Newburyport had an infamous arsonist whose flair for fire blazing brought pyromania to a whole new level. The incendiary, Leonard Choate, aka “Firebug Choate” burned over 150 homes, barns, and buildings. He orchestrated each inferno carefully and spared nothing sacred. The houses of worship and family properties were among his hottest hits. He stayed off the suspect list for seventeen-years until Mayor Nathaniel Pierce and Newburyport Herald Editor E L Colby executed a sting operation to end his fiery reign. When authorities bagged the bug the word spread like wildfire, but the story behind his capture is the true scorcher!
What prompted Choate’s mania for fire starting still remains a mystery. It was rumored that he “laughed with a horrid glee” when the fire bells rang and “leaped from rafter to rafter.” His wife confessed to officials he was overly excited and humored by the tragic blazes and often commented with such statements as: “Don’t they wish they knew who was doing all this”? or “I wonder if they will ever catch the rascal.”
Leonard Choate (1835-1914) was the son of True Burnham Choate and Mary Pillsbury, both respectable, prominent members in the community. The Choate family were known for ship building, civil leadership, and charitable causes. Leonard grew up on 3 Oakland Street and when he married he moved to Tying Street with his wife Emmeline Cook and fathered four children.
True Burnham Choate was son of Benjamin Choate (1770 – 1856) and Janne True (1774 – 1854). Mary Pillsbury was the daughter of Stephen Pillsbury and Sally Moody. Benjamin Choate was son of Simeon Choate and Ruth Thompson. Another cousin, Ebenezer Chaote (1748-1801) son of Ebenezer Choate and Elizabeth Greenleaf married Anna Pillsbury (1760-1904), daughter of Enoch Pillsbury and Apphia Currier. (More Genealogy listed after story)
Leonard was a Private in Company A of the Cushing Guards, Massachusetts 8th Regiment and served garrison duty at Fort Parke, Roanoke Island, North Carolina from December 4, 1862 to July 12, 1863. He was discharged on August 7th, 1863. Read More on Choate family members serving in the American Civil War Newburyport and the Civil War by William Hallett and The City of Newburyport in the Civil War from 1861 to 1865: With the Individual Records of the Soldiers and Sailors who Served to Its Credit, Also the War Records of Many Natives and Residents of the City, Credited to Other Places by George William Creasey
Right around the time Leonard’s combustible paws began lighting up the Port the city hosted a July 4th celebration (1854) to honor the Sons of the Revolution. America’s Independence was remembered with a grand procession led by Chief Marshall, Elisha Storey. Three hundred Merrimack ship-joiners, the “sturdy strong, sturdy, vigorous noble men—the real bone and sinew” were there—-Chase, Moody, Townsend, Westcott, Cheever, Burrill, Emery, Pearson Lunt, and others worthy to claim: “We only arrange and combine the ancient elements of all things.”
The Choate brothers, True and Ezekiel, known as Messrs. T. & E. Choate at Currier’s shipyard displayed a magnificent exhibit to define the master ship builders. A miniature cabin to mimic a stately room filled with joiners lodged up high on a wagon drawn by a splendid pair of horses. Their banner was in the shape of a topsail with a motto in bold letters reading: “Ship Joiners—Excelsior.” The cabin labels reflected their dedication to the trade: “Industry is life,” “No pains, no gains,” “Hope is a workman’s dream,” and “Play not with edge tools.”
Ironically, among these participants, spectators, and patriotic daughters of the Belleville parish none would have imagined that is was a Choate who was torching their fine city. In the case of “Firebug Choate” guilty by association never applied. It was assumed that he “was so largely interested in the welfare of the place he could be guilty of destroying it.” (Springfield Republican)
It was widely known Leonard inherited the families’ unique craft for wood carving, but once he was exposed the annuals excluded him on the list of “self-ennobled mechanics.” Instead, he is featured as public enemy number one and grand pyre.
In fact, Leonard used his familial talent of wood shaping to set himself far above all arsonist. What the newspapers around the country noted was that his malicious acts were “a perfect art form.” Although the fire bug mystique gained serious momentum, Leonard’s crafty custom built boxes used to the fires would inevitably provide the evidence to quell his pyro tendencies.
When choosing his victims Leonard never discriminated. His malevolent nature was beyond ruthless. No one was spared from his touch offs which made him even more appealing to curious minds.
