Re-opening A Cold Arson Case

“06880” readers often email me with unusual questions. What was the name of that restaurant somewhere on the Post Road in the mid-1950s? Can you forward this email to my old English teacher? Will the Greens Farms firefighters have their annual Easter egg hunt this year?

But Peter Jennings Talbot’s recent request might be the most unusual of all:

In November of 1966, a person or persons set my great-grandparents’ (Erwin Morehouse and Mabel Sanford Jennings) home at 4 Beachside Avenue on fire. I believe that someone in Westport must know who did this. Would you be able to write a story about it and see if anyone would come forward with comments about it?

It’s simply out of curiosity.  Certainly the statute of limitations for the crime has long passed, but I, my mother Ellen F. Jennings, and her Jennings cousins have always wondered about it.  They spent great times at the house and on the property and have wonderful memories.

O-kay!

Helpfully, Peter sent along a front-page Westport News story from November 17, 1966. In it, Fire Chief Harold Shippey asked the Police Department for help investigating the possibility of arson, in the “spectacular fire Tuesday night which totally destroyed a vacant old house on the Jennings estate.”

A Westport News photo with the story, from November 17, 1966.

It started at 8 p.m., and lasted over 4 hours. As firefighters left the station, they could already see the blaze.

The house — the oldest on the property, and called Red Oaks — contained 17 or 18 rooms. Built around 1890, and abandoned for several years, it had been the target of vandals. The news story said all the windows were broken, and the floors and walls defaced. There was no light or heat. Neighborhood children referred to it as “haunted.”

Although the building had a replacement value of around $100,000, its assessment at the time of the fire was only $3,700.

The home at 4 Beachside Avenue, before the fire.

Peter says he could never understand why “such a wonderful and remarkable house was simply abandoned” — especially since the house owned by Erwin’s brother’s Henry was occupied next door.

That’s all I — and Peter — know.

He hopes at least one “06880” reader knows more. If you have any information on this long-ago, still-unsolved arson case, click “Comments.”

Or email me privately: dwoog@optonline.net.

Fire away.

15 responses to “Re-opening A Cold Arson Case

  1. Heather Wilson

    Such a beautiful home and perch

  2. Red Oaks was the summer residence of my great grandparents, Erwin and Mabel Jennings. The structure wasn’t haunted. But it did hold an ocean of grief.

  3. I assume the Westport police investigated? Did they have any suspects?

  4. A beautiful structure whose history, stories, and secrets may very well remain private.

  5. And this is why we need a reboot of the show “Unsolved Mysteries.”

  6. My biggest memory of that fire was getting the call while on patrol near Compo Beach. I remember rounding the corner by Schlait’s Point and seeing the flames. By the time I reached the scene, Westport Fire department was already there, so my duties were relegated to traffic direction, away from the fire scene.
    I recall comments that kids had probably set the fire and also recall that we frequently patrolled the area as it was believed that local teenagers did a lot of drinking and partying there. I don’t ever recall hearing any named suspects either immediately following or in the aftermath of the event.
    Any arson investigation would have been handled by the Detective Bureau in conjunction with the local Fire Department and State Fire Marshal’s Office. I believe the State Fire Marshal’s office was part of the CT State Police at that time. – Dick Alley

  7. It sounds like there is a bigger story here, of which the burning of the house is but one act. My curiosity is piqued.

  8. I recall there’s another case of unresolved arson case in Westport. Happened at Longshore about 14 years ago.

    http://www.westportnow.com/index.php?/v3/comments/fire_at_longshore_halfway_house/

  9. I don’t know if you can nail this down as arson. This used to happen all the time where I grew up in SoCal–Houdini’s old manse in the Hollywood Hills was the most famous I can think of–where druggies found themselves a crash pad, and were extremely careless with their heating and smoking arrangements.

  10. Bill Boyd (Staples 1966)

    I remember going into the house a coiple of times… I was about 12 and led by older kids (about 1960)…. The house was pretty trashed and even today Im puzzled by its abandonment….. Im guessing the fire was started by kids accidently or on purpose… I know of one “firebug” in the neighborhood about that time.

  11. Along with my friends, we explored the entire area around the “haunted” house, known as the Jennings house throughout the late fifties and most of the sixties. Before that, however, my parents found the old driveway entrance located just after the railroad bridge heading south on Beachside Ave. This would have been around 1954. They returned several times and brought my sister and I along after getting an OK from the Westport Police. My mother was a history buff and found documents inside the house that indicated the owners had something to do with an auto parts business.There seemed to be no explanation why it was abandoned especially when another house on the same property was in pristine shape. The Jennings house was in total disrepair and several Westport hobos took refuge inside. These hobos hunted in the marsh below the house where there was a low tide bridge and many shacks that reportedly had been there since the depression. We had many encounters with these hobos who carried guns and on one instance, threatened us pointing their guns as if to shot us. The Westport Police cleared them out, but not before they depleted the area of deer and fowl. The house must have been a “jewel on the sound.” But by the time we lost interest exploring the house and grounds, it wasn’t even safe to enter. The grounds were wild with bramble and thick brush and prickers. The house burned around the time I was a student at Long Lots. We saw the house burning from Ellery Lane one night and our parents brought us to the scene. It was a spectacular fire. The fire fighter’s hoses could not reach the burning house and everyone watched in awe as fire consumed the house and grounds. I can’t imagine why Peter Jennings is inquiring about the cause of the fire so many years after the fact, especially since the land around the
    house was disused for decades after the fire. Some things are better left to the imagination.

    • Peter Jennings Talbot

      Mr. Gaynor – thank you so much for all the background information. I found it extremely interesting. The reason I inquired about the fire is that ever since I learned of the house and the fire as a child, I have been interested in knowing what happened. My grandmother, Sylvia Jennings, told me many stories about the house and estate, and she passed many photos of it on to me. She did not know why the house was abandoned, and apparently my grandfather, John M. Jennings, never truly understood or explained to her or my mother, Ellen, why either. So to me it has always remained a mystery. It had been a beautiful estate, known to the family as “Red Oaks”, and with my great grandfather Erwin’s brother Henry’s house next door, it has always been hard to imagine why his remains to this day, yet Erwin’s was left to rot, and be consumed by fire. I’m glad you had the opportunity to witness it first hand, though certainly not in it’s prime. I’m hopeful that my cousin, Morley Boyd, may have more information, given his comment.

  12. One important detail I omitted from the above was that after the fire consumed Jennings house, the only part left standing was the chimney. The red brick chimney remained for many years as a testimonial to a time when grand, awe inspiring homes dotted Long Island Sound.

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