Female Firebug

Female Firebug

On the night of December 10, 1907, an unoccupied apartment in a multi-family building at 114 Wyckoff Street was on fire. Wyckoff Street is in the heart of one of the most populous tenement districts in one America’s largest cities — Brooklyn, New York.

Heat from fire melted the water pipes, causing water to drip through the ceiling of the apartment below. The sound of dripping water awakened the children sleeping in the apartment and an alarm went out. The fire department put out the blaze before anyone was injured.

An examination by the new assistant fire marshal, Tom Brophy, revealed that someone had set the apartment on fire. Oil soaked newspapers, wood and furniture were strewn around the apartment, along with “seven-hour candles” that had been placed in strategic locations and lit. The windows had been covered with blankets to obscure the blaze and cracks in doors and windows were stuffed with cotton to keep smoke from escaping.

Ackerly home after fire

News photographs of damage to the Ackerly apartment. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 24, 1908.

Brophy recognized the name of the renter of the apartment that had burned — Annie Ackerly. He recalled that Annie had collected insurance money from an earlier Brooklyn apartment fire in another building. He also remembered that Mrs. Ackerly had a boarder who lived in her former apartment, an old veteran with a wooden leg. Her insurance claim included the man’s wooden leg, valued at $60, even though she had booted him (and his leg) out of her apartment before the fire occurred, so obviously the leg hadn’t burned.

The previous fire was also judged to have been arson. Annie accused a man named Thompson of “burning her out.” Thompson was arrested but never charged with anything.

With two apartment fires and a false insurance claim to her name, Brophy’s suspicions of Annie were aroused.

The young fire marshal traced Annie and her two young sons to her mother’s home in nearby Port Jefferson. Port Jefferson is in Suffolk county and he knew he needed to get her back to Kings County, where Brooklyn is located, in order to investigate and possibly arrest her.

“Has Thompson set my house on fire again?” she asked, after being informed that her apartment had burned. Brophy told her that he suspected the fire was arson and he wanted her help in locating Thompson. He asked her to accompany him back to Brooklyn, which she did.

Back in Brooklyn a $2000 insurance policy for the Ackerly residence was discovered hidden in the shirt of one of Annie’s sons, along with a damning written inventory of her losses from the Wyckoff Street fire. She was arrested and charged with arson.

Mrs. Anna Ackerley (sic) was convicted of arson yesterday in the County Court. She is the first woman to be convicted in Brooklyn of such a crime in more than a quarter of a century. Mrs. Ackerley, who is a handsome woman, had been separated from her husband for several years. She has two sons. As a penalty for the crime of which she has been convicted she may be sentenced to the state prison for fifteen years.

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, January 24, 1908

Annie Ackerly_front_marked

Annie Ackerly, Bertillon card (front), Auburn State Prison. Collection of the author.

Known locally as the “Woman with Iron Nerve,” Annie was believed to be one of the most desperate firebugs ever captured by the Brooklyn Fire Department. She was convicted of 3rd degree arson and, due to her callous disregard for the lives of her neighbors, sentenced to a minimum of 14 years in Auburn State Prison.

Interesting note: The Wyckoff Street apartment building in Brooklyn where Annie set her fire is still standing and has a 2017 value of over $3,500,000.

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