On the afternoon of February 17, 1853 Leonard set fire to the store room owned by his grandparents Benjamin Choate and Jane True located on 233-235 Merrimack Street. The work shed was filled with seasoned lumber and the flames devoured the entire structure. The sparks ignited the Choate’s home and spread to their neighbors, Benjamin Pickett. The damage was accessed at 5,000 and although Leonard was due to inherit these proprieties, his need to seethe overtook him.
Additionally, Leonard’s brother, George Albert Choate suffered severe damage to the lungs from the smoke inhalation coupled with the severe frigid cold air he was exposed to while trying to put out the fire. He never recovered and died a few years later of ill health at the age of 25.
From January 1861 to November 29, 1867 Choate was fingered for setting over forty-one fires and the destruction and expense was overwhelming. There are several others he is suspected for setting. Although he favored hot flame, he fancied blistering snow storms to carry out his pyro passion. On March 21, 1861 the Old North Congregational Church was targeted during one of the worst blizzards recorded. Joe Callahan, local historian and columnist for the Newburyport News wrote an account entitled “The burning of the North Church 150 years ago” published in the Daily News in 2011. Callahan noted the difficulty the firemen of Neptune 8 had due to the severe weather conditions. Francis Lunt and Henry Goodwin were on duty that night and lost their lives.
The Lowell Citizen reported that the church had only $5,000 insurance coverage, but the damages totaled between $15,000 to $18,000. Several relics were lost including a 1795 church bell cast by John Warner the church purchased from Paul Revere.
He burned the Belleville meeting house (January 8, 1867) the First Parish Church of Newbury (January 25, 1868) and attempts were reported on Harris Street and Congress Street churches. The confident fire imp was a bit brazen too. He sent anonymous letter to the fire marshal. He bragged about the fires he set and taunted him with playful hints on how he was fresh out of boxes, but assured him he would be back in action once he replenished his supplies.
Fires broke out through the city as “Firebug Choate” spread terror and grief. His mania resulted in loss of lives. Fed up with massive destruction and his citizens living in fear, Mayor Nathaniel Pierce decided to launch a full scale war on the firebug. The initial reward the city offered totaled over $10,500, but “no one could get on the “Bugs” tracks. So Mayor Pierce and his buddy Colby formed a committee and commenced one of the biggest sting operations ever. They hired savvy private detectives and doubled the police force.
The main bosses were Detective Moses Sargent, former Boston Police Chief and his right hand guy William H Fitts, City Marshall of Newbury. The crew members were assigned individual wards and ordered that all citizens be canvassed. The job was tedious and no stone was to be left un-turned. Detective Sargent assumed a fake name and was put up in a private apartment.
When it was Leonard’s time to get a comb through the committee asserted that he was clean, but the tenacious Detective Sargent had a few snarls to work out. Following a hunch Detective Sargent had put Leonard on his suspect list because he was a carpenter and the boxes kept turning up at each scene. But, what really aroused his suspicion were the closed blinds and the locked doors at his shop.
The fires that “failed” left behind some clues that alarmed Detective Sargent. First, a box was recovered at the Harris Street church by Joseph W. Hardy on December 18, 1868 determined that the fire starter was indeed a person that possessed all the “skill, opportunity, tools, and materials,” to produce the fireboxes. The marks left on the boxes were made by a nicked tool which matched with “Leonard’s tools nicked in just a manner as to make a positive identification.”
Also the mahogany shavings which were placed inside the boxes to spark the fires could only be found in one place in Newburyport. Leonard had them in his inventory and it was concluded he used them for incendiary purposes, and no other.
Leonard felt the heat and on Friday, January 22, 1869 he packed up the family and headed out west. The court records show that his move to Minnesota was deliberate in order to avoid the authorities. It states he left “secretly and covertly,” but the committee would get a hotter tip that would lead to them right to Leonard’s door.
Within a few weeks of Leonard’s departure another box was recovered from an old factory building. This one was wrapped in a St Paul newspaper. Detective Sargent placed inquiries with the Minnesota post master who informed him that the only subscriber to this particular paper in his area was Mr. Leonard Choate.
Captain Fitts received a letter postmarked “January 11, 1869,” it was from Leonard:
” It was lucky for the city that that old building, corner of Russia and Kent Streets, was torn down recently. Capt. Fitts, we are all out of boxes, but we expect a supply soon from Boston, then look out. Our motive is this–we want some business done here or none at all. Two of us concerned in this business. In firing the old town church we worked five nights in succession, before we got her agoing. The last night we put three gallons of kerosene on the floor; that done the business. No bell rope cut, nothing of the kind; rope was burnt off. We crawled underneath the church. A large hole was found on the stone work on the backside sufficient to let a man crawl under. In setting the Bellville Hotel afire we used two gallons kerosene oil, which accounts for the rapid spread of the flames. When the boxes come, look out. Pro Bono Publico.’
