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Solving a Burning Question

While browsing through our digital map collections, I came across a map that forced me to stop and take a closer look. Titled Fire chart of the Borough of Manhattan, N.Y…, it was published in 1915 and shows the number of reported fires in Manhattan, block by block, for the years 1910, 1911, and 1912. A red dot represents each fire on a given block within those three years. As I navigated around the map with interest, it was only when I read the “Explanatory Note” at the bottom that my curiosity was truly piqued.

Fire chart of the Borough of Manhattan, N.Y. : a useful reference map for members of the Fire Department, fire insurance agents, real estate men, etc. Map. Created by A. Niflot, 1915. Geography and Map Division.

Fire chart of the Borough of Manhattan, N.Y. : a useful reference map for members of the Fire Department, fire insurance agents, real estate men, etc. Created by A. Niflot, 1915. Geography and Map Division.

In the explanatory note, the map creator used Block No. 1672 as an example of how to read the map. It states “Block No. 1672, bounded by First Avenue, Second Avenue, East 100th Street and East 101st Street had in the years 1910, 1911, and 1912 a total of 101 fires…Of the same total of 101 fires, 36 occurred in 1910, 38 in 1911, and 27 in 1912. This block had the greatest number of fires in the City of Greater New York.” After reading this, I navigated to that place on the map, and I was shocked at how many fires were in that block and those immediately adjacent when compared to the surrounding area. This instantly prompted me to ask, why? Why were there so many fires concentrated in that one area? With the world’s largest library at my fingertips, I decided to try and find out!

I first turned to the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps for more answers. The Sanborn map collection consists of a uniform series of large-scale maps, dating mostly from the 1880s to the 1950s, which depicts the commercial, industrial, and residential sections of some twelve thousand cities and towns in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The maps were designed to assist fire insurance agents in determining the degree of hazard associated with a particular property and therefore show the size, shape, and construction of dwellings, commercial buildings, and factories as well as fire walls, locations of windows and doors, sprinkler systems, and types of roofs. This seemed the perfect resource to find out if there were particular fire hazards in this specific neighborhood, but looking at the 1911 Sanborn map of this block left me even more puzzled.

Seen below, the Sanborn map sheet for this block in 1911 shows a row of brick stores with apartments above, just like every other surrounding block. I counted three bakeries, but this did not seem like enough to account for all the fire activity on this street. Even more puzzling to me was the notation that all of the buildings were made with fireproof materials up to the first floor. With fireproof construction, why then were there so many fires? With the mystery still unexplained, I decided to turn to newspaper articles from the time.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, New York City, Volume 8N, Sheet 54. Sanborn Map Company, 1911. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, New York City, Volume 8N, Sheet 54. Sanborn Map Company, 1911. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

Hosted on the Library’s webpage is a joint project between the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress called Chronicling America, a long-term effort to develop a searchable database of digitized historic U.S. newspapers. I turned to this resource to search for news articles on fires in New York City between 1910-1915. While this was a fairly broad search, I didn’t want to miss a clue to solving this mystery. After wading through many unrelated articles, I came across the article below that turned out to be the key to discovering that this fire map illustrates one of the most sensational news stories in New York City in 1912-1913.

New-York Tribune. 22 June 1912. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress.

While the article states that this arsonist, “Issy the Painter,” was based in Harlem, I had a hunch this was the answer I was looking for. I began a new search of New York newspapers for articles about “Issy” or “Izzy” and found my instinct was correct! Articles across various newspapers and periodicals detail the sensational story of the crimes and subsequent arrest of Izzy and his arsonist ring, centered in the very neighborhood illustrated on the map.

Fire and Water Engineering, March 5, 1913. General Collections, Library of Congress.

Fire and Water Engineering, March 5, 1913. General Collections, Library of Congress.

In early 20th century New York City, professional arson was a common problem due to fire insurance companies indiscriminately handing out insurance policies to anyone on properties that were never inspected. As such, arsonists would take out thousands of dollars worth of insurance on possessions that did not exist, set fire to the property, and collect the insurance money. Isidor Steinareutzer, also known as Izzy Stein or “Izzy the Painter,” (a nickname derived from his masquerade as a painter in order to buy kerosene without suspicion) was the “chief firebug” of an arsonist ring that included six fire starters, several insurance adjusters, and insurance agents. Before getting caught, the conspirators set over 600 fires, collecting over $300,000 in insurance money, equaling about $8 million today!

Working mostly in an area bounded by Madison Avenue, East 96th Street, East 106th Street, and the East River, the scheme worked thus:

“One of the conspirators hired an apartment, usually on the upper east side between 96th and 126th street, and put a few cheap articles of furniture and a little cheap wearing apparel in it. Then another conspirator, the crooked agent, took out insurance, usually from $1,000 to $2,000 worth. A time was set for the fire, and it became the business of Izzy, or one of his fellow firebugs, to slip into the apartment, sprinkle gasoline on a bunch of rags in a clothes closet and hurriedly withdraw. Sometimes whole buildings were burned down, sometimes only an apartment was wrecked, and more often little damage resulted, owing to the swift coming of the fire department. In all cases the loss was slight because there was very little to lose, and the crooked adjusters, reporting a “total loss,” were able to collect the full amount of the policy (Fire and Water Engineering, March 5, 1913).”

Fire and Water Engineering, March 5, 1913. General Collections, Library of Congress.

Fire and Water Engineering, March 5, 1913. General Collections, Library of Congress.

Stein was the first member of the conspiracy caught, arrested in June 1912, not on evidence gathered by the police, but through a secret investigation led by the New York fire marshal, John P. Prial. At the end of 1910, Prial became suspicious of Stein after studying his connection to a fire on East 91st Street, but the fire marshal had no solid proof of Izzy’s involvement. To prove his suspicions, he sent his deputies undercover as peddlers, cleaners, workmen, and other persona to follow Stein around the clock. For seven months, Prial had Stein watched every minute, gathering information on not just him but also his conspirators.

In June 1912, after overhearing a conversation between Stein and Samuel Gold, a tenant in the fire zone, Prial stationed his men to capture Izzy in the act of starting a fire. The firemen watched Stein enter the apartment of Gold, with rags and gasoline, and then leave again several minutes later. Allowing Stein to leave, the firemen broke down the door and found a pile of blazing gauze and rags in a closet, completing the proof they needed to convict their suspected arsonist. After being arrested, in exchange for a lighter sentence, Stein flipped on the other conspirators in his ring, allowing the police to round up the whole gang.

What started as a question about a small detail on a map uncovered quite the fascinating tale of rampant incendiarism in early 20th century New York City. It is discovering these pieces of history through maps and other sources that makes research at the Library of Congress a continual treasure hunt!

The block of buildings with the greatest number of fires in NYC between 1910-1912. While captured in 1962, these are the same buildings depicted in the 1911 Sanborn map on East 100th St between 1st and 2nd Ave. World Telegram & Sun photo by Dick DeMarsico. 1962. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

This is the block of buildings with the greatest number of fires in NYC between 1910-1912. While taken in 1962, these are the same buildings depicted in the 1911 Sanborn map on East 100th St between 1st and 2nd Ave. World Telegram & Sun photo by Dick DeMarsico. 1962. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

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