Rash of barn fires hit the Guelph area in 1896 and 1897

Fire was a constant fear of 19th century property owners. Towns and villages maintained volunteer fire brigades, but they were not very effective. Their training was rudimentary at best, and their main weapon was usually a hand operated pumper.

Without the ample water supply provided by municipal water systems there was little they could do to fight a major blaze.

In rural areas there was no real defence against a major fire. Townships customarily signed agreements with local towns for firefighting services, but the lack of a substantial water supply meant that the battle in most cases was lost before the fire brigade arrived. Their efforts were concentrated on saving nearby structures.

In those circumstances, the presence in the community of an incendiary, or “fire bug,” produced a feeling of terror. A series of mysterious fires in West Garafraxa Township in the 1880s and early 1890s produced a feeling of panic there, but no culprit was ever identified.

Another series of such fires, in Guelph Township in late 1896 and early 1897, caused much alarm. It was solved with the confessions of one its par­ticipants, which led to a well-publicized trial.

On Dec. 30, 1896, the Guelph fire brigade responded to an alarm at about 11pm from Guelph Township. The blaze was on a farm owned by J.W.B. Kelly, who had rented the prop­erty to W.J. Hall, operator of a milk route in Guelph.

Hall had completed his barn chores two hours earlier, and was asleep in the house when a neighbour noticed the barn  was ablaze. He roused Hall and telephoned the Guelph fire­fighters. When they arrived the fire was raging out of control, and there was nothing they could do to fight it.

Hall lost eight cattle, four horses, and a supply of grain and hay. Kelly’s insurance on the building fell short of it re­placement value, and Hall had no insurance on his animals and the barn’s contents.

Hall was convinced that the fire had been set. Guelph police concurred, concluding that it had been started in the hay shed. There was considerable sympathy for Hall, who was a popular man, but also a rising fear in the aftermath of the fire. There had been two other mys­terious barn fires some six weeks earlier, on John Bien­is­ki’s farm and on the Waters farm, on Nov. 18 and 20. Everyone linked Hall’s fire to the previous two.

A fourth barn in Guelph Township was destroyed on Jan. 18, like the others on the western edge of the city. Two days later, fire claimed a small one in the city itself, on Cam­bridge Street, belonging to a man named Joe Hadden. The latter was an old structure, fill­ed with hay. The flames lit the sky and attracted a large crowd. As they watched, the spectators speculated on the mysterious series of fires. Guelph’s police had their suspicions as well, but so far not a shred of evidence had been uncovered to identify the person responsible for any of the blazes.

Guelph’s police got their first breaks in the case later that night and the following day. A young man named Ed Ryde was returning home on the night of the Hadden fire along Cambridge Street.

He noticed a man standing on the sidewalk, who pulled his hat down to cover his face as Ryde ap­proached. Neverthe­less, Ryde claimed he recog­nized the man, partially by has gait, as Jack Busby. Ryde thought that Bus­by was acting suspiciously. A moment later, another man, Jim Quinn, ran out from the Hadden barn.

Ryde continued toward his home. At the corner of Cam­bridge and Glasgow he looked back and saw flames coming from the barn. He turned in the alarm at the nearest fire call box. At the same time, Con­stable Kickley, who was on plain clothes duty that night, arrived on the scene. Based on fragmentary reports and rum­ours, he already had suspicions regarding Busby and Quinn.

Kickley decided to arrest the pair at once. He found Bus­by at his boarding house. Busby was in bed feigning sleep, but Kickley noticed that he had his boots on, and they were wet. Quinn, more brazen, was at the fire, posing as a curious spectator.

After their arrest, Ed Ryde identified the pair as the men he had seen earlier that evening on Cambridge Street. Police thought it curious that all the vic­tims of the series of fires were involved in the milk business, as was Jack Busby.

The following morning the pair were remanded on charges of arson. After a night in the Guelph hoosegow, Busby be­came nervous about the evidence the police might have on him. He decided to sing, as the old saying goes, like Bever­ley Sills. In a sworn statement to the police after being charg­ed he named Jim Quinn as the man who put a match to the Hadden barn.

Crown Attorney Henry Pat­erson put together a case against the two quickly, and went to court the following day. The first witness, naturally, was Jack Busby. He related that he and Quinn had been out for a night of drinking at three or four Guelph hotels. On their way home, he testified, Quinn had stopped and asked him, “Will you help me to go over and burn out old Hadden?” Busby said he would not, but waited on the sidewalk, then start­ed to walk away when he saw Ed Ryde approaching. Busby could not think of any rea­son why Quinn would want to burn the Hadden barn. He said that he and Quinn had been friends since they were young boys.

Magistrate Chadwick asked whether Quinn, who brought no legal representation, had any questions. “Lots of questions,” Quinn replied.

Quinn proceeded to ques­tion virtually everything that Busby had said. He claimed that Busby had actively parti­cipated in starting the fire, and indeed, that it had been Busby’s idea in the first place.

Ed Ryde was next on the stand. He repeated the story he had told the police, and under questioning from Peterson, stat­ed that he recognized both men by their clothing and by their physical appearance.

Robert Hadden, the victim of the fire, stated that he was awakened by his daughter, who was screaming that the barn was on fire. The police chief testified that matches had been found in Quinn’s pocket when he was arrested.

In his defense, Quinn told the magistrate that he had no witnesses to offer evidence, and he declined to give his own version of the evening, or to make any statement in court.

Magistrate Chadwick deli­ver­ed a blistering lecture to Quinn before ordering him held for trial without bail. The mag­istrate then turned to Busby, and told him he was the most important witness. He was determined that Busby not leave town, and ordered him held on a bond of $2,500, $1,000 of which was to come from his own resources. Not hav­ing that much money, Busby awaited the trial in another cell.

In jail, Busby had several more lengthy interviews with police officers. He told them details of the firing of the other four barns, claiming that Quinn was the one who actually struck the matches in all of them. The motive, though, was largely his own. All the victims had some involvement in the milk trade, and as a milk pedlar himself, he had various griev­ances against them all, and had sought revenge.

Busby’s confessions made good copy in newspapers across the county, but neither Police Chief Randall nor Crown Attorney Peterson would say a word to the press, and they did not lay any further charges against either Quinn or Busby. Undoubtedly they feared the risks of going to trial with only the testimony of Jack Busby.

A few days later, Jack Quinn was in court again. He asked for trial by judge alone, probably sensing that the pub­lic was very hostile to him and that a jury would show no mercy. Many people saw Bus­by’s actions, in turning crown witness, as cowardly, and hoped he would be charged and convicted as well. There were fears that he might escape any legal consequences for his part in the five fires.

Meanwhile, Randall and his men scoured the city and town­ship, seeking corroboration for the story told by Jack Busby.

Next week: Their day in court.



Stephen Thorning