Before the sale of fireworks was banned in Pennsylvania, as many as six people in the state had been killed by fireworks every 4th of July. By 1940, the second year of the ban, no one had. Firework injuries for the holiday were down from more than three thousand to fewer than a hundred. The state medical society, the fire departments and the police were happy, but others, nineteen-year-old Gerald Schooley among them, missed the excitement.
In the early hours of the morning, after a 4th of July evening spent drinking beer with his friends in the quiet streets downtown, Gerald set off on the long walk back to his home on Park avenue on the north hill. By two, he had reached Wallace avenue, a few blocks from his house, where it occurred to him to set off a fire alarm box. Minutes later, a fire truck arrived. When it was clear that there had been a false alarm, it drove back to town.
Not long after the fire truck had left, Mont Johnson of Reis street thought he heard someone doing something to his car, which was parked outside his house. As he went outside, he saw a young man in white pants running off up an alley. Mysteriously, on the floor of his car was a pile of torn papers. Shortly after, Joseph McIlvenny of Boyles avenue, who had been awakened by the false alarm, looked out of his window and saw someone wearing white pants striking matches outside his garage. He called out, and the figure ran away. Around the same time, E A Long, also of Boyles avenue, was woken up by his wife, who had heard a strange noise outside. He turned the light on and saw a man run out of the alley behind his house. Long’s car appeared to have been pushed halfway out of his garage.
At a quarter past three, Leonard Peterson of Wallace avenue raised an alarm—the garage behind his house was on fire. The fire truck returned. The captain of the fire department called the police to say that the fire seemed to have been deliberately started inside one of the two cars in the garage. The police sent a couple of cruisers up to patrol the area. Not long after they arrived, a call came through that garage in the rear of Boyles avenue was also on fire. Inside were two more cars, which were already totally destroyed. Before the firemen could get over there, they heard that another car, parked in front of a house on Boyles avenue, had burst into flames.
Two policemen who were standing on Boyles avenue, helplessly watching the burning car, heard someone running through the bushes in a nearby garden. They followed the noise and saw a young man, dressed in a spotted shirt and white pants, running into 312 Park avenue, just around the corner. Gerald had finally made it home, but he wasn’t allowed to stay there for long.
At first, he denied all knowledge of the fires, but by the time that Chief of Police McMullen came down to see him at city hall at half past five that morning, he had admitted that he had started them, although, he insisted, by accident.
Gerald told the police that he had only been trying to smoke a cigarette in peace. He said that, on his walk home, he had realised that he had no matches and had looked in parked cars until he found some, but that, every time he stopped to light his cigarette, someone yelled at him and made him drop his match. He said it was possible that those matches could have fallen on pieces of paper that might have fallen out of his pockets when he took out his cigarettes, and that might have started the fires.
The judge set bail at $3,000, which Gerald’s parents paid. When the case came up in October that year, Gerald pled no contest to charges of arson. He was fined $825 to make good the damage he had caused and given a two-year suspended sentence.
Before those two years were up, the Japanese had bombed Pearl harbor and Private Gerald Schooley was in an army training camp. He survived the war and came home unharmed. He moved to Youngstown, where he died in November 2005, at the age of eighty-five.Sources: New Castle News (3 July 3 1940, “Quiet Fourth For New Castle”; 5 July 1940, “Firebug On North Hill; Autos Burned”; 11 July 1940, “Schooley Is Held For September Court”; 21 Oct 1940, “Court Report”; 18 Sep 1943, “In US Armed Service”).