The Arson Ladies

In 19th-century Mobile, one household of well-to-do women had mischief up their sleeves.

Illustration by Colleen Comer

Born in 1865, Frances V. Beverly toiled away at her home on Government Street throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, writing what she hoped would become the almanac of Mobile. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Beverly died in Mobile in 1954, leaving behind piles of manuscripts hidden from the very audience whose lore and customs she so tirelessly documented for posterity — that is, until now. In this series, MB presents the Frances Beverly Papers.

The large, beautiful brick house, which formerly stood on the southwest corner of State and Jackson streets, was built during the “flush times” in Mobile, and a great deal of money was spent to make it one of the most beautiful on that street. There were nine [houses] on State Street between Franklin and Conception streets.

The wide hall ran down the full length of the building on the west side, with two large drawing rooms on the right, with richly paneled doors, and sliding doors between the two rooms. A wide stairway led up to the second floor, with a carved newel post and solid mahogany railing. Upstairs there were two large bedrooms and a hall bedroom. The wing on the west side had several rooms up and down stairs. The two front porches had one of the most beautiful patterns of “iron lace, ” and the long back and side porches, representing nearly 150 feet of porch, had slim bannisters. The rooms in the ell which extended north were used as a kitchen and servant quarters. Bathrooms had not made their debut in Mobile at that time.

There was no thought of comfort in those days; the only requisite in building a home was to have it larger and handsomer than the next-door neighbor. They had money, just “scads” of it, as our boys and girls call a fortune these days.

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In the winter of 1884 or 1885, this house was occupied by a family, consisting of a mother and two daughters. They were very attractive girls and quite popular, and lived in a style adopted by people who had plenty of money. We, the girls in the neighborhood, never saw any men, nor did they mention any father or brothers, so we just accepted them as a fatherless family.

About two o’clock on a January night, it was the coldest experienced in years, a fire alarm was sent in. A passerby saw a gleam of fire in the back drawing room through a broken slat in the closed blinds. He rushed to the nearest alarm box and soon had the fire companies there. The shouts of the people and the ringing of the bell did not seem to disturb the inmates, and the men were about to break down the door when it opened and the mother and eldest daughter came out. They were fully dressed, calm and as unperturbed as if they had been expecting callers. The firemen soon had the blaze extinguished, and then came the revelation.

It must have taken weeks of hard labor to prepare for this conflagration — the planning and the collection of necessary materials could not have been done hurriedly because it would have aroused suspicion. On the first floor, the plastered walls above the baseboard had been chopped away, the full length of the hall and the four sides of the drawing rooms, and in the spaces, light wood and quantities of cotton were stuffed and soaked with kerosene. The legs of the piano and the tables and chairs were “bandaged” with cotton batting and soaked with the oil. The same procedure had been carried out upstairs, and the dresser drawers were also filled with the same combustibles. The entire house had been given the same incendiary treatment, and it must have taken more than a cord of fat pine, hundreds of pounds of cotton batting and 25 gallons of kerosene.

It was well planned and well arranged, and when the girls in the neighborhood were questioned, we suddenly remembered that not one of us had been inside of the house in weeks. We were always met at the door, and very tactfully steered off in some other direction by one of the daughters, who would be going to some interesting place and invited us to go along.

If it had not been for a meddlesome neighbor, who should have been in his bed at two o’clock in the morning, the affair would have been a perfect success, as it was being fired in a hundred places, but the neighbor got the fire department there before the downstairs rooms had been set fire.

The younger of the two girls was not at home, she had been sent out to Spring Hill to spend the night, and the older women undertook to complete the job. As one of the policemen expressed it, “The ladies were all dressed up, with not an eyelash out of place, at two o’clock on a freezing cold night — queer doings if you ask me.”

The insurance company reached the scene as soon as possible, and discovered that all of the valuables, even to the china and clothes, had been removed to an unknown place of safety. In fact, there was nothing to burn but the house and heavy furniture.

Social prestige and political influence soon had the matter hushed up, and the ladies left town for parts unknown, but it could not stop idle gossip among the neighbors and before those most interested. The house was visited by everyone for miles around, and the fact well established that at least two Mobile women were experts at arson.

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