Our Firemen, The History of the NY Fire Departments

Chapter 57, Part III

By Holice and Debbie


On the thirty-first of July, 1973., a fire started in the cellar of No. 2349 Third Avenue, occupied by Rudolph and Fritz Andree, brother, Andree's wife, a servant girl, and two journeymen barbers. Rudolph and the wife of Fritz were abroad at the time. The journeymen and the servant had narrow escapes, one of the men having to cling to the window sill by his fingers until rescued. Evidence of incendiarism were found in different parts of the cellar and kitchen, and next day the brothers were arrested and held for examination by the fire marshal by justice McQuade, bail being fixed at two thousand dollars. They found bondsmen and submitted to examination, but were so frightened by the fire marshal's interrogatories that they absconded. A reward of two thousand dollars was offered for their arrest, and postal cards on which were their portraits, were sent to all the cities of the United States. Letters which were intercepted showed that they had fled to London, England, and that they were about to return to Prussia, their native land. The Berlin Police was warned, and they arrested the fugitives on the sixth of February, 1874. The State Department learned that, as they were Prussian subjects, they could not be extradited, but that they were amenable under an admirable German law for offenses committed beyond Prussian territory, and the evidence against them was asked for by the German government. In December Marshal Sheldon gave the German Consul general, Hirkel, in new York, exemplified copies of all the testimony, with diagrams of the premises tht were fired, and oil cans and other evidences of arson. In October, 1875, the prisoners were brought to the City Court of Berlin. Fritz Andree was convicted, and sent to prison for two years. Rudolph was placed under police surveillance After conviction, Fritz confessed that me committed the crime to obtain money by his insurance to send his homesick wife back to Germany.

Fire broke out on the twenty-ninth of December, 1873, in the cap manufactory of Julius Sarner, who was heavily insured. Sarner rated as a "suspect," on account of previous settlements of fire losses which were unsatisfactory to the underwriters. They endeavored to probe his operations, but no satisfactory evidence was obtained against him. Marshal Sheldon, after a patient investigation, laid the case before the Grand Jury, and in March, 1874, Sarner was indicted for perjury ins a sworn statement in regard to the value of his stock on hand, and the quantity and value of the goods which were burnt. Sarner's trial lasted from the fourteenth to the twenty-ninth of May, 1874. He was prosecuted by Daniel G. Rollins, assistant district attorney, and now surrogate of this county, and defended by Mr. James M. Smith. He was found guilty, and remanded for sentence. On the thirtieth of May he committed suicide by the Tombs by taking Paris green.

On the tenth of September, 1877, Ellen Carey, to gratify a hatred of Thomas Donnelly and his wife, who lived in a shanty hear that of her husband, a blaster, at One Hundred and Fortieth` Street and Tenth Avenue, made a clumsy attempt to burn them alive by kindling a fire outside the door of their hut, the only means of exit. She used blasting powder, kerosene, paper, and kindling wood. The powder blew the bonfire "every which way," and saved the lives of Donnelly and his wife. The evidence against the woman was complete. She was seen near the shanty of the Donnelly's shortly before the fire occurred, and among the rubbish was a piece of wall paper which contained powder such as her husband used. Mrs. Carey was sentenced to end of days in prison.

A large double tenement house at No. 11 Ludlow Street was on fire on the tenth of November, 1878. The flames originated in the apartment of Joseph Levy. The fire was typical of many which had occurred shortly before on the east side of the city, and the origin of them as pronounced incendiary, but the criminal or criminals could not be detected or traced. It was evident that an organized gang were at work to make money out of insurance companies, without any thought to the lives or property that were imperiled, and Charles H. Perley, of the fire marshal's office, and Foreman Dempsey, of Engine Company No. 9, had been detailed to watch certain suspected persons, among whom was Isaac Perlstein, Charles Bernstein , and Abraham D. Freeman. They were found to have a rendezvous in a beer saloon in East Broadway near Engine 9's quarters, and it was finally discovered that they worked for a clique of fire speculators, setting fire to such premises as were pointed out by those interested in the insurance. Evidences of their criminality were laid before the Assistant District Attorney Rollins, but he was not willing to risk the escape of such villains on secondary proof, and he urged the fire marshal to be patient. And instruct those who were watching the "fire bugs," to extreme but cautious vigilance. Then it happened that Dempsey and Perley followed them from their rendezvous, saw then enter No. 11 Ludlow Street, and Perley saw then enter Levy's room, and come out. A little later Levy's place was ablaze, and Perley, breaking into the room, helped to put out the fire. later in the night, Perlstein, Bernstein, Freeman, and Levy met at the beer saloon to curse the activity of the Fire Department, which had thwarted their plan. Two days after they were in jail on indictments, cursing their greed of gain. Judge Cowing sentenced Perlstein for life on the twenty-fifth of January, 1879, and Levy to the same living death on the tenth of June of that year. Judge Barrett passed like sentence on Freeman and Bernstein on the twenty-sixth of February, 1879. Cohen Davis, a lying witness, to prove an alibi for Freeman, was convicted of perjury, and on the eighteenth of March, 1879, was sent to state prison for seven years by Judge Gildersleeve. Mr. Daniel G. Rollins conducted the prosecution in each case. Many persons who should have shared the fate of the convicts fled to escape arrest. In the succeeding year the fires in the district in which the fire bugs, Perlstein, Bernstein & Co., operated, were one hundred less then the previous year, when they were at large, in spite of a general increase in fires throughout the city.

