Joseph Franklin and the Four Fires: Part 2

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.


The day after the shooting, Stephen White was summoned to a county judge in Patchogue to be “held by the grand jury” on a charge of first-degree assault. It was widely reported that he would be pleading temporary insanity stemming from the pain of losing his colt. Papers were quick to explain that this was a special horse; Stephen had trained it himself, and the animal followed him around like a dog. White posted his $4,000 bond and went home. Franklin was released from Mineola Hospital on October 25th and transferred immediately to jail in Riverhead, and on November 14th, he was indicted for second-degree arson on two counts. Did he have family nearby? Did he receive any visitors in jail? There is only silence from the public record.

Edward L. White was in Riverhead on Tuesday, December 10th in preparation for Franklin’s trial the next day. He received a phone call from Northport and promptly broke down. His nearly-complete, brand new barn, built on the spot of the first barn, had gone up in smoke. Unlike the first two barns, this one was insured, but by the builder who had not yet given it over to White. However, the builder’s tools and materials were all gone in the flames and insurance would not cover the cost of replacement. The only consolation was that the local fire brigade arrived quickly enough to save another new building that was downwind of the flames.

Another suspected act of arson, but no Franklin. A.H. Bumfeld, a deputy sheriff, took himself to Northport to investigate first hand. He walked around the area which had previously been trampled by the many feet of the fire brigade and found, along the lot’s fence, women’s footprints supposedly pointing towards a neighbor’s house. That neighbor was Edward Pidgeon, a very important man in the village at the time. Pigeon was high up in many of the town’s most influential enterprises: the Edward Thompson Publishing Company, the Bank of Northport, Northport Electric Company, and Northport Steamboat Company. His housemaid, a young Black woman named Emma Bailey, was “a particular friend of Franklins” according to the Long Islander.

Bailey had lived in Northport for at least seven years by this point. In the 1900 Census she is listed as being fifteen years old and employed by another of Northport’s great gentlemen, the lawyer Rowland Mills. She had been born in New York State. Now, at the age of twenty-two, Bailey was being arrested and accused of a crime because of her relationship with Franklin.

Was Bailey frightened during the night she spent in the village lockup? Indignant, angry? She swore from the beginning that she had nothing to do with the fire, and her employers staunchly backed her claim. Curiously, however, her hearing on Thursday, December 12th was closed to the public at the request of her lawyer. What information did Bailey, the Pidgeon family, or both want to keep out of the public eye? The hearing took all day and included testimony from eight witnesses to help account for every one of Bailey's movements the day of the third fire. Members of the Pidgeon family were some of those witnesses, but we do not know who specifically from the family or staff were called. Eventually, Judge Hawkins released Bailey for lack of evidence. “The authorities are now at sea as to the latest fire fiend,” wrote The Long Islander. Emma Bailey left the village some time in the next two years; she is not listed in Northport on the 1910 Census.



Quietly, in the midst of the uproar surrounding the third fire, the case against Stephen White for the first-degree assault of Joseph Franklin was pushed to the next county court term. Franklin’s arson trial went forward, rescheduled. Two days before trial, Bumfeld returned to Northport with district attorney lawyer Ralph Green to question Bailey for a further two hours in relation to a new clue. What that clue was, we can’t say. The trial began on Wednesday, December 18th and was concluded by the following day. Franklin’s lawyer was one Ralph Hawkins. Frustratingly, the newspapers do not give us any insight into what evidence was brought in the trial. We only know what many papers reported: that the evidence was circumstantial, but that certain pieces seemed strong. Franklin was found not guilty.

It had been a long three months for Franklin and the Whites. Christmas finally arrived. At 1:00 PM on December 25th, the last of the buildings on the White property burned to the ground. According to the Long Islander it was brick and used to house White’s cows; by that description, it could have been the same building saved from the third blaze. According to the paper, Edward White had sent the cows out to the yard earlier that day before leaving for Northport Village. The fire had been set in two spots using damp corn stalks.

After so much press coverage, there is relative silence after this fourth and final fire. The new year dawned, and with 1908 came a disquieting mystery.

In January, Franklin sued Stephen White for $10,075 in damages for his assault with Ralph Hawkins continuing as his lawyer. White’s criminal trial had still not occurred. In April, the Long Islander made a front-page report on the fact that White was ignoring Hawkins inquiries and would not meet with him. This had caused Hawkins to obtain a writ of inquiry that would require a local sheriff to summon a jury to assess the damages Franklin was asking for.

And then, for eight months, through the rest of April until December of 1908, there was no information about Joseph Franklin, Edward or Stephen White, or any other news items related to the case. That is, until December 11th, when a reminder of the upcoming criminal cases coming before the county court the following week lists “the People vs. Stephen White” as being on the docket. Rowland Miles, Emma Bailey’s employer from 1900, would be representing White.

A fragment of a Long Islander paper, likely from December 8th, includes the following brusque information: “The indictment against Stephen White, assault in the second degree which has been hanging for some time, was dismissed at Riverhead Monday as the principal witness for the prosecution, Joseph Franklin, had disappeared.”

“In the County Court the negro was tried and acquitted and young White was indicted for assault, but since that time the authorities have been unable to locate the colored man,” is how the reporter put it for the Suffolk County News.

Stephen White had been home in Northport on bond since he was first arrested more than a year earlier. We do not know what happened to Franklin, what work he had, if he lived in Northport, after he was released from prison in December 1907. Did the Long Islander misprint the charges, or had the first-degree assault been reduced at some point?

The silences in the papers throughout this saga on Franklin leave a great deal of room for interpretation. Did Franklin cut himself off from the press as a means of self-preservation, or did they stay away from him? While there was clearly animosity between Franklin and the Whites, what truly motivated them to accuse him of the first arson attacks? Was Bailey truly Franklin’s accomplice, setting the third fire while Franklin was in Riverhead? And beyond the logistics, what motive could drive a person to set four whole fires to the same property? What ingenuity on their part allowed them to escape every time? Or, what blindness on the part of the community allowed them to continue?

With further research, some of these questions may be answered. For now, the case of Joseph Franklin and the Four Fires will remain unsettlingly unfinished.

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