Without delay Detective Sargent and Captain Fitts secured passage to Minnesota and met with J P Mellrath, Chief of Police of St Paul and D. A. Day, Chief of Police Minneapolis. With the cooperation of city and state officials the officers set out to find “FireBug” Choate and take him back home. It took then four hours of searching before they arrived at a secluded log cabin where Leonard was residing with this family.
When they arrested Leonard on February 26, 1869 all he said to the officials was, “you say so, next thing is for you to prove it.”
However, after he was in custody he lit up and fired off names, dates, times, and locations of fires, stating, “deaths by the rascal who has set those fires.”
On March 8 1869 Police Justice Currier examined hundreds of witnesses and interviewed wood specialist, which most appeared to testify at the trials.
At his sentencing the reports noted Leonhard was unmoved and detached. Judge Ezra Wilkinson presided over Choate’s trial at Lawrence District Court. The attorneys Alfred A. Abbott and Stephen B. Ives appeared for on Lenard’s behalf. The court records investigators noted they searched Leonard’s shed and shop on Tying Street and found materials that “matched the charred remains of what was contended to have been a box by means of which the fire was set, about six inches square on the bottom and about twelve inches high, containing a block of wood perforated with an auger hole of the size of a candle.”
One of the victims, Joseph Ackerman, who lost his slaughter house and barn in 1869 testified against Leonard and the prosecutors stated that the box recovered from the fire up at Ackerman’s property had been “lined with zinc and nailed with three kinds of tacks.” The pine and mahogany shavings and cedar chips were also found with the box, which, with some burnt pieces of old carpet, an old shoe, and the pieces of a broken stone bottle, found at the same place the next morning, were also produced and put in evidence.
The District Attorney and prosecutor, Edgar Jay Sherman wrote in his personal memoirs said he received a letter from the mayor of Newburyport thanking him in behalf of the people for the “splendid manner” in which he had conducted the prosecution. Sherman said it was one of the most interesting and important cases tried as most of the conviction was based on more circumstantial evidence than hard core.
“Firebug Choate” faced a multitude of charges in many counts. The Port pyro spent his remaining days locked up. The census show he was an inmate in the Concord State Prison in 1880 and according to John J Currier Leonard was transferred to Bridgewater State Farm in 1900 due to his advanced age and mental state. His wife Emmeline is listed as a widow in a 1910 Census, but Choate passed in 1914. She passed in 1925 and both are buried at Oak Hill Cemetery.
A big Thanks to Cheryl Follansbee of Newburyport Genealogy Group, the Newburyport Archival Center and the Peabody Essex Museum for research.
The Merchant-Choate House Ipswich, Massachusetts See Stories From Ipswich blog “Rich in its history, the main section of the house was built in the 1760s for Abraham Choate. He purchased the lot for his home in 1757, in the center of Ipswich, then a busy center of maritime commerce. Choate, a gentleman merchant attached part of an older structure, built about 1710, to his new house. The new home provided enough room for Choate’s eight children.” Featured Smithsonian Tells 200 Years of History Through One House
Home of Choate Family in Newburyport on 3 Oakland Street built by Timothy Osgood Referenced in The North End Papers page available at the Newburyport Archival Center and Read History 3_oakland_street-newburyport-choate-house
Sampler Choate, Mary 1801 Newburyport, MA US Teacher Inscriptions: NewburyPort / 1802 / (Starting at the center): Each pleasing art lends softness to our minds / And with our studies, are our lives refin’d / It is the business of education to lop off some little, luxuriant / boughs from the tree of nature, but not to constrain it, that it / cannot vegetate or give to every branch, an unnatural direction. I should prefer the plain, honest awkwardness of a mere, country / girl , to overacted refinement . November 9th / Lest sense be ever in your view, / Nothing is beautiful. that is not true; / The true alone is lovely. / Mary Choate / /From American Samplers Bolton & CO. 1921
Sarah Choate Sampler 1786 Newburyport MA: Rare Large-Scale Needlework Sampler, Sold at Sotheby’s
Choate Family Graves Oak Hill Cemetery Newburyport, Essex County Massachusetts Find A Grave Photo
Benjamin Choate son of Simeon and Ruth (Thompson) Choate. was born Dec. 30, 1770, in Salisbury, N. H. He married, April 23, Jane True, daughter of Dudley and Sarah (Evans) True. She was born Oct. 2, 1774, in Salisbury, Mass. They resided in Newburyport, Mass. Mr. Choate died Sept. 15, 1854. Mrs. Choate died Dec. 16, 1856.
