Jacob Kowalsky was in the grips of the green-eyed monster in July 1908. An Austrian immigrant who worked as a carpenter, Jacob was upset with John Smith, a young man who once boarded in his Bayside home. When John lived with the Kowalskys, he made the mistake of flirting with Jacob’s wife.
Bayside, a community in Queens, is now a crowded, heavily residential borough of New York City, but back in the early 1900s it was still semi-rural. Farms were scattered here and there, along with large summer residences owned by the wealthy wanting to escape the heat, smell and clamor of nearby Manhattan.
It was a scalding hot day when John, carrying a load of freshly harvested hay, came riding along in his wagon, pulled by a team of horses. He was bound for his barn and it was so hot that he didn’t notice at first that his hay was on fire. Suddenly he realized the heat was increasing and it was on the side of the wagon away from the sun, which made no sense. By the time he turned around to check, his load was entirely ablaze.
He jumped down from the wagon and began to unharness the horses in an effort to and keep them from being burned alive. He managed to get the animals unhitched, however in the process his hands and arms were seriously burned and the horses were badly burned in their hindquarters. John recognized Jacob, who was running away from the blazing wagon. No one else was in sight except for a farmer coming along behind with another wagonload of hay.
The Bayside and Little Neck fire brigades managed to put out the blaze before it spread beyond the wagon. Jacob was arrested and charged with arson.
Jacob, who spoke no English, had to testify through an interpreter at his trial. He admitted he was present when the fire broke out, but claimed he saw two boys set the fire and then run off. The boys were never located. The farmer driving behind John testified, damningly, that Jacob appeared on the roadway and asked him for a ride home! He declined, fearing the man might set his wagon on fire too.
Jacob complained that when John was his boarder he tried to “boss everybody around, including my wife.” John’s attentions to his “young and buxom” wife were apparently the real crux of the problem. He accused John (unjustly, according to John) of trying to steal her affections. He didn’t ask John to leave but literally threw him out of the house.
The jury believed John Smith’s version of events. The prosecution argued for a conviction on first or second degree arson since John had been on the wagon at the time the fire was set. However Jacob got a lesser sentence of third degree arson for “setting fire to an uninhabited place.”
According to newspaper headlines, Jacob Kowalsky “smoked out a rival for his wife’s affections.” More accurately he tried to set the rival on fire. It earned him four years in Sing Sing Prison.
Featured image: Jacob Kowalsky’s Sing Sing Prison Bertillon card (front). Collection of the author.