old Irishman ... living on Big Cranberry.  Upon asking Duffy where he lived on the island he said "Oh, close to the city just above the steamboat wharf!"

Sept. 20.  Martha Rolfe left by the afternoon boat "Monhegan" for Rockland. She will be missed by all.

Nothing new about the fires & excitement is abating.  Detectives here but thus far nothing conclusive.

Sept. 24.  Little of interest has occurred about the firebug scene & all seems to be quieting down.  Three detectives have been on the island & Mr. Dable, an inspector of state insurance who spoke at the Neighborhood House admirably telling of their work & exonerating young Napier, Mrs. Pancoast's son, completely & begging people not to spread their own ideas but if suspicious of anyone to speak to the authorities.  I was glad to say a word commending his speech for the summer colony and begged all to follow his advice.

On the 22nd tea at the good Smythes to see Mr. Kincaide's paintings.  They can't compare with "Scotty's" for "atmosphere"

Nina, Scotty & I investigated the old loft at the Colonel's old store to see if it would do as a studio for him.  Such a lumber shop!  The old stuffed shark caught years ago still hangs on the beams above as on my first visit to the island.

This evening, John B. Wheeler who came to Dwelley's three days ago, came to supper with Kincaide.  Reminisces by the score with John about student days in Vienna galore.


1916

From a local newspaper

A FIRE BUG AT CRANBERRY ISLES?

Return of Mysterious Fires of Last September Arouses Inhabitants.

Cranberry Isles, Jan. 26 [1916]
Much uneasiness is felt by many residents of Cranberry Isles on account of what seems to be the beginning of a new outbreak of mysterious fires like that of September last.  Two weeks ago a fire in the house of Elisha Bunker was fortunately discovered before much damage was done and only mice and matches can be suggested as the cause, and few believe this to be the case.  A few days ago a fire in the house of John M. Bunker was discovered before the flames had gathered any headway and none seems to be able to advance any theory as to the origin.  The neighborhood is beginning to be fearful of another fire series and most people do not allow the slightest sound at night to go uninvestigated, lest fire should be the cause.

The fires which occurred here last September threw the inhabitants of the island into the wildest kind of excitement and a vigilance akin to martial law prevailed during a period of several weeks.  No arrests were made and so far as is known, the identity of the guilty person or persons remains undiscovered.

The buildings which were burned last September included the old Sand Beach House on the south shore of Islesford, owned by Dr. Walter Seelye of Worcester, Mass.; the fine summer home on Islesford, of Arthur Brooks of Cambridge, Mass., valued at $20,000; the house on Cranberry Island owned by J. H. Hamor and occupied by Arnold Weed and family and Capt. Gilbert Hadlock's ice house on Islesford.


From a local newspaper around March 1916

The Cranberry Isles firebug mystery has been solved by the persistent and good work of the Maine insurance department and a detective agency, and the loss of approximately $20,000 has been made good.  Arthur Napier, a twenty-year-old youth from Philadelphia, a long-time summer visitor at Little Cranberry Isle, has confessed the crimes.  He has, since it is shown that he is a pyromaniac, been placed under proper restraint.  The young man, on all other subjects, is perfectly normal, and it is hoped that proper treatment will effect a cure of his disease.

[1916 is handwritten on this firebug clipping.]


From Dr. Vincent Y. Bowditch's Journal

Sept. 7th, 1916 (Wed.)  John B. Wheeler came.

The house had been let to Prof. Arthur Kennelly & his wife for July & August, pleasant tenants who left the cottage in beautiful order.

Little 10-year old Shirley Bryant is our chore boy - a bright, active little chap.  We have no boat this year, economy being the order of the day.

We find a new store (Faulkner's) & Nathan Stanley has enlarged & put in plate glass windows.  A new post office with Mr. & Mrs. Olsen installed as Postmaster & mistress.

Little trace of last year's tragedy now; Arthur Brooks' house rebuilt, so also the Capt's barn and ice house.  With all the sympathy for poor Mr. & Mrs. Pancoast it is a relief to know as we have for six months the culprit -- poor young Napier, Mrs. P's own son who proved to be insane & is now in an asylum.

Thus far, the weather leaves much to be desired, fog, east wind and cold until today - muggy & fog.

 

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