Ruth b. Jan. 25, 1797; m. Aug. 16, 1S15, Nicholas Blaisdell d. Aug. I, 1833. He was son of Joseph and Nancy Blaisdell
Jane Evans, b. .March 24, 1799; m. April 3, 1822, Ephraim Goodwin : 2nd m. Stephen N. Sargent
Benjamin Evans, b. June 29 1801 m, Harriet Crane: d. Aug. 28, 1858 daughter of Hezekiah and Prudence (Lake) Crane
Dudley, b. Oct. 18, 1803. lie died in infancy, June 4, 1804.
True Burnham, b. June 16, 1805; m. Jan. 27, 1831, Mary Pillsbury daughter of Stephen and Sally (Moody) Pillsbury. She was born Dec. 11, 1809, in Newbury, Mass. They resided at No. 3 Oakland Street, Newburyport, Mass. Mr. Choate died March 2, 1867. Mrs. Choate died Feb. 23, 1889.
George A., b. July 23, 1832: m. Aug. 14, 1853, Harriet K. Tilton: d. April 16, 1867.
Leonard, b. March 29, 1835; m. on July 29, 1857, Emmeline Marshall Cook.
Calvin b. Dec. 21, 1836; m. Nov. 23, 1887, Sarah Lizzie Knox daughter of George J. and Susan G. Farnham
Sarah Ann, b. July 5, 1807; m. Dec. 31, 1827, William Teel ; d. Feb. 26, 1874 son of John Teel and Sarah Chase
Ezekiel True, b. Dec. 4, 1809; m. May 11, 1837, Catherine Mace, daughter of William and Catherine Mace d. Nov. 29, 1864
Thomas, b. Nov 14, 1811; m. July 28, 1833, Martha I. Whittier, daughter of Ezekiel and Sally Brown
Mary, b. Jan. 16, 1814. She died in infancy, May 29, 1814.
James, b. May 29, 1815; m. Oct. 25, 1843 Ruth L Babson daughter of Abraham and Lydia Babson, widow of Abraham Somerby
William, b. Sept. 4, 1817; m. April 28, 1839, Mary Hickok daughter of William and Susan Wescott
Stephen Pillsbury, b. Feb. 28, 1820; m Mahala K. Dockum daughter of John and Phebe Kaime
From Vital Records Book Newburyport Births, Deaths, Marriages recorded Choate/Choat Family
Death Record Town of Newburyport Emeline M Cook Choate 1925
- Cook Descendants – Inlaws and Outlaws Patricia Lumsden.
- “Important Arrest: An Incendiary caught-A Manis for Arson.” February 1869 Wisconsin Ledger
- Commonwealth vs. Leonard Choate November 1870 Essex County Court
- North End Papers 1618-1880, Newburyport, Massachusetts: Development of the North End of the City Oliver B. Merrill & Margaret Peckham Motes Genealogical Publishing Com, 2007.
- Newburyport Town Records Peabody Essex Museum
- Sons of Liberty New York Henry B Dawson
- “The Newburyport Incendiary. Arraignment of Leonard Choate for Arson-Fifteen Separate Charges Against Him-His Mode of Operations” New York Tribune March 3, 1869
- “Conviction of the Newburyport Firebug” Boston Herald November 1869
- A Report of the Proceedings on the Occasion, of the Reception of the Sons of Newburyport Resident Aboard, July 4th, 1854, by the City Authorities and the Citizens of Newburyport. Daniel Dana, M H Sargent 1854.
- History of Newburyport John J Currier
- The Pillsbury family: being a history of William and Dorothy Pillsbury (or Pilsbery) of Newbury in New England, and their descendants to the eleventh generation David Brainard Pillsbury and Emily A Getchell 1898
- The Choate Bridge–what a bargain!
- Choate Island and Rufus Choate
- Benjamin Choate Inn as mentioned in the New York Times 1986 Article “A MASSACHUSETTS TOWN WHERE HISTORY PREVAILED” See Some Old Inns at Newburyport
- Annual Obituary Notices of Eminent Persons who Have Died in the United States: For 1857-. Philip Sampson
- The Choates in America. 1643-1896 E.O. Jameson