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    Tuesday, March 05, 2024

    Student probe puts senator at center of century-old Pequot House arson mystery

    Frank Brandegee in a 1911 photo in Washington, D.C., where he spent much of his time as a U.S. senator from 1905-1924. (Library of Congress photo from the Harris & Ewing Collection)
    The Pequot House, in an undated stereograph. (National Museum of American History)
    A 1911 portrait of U.S. Sen. Frank Bosworth Brandegee in his Washington, D.C., office. (Library of Congress photo)

    Editor’s note: This article is based on research conducted by students in Mitchell College’s New London Stories class taught by Christopher Kervick. Fall 2023 class members contributing to the research were Orville Byfield, Leo Delmonte, Gavin Kovacs, Brien Pallone, Anastasia Pekar, Maeve Ronan, Belle Theisen, Skyler Timberlake and Ryan Walsh.

    Born just a year before the end of the Civil War, New London’s own Frank Brandegee was many things: lawyer, investor, lifelong bachelor, power broker, U.S. senator. But could the word arsonist also be part of his legacy?

    That’s what a Mitchell College class is speculating after doing semester-long research into the popular Republican leader from the early part of the last century,. Brandegee, a garrulous yet strangely isolated figure, died by suicide in 1924 in Washington, D.C., at age 60 while serving his third full term in the Senate after being named to fill a vacancy caused by the death of Sen. Orville H. Platt.

    The New London Stories class, led by instructor Christopher Kervick, started looking into Brandegee after becoming interested in a 1908 fire that destroyed the sprawling Pequot House seasonal hotel on Pequot Avenue. The fire, rumored to be arson from the start though the case was never solved, burned the hotel to the ground, a place that Brandegee and his sister Helen Brandegee Zalinsky purchased for just $500 a few years before, though they assumed $54,000 in debt as well.

    Brandegee, as the students tell it, was never officially a suspect in the fire, perhaps because of his prominence locally and possibly as well because of his connections with The Day, which at one point had been considered a Republican Party mouthpiece. Newspapers like The Day later adopted ethics codes that precluded them from taking sides in political matters, except on the editorial pages.

    “Immediately after the blaze, it was widely speculated in local and national newspapers that the cause of the fire was arson,” according to the New London Stories project. “Despite these early suggestions, neither the press nor law enforcement officials made much of an effort to determine the cause of the blaze or the culprit.”

    In fact, the very afternoon after the fire The Day published a story that stated: “The general opinion of the origin of the fire is that it was incendiary, but who started it is a mystery which will probably never be solved. There is no possible clue to work on.”

    Later on, The Day stated matter-of-factly in an editorial: “It had been the fashion of local citizens to voice the opinion, ‘I hope someday that the old Pequot House will burn down.’ ”

    Students and their teacher Kervick found this lack of enthusiasm for tracking the culprit and laissez-faire attitude toward the old hotel’s demise “curious, to say the least.”

    The grand Pequot House, centerpiece of what was then known as the Pequot Colony area of New London where city folks from New York and elsewhere were known to spend their summers, opened in the 1850s at the mouth of New London harbor, around where Neptune Court is now located.

    An 1855 article in The New York Times discovered by Mitchell students described the hotel as “exceedingly convenient, airy and comfortable, and withal well kept; so that guests who visit it once return again almost invariably the succeeding season.”

    Guests could arrive by private yacht or steamship, as well as by auto, bus or carriage from the trains arriving at Union Station.

    “The resort counted many New York millionaires as well as Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Chester A. Arthur and their families among its high-profile guests,” the students wrote.

    But times soon changed, and the Pequot House by the early 1900s had lost its luster compared with other resorts in New England, principally Newport, R.I. In 1901, a receiver was appointed to sell the heavily mortgaged hotel at public auction.

    According to the students’ research, the Savings Bank of New London held the largest portion of the mortgage, totaling $37,000, followed by the New Market National Bank of New Hampshire, $10,000, and New London lawyer Walter Noyes (Brandegee’s law partner), $7,000.

    “Under Connecticut foreclosure law, any buyer of the property at auction would have to assume the balance of these mortgages,” according to the New London Stories class, whose instructor Kervick is an attorney. “This debt burden dissuaded investors and reduced bidder activity.”

    When Brandegee and his sister bought the property, they formed The Pequot Hotel Corporation, with the local politician retaining a controlling interest. The corporation then hired the hotel’s former owner, William H. Hager, as the resort’s manager, despite his previous failure in making the property profitable.

    “Hager had for years been a well respected executive working for several prominent hotels, but his retention as manager ensured that the slow decline of the Pequot House would not likely be reversed,” the students said.

    It was one in a series of bad business decisions made by Frank Brandegee that led to his later financial peril. Yet Brandegee remained a popular figure right up to his suicide in October 1924 by exposure to gas at his Washington, D.C., residence a few blocks from the White House.

    Brandegee’s political rise

    He grew up in New London the son of Augustus Brandegee, a lawyer and U.S. House representative known for his strong support of Republican President Abraham Lincoln. His grandfather, John Brandegee, was a cotton broker in New Orleans who moved to New London to be part of the whaling industry.

    The younger Brandegee, an 1881 graduate of the Bulkeley School who attended and graduated from Yale College, was first elected to the state House in 1888, and later served as House speaker, a major leadership job. In 1903, when U.S. Rep. Charles A. Russell of Connecticut died, he was chosen to fill the seat, and in 1905 when Sen. Platt died, he again was named as a replacement lawmaker.

    “Brandegee was an excellent speaker and debater,” the Mitchell students said. “Seen through the lens of time, however, his political beliefs tended to be on the wrong side of history. Brandegee was a vocal opponent of women’s suffrage. He also fought against the passage of laws intended to reduce child labor.”