Late at night on the twenty-third of November, 1885, the seventy inmates of the double tenement house, No. 404 East Sixty-fourth Street, were aroused by a fast spreading fire, which had its origin in rooms on the second floor, occupied by Henry Kohout, his wife, and Edward Kohout. The fire went to the roof, destroying the two upper floors, and in the wreck were found the calcined bodies of Mary Fialia, a Bohemian widow, and her two children; many others in the house came near sharing their fate. The Kohouts were arrested on very direct evidence that liquid substance of an inflammable nature was used to favor the spread of the flames in their rooms and on the stairs. The motive for arson was discovered in policies of insurance for nine hundred dollars on property worth seventy-five dollars. The prisoners were indicted for murder and arson, and the intricate case, made doubly so by the language of the principal witness--Bohemians--was conducted by Assistant District Attorney Fitzgerald in a masterly manner. The woman was not pursued The men were convicted and sentenced for life by Recorder Smyth. They would have been hanged had any one been able to swear that the masses of charred flesh found in the ruins were the bodies of Mary Fialla and her children. the evidence which secured the conviction of the Kohouts was obtained by Captain John Gunner and Detective Campbell of the Twenty-eighth Precinct.

On March 25, 1886, fire was discovered in the basement of the tenement house, No. 528 West Thirty-ninth Street, occupied by John McGrath and wife, Mary, as a grocery and dwelling. The fire was discovered at 3:35 P. M.; the place was securely locked at the time. McGrath and his wife having left home early in the morning, previously announcing that they were going to Jersey. When the doors were broken open, fires were found burning tin different rooms, and evidences of incendiarism were discovered, consisting of kindling wood soaked with kerosene, and pieces of candle placed upon it. The contents were insured for one thousand dollars. The stock, upon examination, was found worth less then two hundred dollars.

McGrath and his wife returned that evening; were arrested; indicted on April 26 for arson in the second degree; tried and convicted before Judge Gildersleeve on July 15, 1886. McGrath was sentenced to ten years in states prison, and his wife to seven years in the penitentiary.


MECHANICS' No. 47, (which was also called Old Red Gal or Poultice Hose), had a famous fire dog--a big Newfoundland called Major. Major was said to have as much common sense as half a dozen bipeds. When the old bell used to ring for a fire the dog was as alert as any of the company. If, however, the bell did not strike exactly five or six (showing the alarm was in the district) he would not budge. His manner would say as plain as words "Nor this fire, some other fire." But when the exact strokes were heard Major was wild with impatience to be off with the boys. Once a member, a little the worse for liquor, fell asleep on the carriage. The gong pealed out six; every man was ready except the sleeper. Major seized him with his teeth as if to carry him off, but got no response. Then the intelligent animal gave the man a good shake, and rousing him to a sense of his duty, darted off with the company. Alas! Poor Major at last died of too much water. He had left No. 47 to take service with some one else, got caught in the mid somewhere out in New jersey, the tide came in, and he was drowned before his friends could reach him. He is no stuffed and in a glass case.

There are many interesting stories told about fire horses. Chief Bresnan had a horse auctioned off because of old age. After passing through several hands the old nag finally became the property of a "refuse" cartman. One day the cartman came to an engine house to take away the garbage, and had backed up to the pit in the rear. Suddenly the gong sounded for an alarm. The old fire horse pricked up his ears. The spirit of former days was awakened, his youth seamed to have returned, and he bounded away carrying with him part of the stairway and almost smashing the engine, which he encountered.

Another superannuated department horse was bought by a Williamsburg milkman. One day the man of milk and water was serving his customers at the corner of Houston Street and the Bowery, and the old horse was standing quietly, and perhaps sadly awaiting the ;"git up," of his new master. Presently a hubbub, a clatter and rattle, was heard in the neighborhood. Along the Bowery rushed a fire engine. The first glimpse the old horse got of the machine new life seemed to have been inspired into his bony carcass, and off he darted after the engine, with the milk cans clattering behind him. His master was breathless and perspiring freely when at last he caught up with the enthusiastic brute. The superannuated fire hose was standing contentedly in the full glare of the fire, seemingly under the impression that he had done his whole duty.

Engine Company No. 8, located in North Moore Street, had a remarkable horse, and wonderful stories are told of him. For instance, when he was thirsty and wanted a drink he would back out of his stall, go to the hydrant, turn the faucet with his mouth, and, after drinking, would turn the water off and return to his stall. He would catch in his mouth a handkerchief thrown into the air as it descended, and put I into the pocket of one of the member's coats. He would lift any leg called out to him, and go down on his knees as in the act of saying his prayers at the word of command.

That animal, it must be conceded, was pretty intelligent, but what will be said of the horse that Engine Company No. 17 rejoiced in the possession of. Here are some of the marvelous things he knew and would do: he knew the stations on which the company performs duty, he showed it in this way, it is said: whenever the gong sounded an alarm he ran to his place and snapped his pole-snap to a ring in a strap for that purpose. Upon the sounding of the gong for other stations striking more than two blows, if the man on house patrol did not stop him, he would pull the bunk-room gong, and as the men came tumbling down-stairs he would neigh with satisfaction at having turned them out of their beds. On returning from the hose to the stable, if he could get a broom he would sweep his stall or break the broom handle and throw it over the fence into the next yard. When he wanted a drink of water, he, too, knew hot to get it; he went to the watering trough, turned the faucet, and drank his fill; then, it is asserted, he would fill a pail with water and take it to the other horse, and after having finished, if not detected before, he would neigh to let his friends know what he had been up to. Smart horse, that.

Transcribed by Holice B. Young

HTML by Debbie

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