Rash of small Johnston fires solidifies community

Posted 9/20/23

On April 15, 1897, 41-year-old James Henry McCaffrey of Johnston made a legal appeal for himself or some other suitable person to be appointed guardian over his nieces, Mary and Susie Morris. The …

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Rash of small Johnston fires solidifies community


On April 15, 1897, 41-year-old James Henry McCaffrey of Johnston made a legal appeal for himself or some other suitable person to be appointed guardian over his nieces, Mary and Susie Morris. The girls’ mother, 42-year-old Catherine (Flood) Morris, had passed away from tuberculosis in their home on Garden Street on Feb. 18, 1894. Their father, blacksmith Peter Morris, was now gone as well.

James, who owned a grocery store at the corner of Plainfield Street and Webster Avenue, was married to Annie (Flood), Catherine’s sister. Guardianship was granted to him and the girls moved into his home on Plainfield Street. Susie was just 11 years old.       

The sisters attended Concord Grammar School and principal William Steere found Susie to have good manners and habits. She was courteous to her teachers and classmates, obedient and studious and obtained average grades. But something unsettled was quietly lurking in Susie’s mind.

The large 3-story tenement house belonging to her uncle contained the fruit store of Lewis Osborn and the saloon of John O’Donnell on the ground floor. On the top two floors were the residences of James and three other families. Just before At 5:00 on the afternoon of May 4, 1900, one of James’s daughters smelled smoke and went to locate the source. She discovered several small boxes had been piled in the cellar and set afire. The blaze was extinguished but, one-half hour later another fire was found burning in the cellar.

Again the blaze was smothered. At 8:00 that night, someone noticed the back steps leading to the rear door of the tenement had been saturated with kerosene oil and set ablaze. Several pails of water were dumped onto the fire and police were notified that someone was apparently committing arson.

The police kept an eye on the property but it did no good. At 6:00 the next morning, a rug in the back hallway of the ground floor was found to be soaked with oil and burning. Half an hour later, the back piazza was aflame. At 1:00, boxes in the cellar were once again discovered to be burning.   

At 10:00 the following morning, the building’s fire alarm went off. Another fire was extinguished and police questioned everyone in the building about anything they might have seen. Susie stated that, just before the first fire, she had seen a short, thick-set man wearing a pair of blue pants and a slouch hat leave the yard. Police knew the man and didn’t think him to be a likely culprit. Later that day, they questioned her again and her story was different. When they informed her of the discrepancies, she made a shocking confession.

 "Yes, I set the fires. My uncle and aunt wouldn't let me go out to play with other girls, and if any came to see me I got a beating afterward. Monday they beat me because a girl came into our yard to play with me. Friday, I thought while in bed, that if the old house could be burned down, I could get a better home somewhere else and then I thought of burning it myself. I did not mean to hurt anybody."

Susie was arrested and charged with arson. Principal Steere advocated for her, telling authorities that she was trustworthy and sensitive, had morals and knew right from wrong. He expressed worry that prison would ruin her. He was not the only person who felt sympathy for the teenaged fire-starter. All of the police officers saw Susie as a victim more than a criminal.    

Another of the girl’s uncles, cotton mill designer Robert Spencer Midgley, was overcome with sadness. He told authorities that Susie had always been a good girl. Explaining that he knew her desire to leave James’s house, he agreed that he would take her in, despite having six children of his own to support. James and his wife stated that they had no desire to have the child imprisoned despite her bad behavior; Annie described how Susie shopped so lavishly at the recent food fair that she obviously must have stolen funds from the house. Steere explained that the schoolchildren had sold tickets to the food fair and that Susie had sold more than anyone. For every five she sold, she got one for herself to spend at the fair. James and Annie asked that Susie either be placed in the custody of a probation officer or at Uncle Robert’s home.

Susie was arraigned on the morning of May 7, 1900. She pleaded not guilty and was put into the hands of the probation officer. For a while, she remained silent and crying. When she finally spoke, she stated that she did not want to go to prison but would rather be taken in that direction than return to the conditions she had left. She promised if she could be sent to another home, she would do no more wrong.

The court decided not to indict Susie on the charge of arson. They placed her in the custody of her uncle Robert who resided with his family on Sterling Avenue in Providence. When she arrived at his home on the night of May 7, a huge group of her friends and supporters had gathered and they spent the night celebrating around a raging bonfire.

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.


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