Digging deep into local history
A class of nine Mitchell College students recently completed a semester-long research project that raises some legitimate questions about an important event in New London history and, in the process, about the responsibility to question and view with an open mind what we thought we knew about the past.
Instructor Christopher Kervick’s New London Stories class this fall dove into the facts surrounding the 1908 fire that destroyed the Pequot House hotel, which for decades was an important city landmark, an economic driver in the post-Civil War years and a key piece of real estate in the summer resort area called the Pequot Colony located at the south end of the city.
After combing through primary documents, history books, websites and old newspaper accounts, the students concluded that the Pequot House’s owner, a well-known and respected man named Frank Brandegee, could have played a part in destroying the property. At the very least, the students contend that Brandegee — who was drowning in debt despite living a lavish lifestyle — should have been considered a suspect in the fire that officials labeled at the time as a likely arson.
Brandegee was a member of a prominent New London family and was serving as a U.S. senator at the time of the fire and until his death in 1924. Before his time in the Senate, he also served in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Connecticut legislature. He was a leading Republican in the state and oversaw the state’s Republican convention in 1904. He was a close advisor to President Calvin Coolidge.
It is precisely because of Brandegee’s prominence and esteem that the students concluded Brandegee was never seriously considered as a suspect in setting the fire, despite a lot of evidence that should have pointed investigators in his direction.
Among the evidence is the fact the hotel, and the entire Pequot Colony, was beyond its prime when Brandegee and his sister bought it just a few years before the fire for $500. They also agreed at the time of the purchase to assume $54,000 in debt on the property, which would be equivalent to about $1.8 million in today’s dollars. Newspaper accounts from the era also reported that Brandegee was seriously struggling with a mountain of debt, despite his apparent reluctance to sell any of his real estate holdings or compromise his lavish lifestyle. His properties included an expansive country estate in Montgomery County, Maryland; a large and stately house on Farragut Square in Washington, D.C. and a house in New London. The properties also had staff to maintain them.
In addition to Brandegee’s prominence, the Mitchell students also pointed out that The Day paper, which might have raised some questions about the identity of the possible arsonist, was considered a Republican party mouthpiece in the early years of the 20th century and so might have been reluctant to cast any suspicions about Brandegee’s involvement in the fire.
While the students’ research doesn’t conclude with absolute certainty that Brandegee was an arsonist, it does raise questions about what local historians had come to believe about the Pequot House fire. This is as it should be.
The Mitchell College project provides us all with some important lessons about history: what we long have accepted as the truth is not necessarily the truth, that the prominent heroes from history were likely more complex figures than we believed and that stories from the past were products of the values and belief systems of their times.
We tip our hats to Kervick and his students. Their dogged research and desire to dig deep into a story from the city’s past has revealed intriguing facts, while also clearly illustrating the importance of re-examining history.
The Day editorial board meets with political, business and community leaders to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larraneta, Owen Poole, copy editor, and Lisa McGinley, retired deputy managing editor. The board operates independently from The Day newsroom.
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