Check out Chris Chan’s book review of a true crime category that is often overlooked by writers and historians: arson. Damn the Old Tinderbox!: Milwaukee’s Palace of the West and the Fire that Defined an Era by Matthew J. Prigge is the missing piece that fans of true crime will need to check out this summer.
True crime books generally focus on murders, though thefts, sex crimes, and art forgeries are well represented in the wider literature. One type of crime that is often overlooked by writers and historians is arson. Damn the Old Tinderbox!: Milwaukee’s Palace of the West and the Fire that Defined an Era is the story of an arson that may have shaped the destiny of a city. It is also an unsolved crime. Readers should be forewarned that there are no definite answers in the book, and there is no definitive proof as to whose hand struck the match that set one of the city’s crown jewels ablaze.
The Newell House Hotel was meant to be a vital tool in turning the developing city of Milwaukee into an influential metropolis. In 1883, Milwaukee was still growing, building the foundations of its local economy and trying to shape its identity to the rest of the nation. At the time, Chicago and Milwaukee were entering the rivalry that exists to this day, and at this point, the two cities were battling to see which would be dominant in the Midwest. The enormous Newell House Hotel was one of America’s largest buildings at the time, and the fire engulfed the entire structure swiftly and destroyed the hotel thoroughly, leaving scars that may have caused lasting injury to the city’s future.
There’s real poignancy in the book, as the reader is provided with snapshots of survivors, from those who escaped unscathed, to those who were injured by the conflagration, to the approximately seventy-five people who died in the fire. The human cost of the blaze lingers in the reader’s mind long after the book is finished.
Throughout the book, Prigge asks some intriguing “What ifs?” What if the hotel hadn’t burnt? What would that have meant for Milwaukee? Might the Newell House Hotel have launched Milwaukee’s upward trajectory, causing the northern city to surpass Chicago as the largest city in the Midwest? How might the history of the region have been shaped by this redistribution of economic and population power? There are no answers to these questions, nor is there an answer to the central question: “Who started the fire?”
There are a handful of suspects, ranging from a barkeeper to a businessman. One person went on trial, but the courtroom brought no resolution or definite answers. Prigge provides several possibilities as to who caused the conflagration, but carefully refrains from trying to influence the reader’s opinions or point an accusatory finger in any direction.
Damn the Old Tinderbox! is highly recommended for fans of true crime, historical mysteries, and people who like to theorize about unsolved cases.
Damn the Old Tinderbox!: Milwaukee’s Palace of the West and the Fire that Defined an Era
By Matthew J. Prigge
Wisconsin Historical Society Press