Editor’s Note: This is the second of a three-part series.
Last week, we looked into the origins of Grover Cleveland Pauter, the infamous arsonist responsible for 21 suspected fires in Lenawee and Hillsdale counties, which occurred from 1924-26. Pauter had had some run-ins with the law in the years leading up to the fires, including violating the local law prohibiting the possession and use of alcohol and assault, as well as a messy divorce from his first wife. The former Bessie Stuck was given a divorce decree from Grover on “cruelty grounds.”
The first arson attributed to Pauter was a warehouse, billiard room, and general store, early Thanksgiving morning, Nov. 27, 1924, in Pittsford. A nearby barn and farm also fell victim to Pauter’s quest for destruction by fire. He then changed location, heading near Blissfield. He set fire to what was then known as the North Blissfield Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, losing $40,000. His next stop was Addison. He broke into the basement of the school during the early morning hours of December 20, 1924, and a fire started as he ran, tempered by rain, sleet and high winds. The school was reduced to a scorched brick shell in minutes.
In each fire, investigators were unable to determine the cause, other than that it was suspicious. Pauter usually used oil, matches, paper or straw to start his fires, all of which were destroyed in the fires.
When the New Year was over, Pauter was far from finished with his string of arson attacks.
The Bert Lawrence farm, barn, and nearby garage in Hudson Township went up in flames on May 21, 1925. The house, barn and nearby garage were all burned with “incendiary” agents. The Lawrence family and the horses escaped from the buildings just in time. However, their chickens were lost. It was the only known fire that could have cost lives.
Police have searched each location carefully, looking for clues to the sources of the fire. In almost all cases, the cause remained well hidden. Pauter’s name stayed out of the papers, although his actions were immortalized in print.
Neighbors were pitted against neighbors, exacerbating disagreements between political, personal or religious differences over possible reasons why their properties were set on fire. According to later recollections of his ex-wife, Bessie Stuck, Pauter read about his crimes in the newspapers and made passive-aggressive comments about them, prompting her to admonish his behavior. However, she did not report Pauter for his actions.
One of Pauter’s last fires occurred on the night of September 22, 1926. After watching the fireworks display at the Lenawee County Fair in Adrian, he stopped at the Richard Van Etten farm northwest of town and stabbed into the barns and silo. fire. The fire drew the attention of the crowd away from the fairground and into the conflagration, where all the roads leading to the farm were clogged with cars and onlookers.
In early December 1926, Pauter was brought in by police for questioning regarding a charge against him by his current wife, Patience Pauter. He was jailed for two weeks while the police investigated the case.
During the interrogation of Pauter for hitting his wife with a pipe during an argument, the police received information from Stuck about the arson. Pauter confessed to setting 21 fires in the region. Exhausted from the nighttime interrogation and claiming his memory was insufficient, Pauter said his former wife, Bessie, who had accompanied him on some of his “journeys,” knew many details about his actions and referred her further questions.
When the police asked Stuck if she went with him on any of his nighttime treks and if she followed the pattern of those trips with fire, she said no to both.
“Oh no,” she said, “we’d go for a ride every now and then and he didn’t set anything on fire.”
Stuck also said that Pauter selected his targets at random, that there was no indication that he knew any of the victims of his actions, but only one. Van Etten’s farm belonged to his current father-in-law, and Pauter’s later confession was that he knew the buildings were insured and that his father-in-law could have used the insurance money.
In mid-December 1926, Pauter’s current wife, Patience, was also brought in for questioning. Her statements, though limited and without knowledge of her husband’s arson attacks, matched what Stuck had already given in terms of when they left together and the weather conditions of some of those nights. The two women were fired from the investigation, and the entire focus shifted solely to Grover Pauter.
Find out what happens to Grover Pauter, Patience Pauter and Bessie Stuck in the final installment of this series.
Dan Cherry is a historian in Lenawee County.