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.


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:

Fire away.

12 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.

  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.

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