    Three years after becoming a U.S. senator, Brandegee, deep in debt from bad real estate deals, was in Washington, D.C., when the Pequot House burned to the ground on May 7, 1908. But he was back in town two days later on May 9, when The Day reported he gave a check to New London Fire Chief John Stanners in appreciation “for the good work done by the New London firemen” who could not save the building.

    “Perhaps it was customary at the time to compensate fire companies for the effective performance of their volunteer duties, but a substantial check from the most likely suspect in an arson case to the primary investigator should have at least raised an eyebrow,” the Mitchell students wrote.

    Subsequent articles in The Day stated that the hotel was insured for $20,000, but it would take five times that amount of money to rebuild the Pequot House. Instead, Brandegee was reported to have decided to sell the property for its value of $150,000, which included several nearby cottages.

    According to the Mitchell class project, “No follow-up articles appeared, and there were never any reports of fire chief or police investigation efforts.”

    The Day did report on a strange occurrence that happened two days after the fire, as several young men came to New London Harbor in motorboats, despite heavy rain and choppy water, to view the hotel’s smoldering remains.

    “The young men running the boats claim they had a pleasant time on the return trip despite the rough weather,” the article on a back page stated. "The young men looked as though they had fallen into the sea as they went through the streets of the village after their return.”

    Mitchell students found the article odd, speculating that the men in motorboats (later identified as the Jordan Boat Club, whose “commodore” was 20-year-old William A. Brooks) may have been involved in setting the fire. Eerily, their research showed that Brooks’ older brother Charles had owned Jordan Mill, an old and unprofitable enterprise whose Waterford building, like the Pequot House, mysteriously burned down in 1905.

    “The surf-soaked boat trip by William A. Brooks to view the smoldering remains of the Pequot House and his connection to the Jordan Mill tie him, albeit remotely, to two well-known, unsolved, local arson cases,” the students wrote.

    The Day kept its eye on Brooks in other articles, at one point reporting him working as a clerk in the grocery store of William C. Saunders before eventually buying the store. Brooks also worked for Saunders as a substitute mail carrier when the regular carrier was unavailable, and he married Saunders’ niece, Mabel “Maude” Darrow. Sadly, Brooks drowned on Jordan Cove just a year after the Pequot House fire in a July 1909 boating accident.

    “The series of Day articles gives no indication as to how a 20-year-old grocery clerk and part-time mail carrier could afford a boathouse on Jordan Cove and a watercraft of such distinction,” the Mitchell students wrote.

    Where this becomes more than speculation and sounds entirely plausible is when students looked into Brooks’ connection to Saunders, as well as Saunders’ ties to Brandegee. It turned out that in addition to his other duties Saunders was chairman of the Waterford Republican Town Committee, and a regular delegate to the Republican State Convention where candidates were chosen.

    “As such, Brandegee needed the political support of Saunders,” students wrote. “In towns the size of Waterford, the position of postmaster was appointed and reappointed by the Postmaster General, upon the recommendation of one’s local senator or congressman. Thus, the continued service of Saunders as postmaster relied on the political patronage of Brandegee. With the support of Brandegee, Waterford Republicans also endorsed William C. Saunders to serve as the Waterford Town Clerk simultaneously with his postmaster duties.”

    Another strange coincidence is that in June 1908, just a couple months before the hotel blaze, The Day reported that Saunders began a fire insurance business earlier in the spring.

    Conclusions from afar

    Students concluded, “115 years after the Pequot House was destroyed, there is no direct evidence to prove that Senator Frank B. Brandegee orchestrated its burning. By virtue of his ownership of the hotel, Brandegee was the beneficiary of the insurance policies upon it and the recipient of the proceeds of the sale of the property. For those reasons alone, he should always have been and should to this day remain a primary suspect.”

    Kervick noted that there are no direct descendants of Brandegee as he was a lifelong bachelor with no known heirs. He was not able to track down other possible descendants of the family on Brandegee’s sister’s side to hear their reaction to the research.

    As to whether Brooks was involved in the arson, the Mitchell students said nothing can be conclusively proven. But during interviews conducted with some of the students in the New London Stories class, they defended their research as an unexpected consequence of the evidence available.

    “Though uncertainty remains, the combination of circumstantial facts, when viewed as a whole, allow modern reviewers to develop a plausible theory of the case,” the class project (available at https://thamesatmitchell2324.blog/history-of-new-london-research/) concluded. “That theory focuses on Brandegee and Brooks as the primary suspects responsible for the destruction of the Pequot House.”

    As instructor Kervick added in an email, “We discussed this several times in class and tried to come up with a way to present the information without suggesting that we have ‘solved the case’ so to speak. We decided that presenting the information more as ‘a plausible theory of the case’ was the best way to go.”

    An ambitious and influential U.S. senator responsible for one of the biggest conflagrations in New London history as seemingly everyone in town just looked the other way? It seems preposterous, the stuff of TV miniseries, yet not out of the realm of possibility considering the circumstances and the time period in which the fire occurred, before advances in forensic science made it easier to pinpoint what caused a blaze.

    Brandegee was a big figure in town, used to imposing his will on some of the leading figures in national life, even helping to get the famously corrupt Warren G. Harding elected as president. After his suicide, The Day reported three years later, Brandegee’s creditors included the United States Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of War, a former ambassador, eight past or present fellow United States senators, two former Connecticut governors, and a former United States district judge.

    “Although some have suggested his 1924 suicide while still serving in the United States Senate was a reaction to failing health, the consensus was that unyielding pressure from his creditors caused him to take his life,” the class project concluded.

    As for Brandegee’s connection to the arson, “The revelation following his suicide that he had for decades been overburdened by personal debt tends to shine the light of suspicion even more brightly upon him,” they concluded.

    l.howard@theday.com

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