Firebug

A fire broke out in a multi-family apartment building at 114 Wyckoff Street in Brooklyn on the night of December 10, 1907. The building was located in the heart of what was then one of the borough’s most populous tenement districts.

Heat from blaze damaged the water pipes, causing water to drip through the floor of the apartment where the fire started into the one below it. The sound of dripping water awakened the children sleeping in the apartment and they alerted their parents, who called the fire department. The firemen were able to get everyone out of the building and put out the blaze—no one was injured.

The fire started in the apartment of Annie Ackerly. Fortunately she wasn’t at home that night.

Photos of the destruction caused by the fire at 114 Wyckoff Street, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Jan. 24, 1908

An energetic young man named Tom Brophy had recently been appointed Brooklyn’s assistant fire marshal. He investigated the charred remains of the apartment and discovered oil-soaked newspaper, wood and furniture strewn around. “Seven-hour candles” had apparently 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.

Brophy came to the conclusion that the fire had been deliberately set. He recalled that Mrs. Ackerly, a heavyset, middle-aged woman, had tried to collect insurance money from an earlier apartment fire in a building she lived in on Hoyt Street. He also remembered that she’d had a boarder—an old veteran with a wooden leg. Her insurance claim included the man’s wooden leg, valued at $60. However Brophy discovered that the prosthesis had not been destroyed in the fire, because Mrs. Ackerly had booted the old man out of her apartment before the fire occurred. He accused her of making a false insurance claim.

The earlier fire was also judged to have been arson. Annie claimed a man named Thompson was guilty of “burning her out.” Mr. Thompson was arrested and investigated, but there was no evidence he’d set the fire. He was released from custody.

With a false insurance claim to her name, along with having been a resident in two apartments where suspicious fires had broken out, Brophy wanted to bring Annie in for a chat, but she was nowhere to be found.

He finally located Annie and her teenage son at her mother’s home on Long Island. “Has Thompson set my house on fire again?” she angrily demanded when Brophy told her that her apartment had gone up in flames. Brophy figured she wouldn’t willingly return to Brooklyn, so he told her he suspected the fire was arson and he wanted her help in locating Thompson. She agreed to return with him.

Annie Ackerly, Bertillon card, Auburn State Prison, collection of the author

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

The press dubbed her the “Woman with Iron Nerve.” The Brooklyn Fire Department described her as “one of the most desperate firebugs” they had ever captured.

In January 1908 the Brooklyn Daily Eagle reported on the outcome of Annie’s trial:

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.

Annie put the lives of the residents of her building at risk when she set fire to her apartment. She was given a harsh sentence: fourteen and a half years in Auburn State Prison, with a minimum of fourteen years to be served.

The question of Annie’s sanity never came up at her trial, but two years after she was sent to Auburn she was no longer held at the prison. Instead she was a patient at the Willard State Hospital, an asylum for the “chronic insane” in Ovid, New York.

Willard State Hospital – Detached Building No. 3 c.1890, State of New York 24th Annual Report of the Trustees of the Willard State Hospital for the years of 1892. Albany NY; James B. Lyon

Willard, which opened in in 1869 and didn’t close until 1995, was not an asylum for the “criminally insane,” like Matteawan. It was established to care for people with mental illness who couldn’t care for themselves. It’s not clear exactly why Annie was sent there, but she was never released. She died in the asylum in 1926.

114 Wykoff Street has fared well in the intervening years. The neighborhood—Boerum Hill—was gentrified over the subsequent decades and the price of real estate has increased dramatically. The current estimated value of building Annie set fire to is almost three million dollars.

Photo of Tom Brophy from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 23, 1937

4 thoughts on “Firebug

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.