Joseph Franklin and the Four Fires: Part 1

This companion to the Black History of Northport Walking Tour explains one of the few detailed stories of tension between Northport's Black and White residents in the early twentieth century.


It was a Thursday in October 1907 when Joseph Franklin was shot. He was being led off of the trolley at the train station in East Northport by a police officer. They were on the way to Riverhead where Franklin would await trial for arson. Franklin and the officer got off the train at the back of the car; Stephen White, a White man, exited the same trolley from the front. Moments later, White fired a gunshot into Franklin’s stomach. The Suffolk County News reported that White was grabbed at that moment and his firearm taken away. No newspaper recorded the specific reactions of the other passengers.

This shocking scene, all played out before 10 AM, was only the middle act of a series of mysterious arsons  and tense court cases that revolved around Franklin, two members of the White family, and a young woman called Emma Bailey. Together, this series of events is one of the few extended descriptions of interactions between the Black and White residents of Northport in the early twentieth century. 


The trouble seems to have begun on Friday, October 4th when one of Edward L. White’s barns burned down. Edward, Stephen’s father, had a livery business in Northport and was friendly with his fellow businessmen. The loss of a barn meant much to a man whose livelihood was dependent on keeping hay, horses, and related equipment. The Long Islander reported that White Sr. had fired Franklin the day before this fire for ‘lack of work’.

Joseph Franklin was a Black man living in or near Northport at the time. He is not listed as living in Northport in any twentieth-century census, and we do not know anything about him beyond what occurred in this series of events. Franklin was one of many Black people employed in Northport at the time as general laborers, domestic servants, and farm hands. While we know the names of many of the Black people who could have been in Franklin’s Northport circles, the newspapers would soon connect him to Emma Bailey, a domestic servant for a local lawyer.

Things might have ended there, with a fire and a firing. Instead, a second barn burned down on Tuesday, October 8th. This barn did not belong to White Sr; it was rented from a neighbor to store hay and livestock moved after the first fire. According to the papers, fifty tons of hay and two colts burned. The proximity of the fires in time seems to have immediately led to questions of foul play. Later that day, Franklin was arrested on suspicion of arson.

Wednesday was tense. The Long Islander reported that rumors spread about Franklin as soon as news of his arrest came out: that he had been heard to say “there goes another of White’s barns” when the fire whistle was heard on Tuesday; that he had told ‘a companion’ that “he was going to commit an act and skip out” before Tuesday. The Long Islander and other papers also repeated a story, from an unmentioned source, that Wednesday night White could not sleep peacefully and “was heard to moan, ‘my poor colt, he killed her.’” The Suffolk County News claimed that White had “been very nervous and moody since the fire” and implied he was muttering about his colt in public. No paper recorded anything in Franklin’s defense, or reported any of his words in the course of the shooting and trials.

When taken before Northport Justice Richard Hawkins on Wednesday, Franklin waived examination at that time and was put back in the village lockup waiting to be taken for trial in Riverhead. Around that time, White “upbraided Franklin for the deeds he was accused of committing”, to which Franklin supposedly retorted, “you are responsible for my arrest, I will fix you when I get out”. It was possibly the last time the two men interacted until the shooting.

The sources at our disposal leave us in the dark about Franklin’s character, emotions, and motives. The closest we get is a line in the Suffolk County News: “Franklin insists he had nothing to do with the fires”. The story about his commenting on the second fire could simply represent a moment of dark irony; it seems reasonable, on hearing the fire bell twice in five days, that someone might speculate that Murphy’s Law was in effect for the Whites? Newspaper evidence shows that Stephen White’s grudge against Franklin was public; could he have been the first one to push for Franklin’s arrest?

After the shot was fired, Franklin was taken by the officer back down to the village and to the local doctor, George Donohue. After treating the wound as best he could, Dr. Donohue sent Franklin to a hospital in Mineola. There it was confirmed that Franklin would live, that the bird shot in the gun had not done irreparable damage. White had taken the same trolley back down the line to his cart and went home. What Franklin said or thought with the man who had just shot him so close while he bled, we will never know. But Stephen White’s actions had made a tense situation much worse.

Read Part 2 to find out what happened next.

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