MONMOUTH, Ill. — If you’re a Maple City old-timer who remembers exactly where you were when you heard JFK was shot, you almost certainly also remember Monmouth’s “Mad Arsonist,” who terrorized the city just six weeks prior to the Kennedy assassination.
The magnitude of the arsonist’s crimes not only struck fear into the heart of every Monmouth resident, but stories and photos of his exploits also made the front page of every major newspaper from Florida to Alaska, as well as NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report.
On the night of Monday, Oct. 14, two Monmouth lumberyards and a culvert factory were consumed by fire set by an unknown person or persons. Fifteen fire departments rushed to the aid of Monmouth firefighters, and in ensuing nights 200 police, auxiliary police and volunteers — many of them armed with shotguns and rifles — patrolled the streets of Monmouth, desperately trying to keep the rest of the city from potentially going up in flames. Even Monmouth College students were enlisted to help guard Monmouth’s factories and municipal buildings.
Although Monmouth’s largest employer, Western Stoneware, escaped the conflagration, it figured prominently in the arson investigation. On the night of Sept. 9, a fire caused by faulty wiring had caused $10,000 damage to the pottery’s kiln room. Fire chief Dale Moore believed that fire gave a pottery employee or former employee an idea, for in the next two weeks, two small fires were purposely set at the plant, prompting management to install 24-hour armed guards and powerful lighting. A $500 reward was offered for information leading to an arrest.
On the morning of Sept. 16, plant superintendent Marshall Romine received a phone call from a man who warned the pottery would be bombed that day. “If you don’t believe me,” the caller said, “check the homes of (plant foremen) John Switzer and Wilbur Romine.” Following up, it was discovered that someone had apparently applied a blowtorch to the exterior of Switzer’s house and Romine’s garage.
Over the next few weeks, several more threatening calls were received. Then came the fateful night of Oct. 14. At 10:56 p.m., a fire was reported at Monmouth Lumber Co., 609 W. Broadway. At 11:54 p.m., another alarm was turned in across town at Fullerton Lumber Co., 519 S. 1st St.
Shortly before 2 a.m., Dick Merillat, who had been guarding his factory that made metal culverts and burial vaults at 706 W. 3rd Ave. decided to go get a cup of coffee. He told Merlin Elliott, who was guarding the Kent feeds plant across the street, that he’d be right back. Just then, the fire department was called to Lincoln School on the east side of town, where a blaze was reported. That proved to be a false alarm, but it gave the arsonist an opportunity to set fire to Merillat’s plant.
Although false alarms were also turned in at Benner’s supermarket and Monmouth Hospital, no more fires occurred that night. Chief Moore told reporters, “I feel there is no doubt but that the same person or persons who set the three fires last night has been threatening arson or bombing at the Western Stoneware Co. for the last five weeks.”
At 3:30 a.m., WRAM radio was given special permission to sign on the air in an effort to calm the city. It would remain on the air continuously for the next two days.
On the evening after the fire, while Mayor Allan Walters was attending a strategy meeting to address arson response, his wife, Louise, received a phone call at home. A soft-spoken young man told her, “There will be no fire tonight because the town is too well guarded, but if the pottery opens tomorrow there will be four fires tomorrow night.” When she pressed the caller about his motive, he replied that he wanted Western Stoneware to close.
The arsonist also threatened the wife of police chief Vincent Romano in a phone call, warning, “If Vint does not lay off, you are next.” Other anonymous calls threatened the Colonial Nursing Home and Monmouth Hospital.
Despite the threats, the pottery’s 300 employees reported to work on Wednesday and no fires were reported. The reward was increased to $1,700, with contributions from the Chamber of Commerce, the city and the insurance company representing one of the lumberyards.
On Wednesday night, two off-duty Chicago cops, hoping to gain glory by solving the case, questioned a couple of men entering the Ralph Wells Co. When they demanded to know what business the men had entering the building, the reply was, “We work here.” The cops were later picked up themselves by Monmouth police, but released when they showed their badges.
A soaking rain on Thursday helped calm the nerves of the skittish public, and within a week, Monmouth was settling back to normal, although six guards remained on duty at the pottery and state police crime investigators continued to follow leads from their temporary headquarters at the Monmouth armory.
On Oct. 21, Don Baldridge, a Monmouth roofer, received a phone call from a person who told him, “Better guard your business or it will be burned.” Earlier, an itinerant magazine salesman had been picked up as a suspect after he asked a woman who refused to buy a subscription if she “had ever smelled burning bodies,” but he passed a lie detector test.
The first promising lead came from a Monmouth College alumnus named Theodore Allen in Santa Monica, California. He notified police that when he was taking pictures of local landmarks while attending an alumni meeting in Monmouth the previous June, he was approached by a man in his 70s who told him, “It is well that you are taking such pictures because in four or five months Monmouth will be known all over the United States.”
Santa Monica police created a composite sketch based on Allen’s description of the man and the Associated Press sent it by wire to local authorities, but it was determined that the apparent subject had been committed to Galesburg Research Hospital well before the arson spree began.
The trail of suspects soon went dry, prompting Paul Bell, publisher of the Stronghurst Graphic to place an ad in the Review Atlas offering $1,000 to the arsonist for exclusive rights to his story.
In December, the state police crime section announced it had issued a nationwide warrant for the arrest of a 29-year-old ex-convict who had been employed by Western Stoneware more than 10 years previously and had been fired for unsatisfactory work. Monmouth authorities, however, believed the arsonist was a current local resident, based on his familiar use of names in his threatening phone calls.
On Jan. 8, 1964, an escaped patient from a state mental hospital was questioned in Quincy about the arson, but was cleared after passing a polygraph test. On Feb. 21, 1964, John Newbold, the agent in charge of the state police investigation, announced that its last good lead had fallen through, and that while there were originally eight agents assigned to the case, only one agent remained.
No suspect was ever charged with the crime. Total losses were estimated at $400,000 ($3.4 million in today’s currency). Monmouth Lumber Co. rebuilt, and Monmouth Metal Culvert quickly resumed operations. Fullerton Lumber, which was the most severely damaged, abandoned its old site on South 1st Street and relocated to West 6th Avenue. It would later purchase the Monmouth Lumber Co. property on West Broadway.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.