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Forgotten Crimes: Hero grandfather, 3 children die in 'shocking' 1939 arson

Photo from the March 11, 1939, edition of The Buffalo Evening News, featuring the fire-ravaged upstairs bedroom of the Clark residence, where two of the Clark children lost their lives.

Shortly after 1:30 a.m. on the morning of March 11, 1939, Buffalo firefighters responded to a call at 635 Plymouth Ave. on the city’s West Side. When they arrived, the back of the one-and-a-half-story residence already was consumed by flames that “burned through the roof and shot skyward,” The Buffalo Evening News reported later that day.

Firefighters managed to extinguish the blaze, but four of the house’s five inhabitants – three of whom were children – still died as a result of the fire. Unbeknownst to rescuers at the time, that night’s inferno was an act of arson that one official later described to The News on March 16, 1939, as “the most shocking crime I have ever heard of.”

Among the victims were 9-year-old Bernetta “Honey” Clark and her 8-year-old brother, William B. Clark III. Their charred remains were discovered in a fire-ravaged upstairs bedroom, where both died of smoke inhalation while hiding beneath their beds to escape the fire.

Rescuers also pulled three unconscious victims from the wrecked home: 78-year-old homeowner William B. Clark Sr.; his 6-year-old grandson, James Clark; and 8-year-old James Shannon, a playmate of the Clark children who was spending the night.

Featured photos from the March 12, 1939, edition of The Buffalo Evening News. James Clark, bottom left, was the fire's only survivor. His playmate James Shannon, bottom right, died from his injuries one day after this photo of him recovering in Columbus Hospital was published.

The trio was discovered at the bottom of the house stairwell, where the grandfather had collapsed from smoke inhalation in a “gallant effort” to carry the boys to safety, the Buffalo Courier-Express reported on March 12, 1939.

Although rescuers managed to revive the elderly Clark and the Shannon boy, both eventually succumbed to their injuries within days of the fire. Young James Clark was the tragedy’s only survivor.

Neighborhood residents were immediately convinced that an arsonist was to blame for the incident, as it was the fourth mysterious fire in that neighborhood in the past two months; the other fires occurred in homes and automobiles on nearby Breckenridge and Herkimer streets, The News reported March 17, 1939. 

After an unknown arsonist ignited a fire inside his automobile on Herkimer Street in early February, homeowner Hans Wilkins “rigged up a series of alarms which were so arranged that they would go off if anyone entered the yard or shed or went near my car.”

William B. Clark Jr. – father of the Clark children and son of the elderly homeowner – also was convinced the fire was the work of an arsonist. The devastated widower and father of five had been visiting friends when the fire began, and he returned home that night to find the majority of his family dead or in critical collection, and the home his grandfather had built 78 years prior destroyed.  

Clark expressed his grief to the News on the morning of the fire: “I don’t know who could have done it. I haven’t any enemies ... but if someone set this fire their conscience will bother them after they read today’s paper, if they have a conscience.”

Photos of the charred Clark residence and accused arsonist John "Jackie" Coogan, from the March 16, 1939, edition of The Buffalo Evening News.

William B. Clark Jr.’s statement was a prophetic one: Four days later, police received an anonymous tip implicating 39-year-old John “Jackie” Coogan – a former employee of Clark’s – in connection to the string of fires.

On March 16, 1939, investigators found Coogan cowering in a shed behind the home he shared with his mother and brother at 178 Herkimer St. The man admitted to starting the Clark house fire and at least one of the three other neighborhood fires, claiming he “hadn’t felt sorry ... until he read in the evening paper that the children had been burned,” after which time Coogan “cried all night” and seriously considered killing himself, The News reported March 16, 1939.

Coogan told police that he was a severe alcoholic and had been unable to find work since William Clark Jr. fired him from his trucking business two months prior, a deed the disgruntled Coogan had since “brooded over.” Coogan then explained to police how after a daylong beer and whiskey binge at Joe’s Grill on nearby Ferry and Barton streets, he was hit with a “sudden, inexplicable impulse” to set fire to his former employer’s home, where he’d been a guest on at least 20 occasions.

Coogan claimed to have been only hazily aware that the Clark children might be home when he ignited a pile of newspapers inside the house’s rear milk delivery box before calmly returning to his own house just a few blocks away to sleep off his stupor.

“Something clicked in my head,” Coogan told police. “I had to set fire to the house. Even if there had been a hundred people there, I would have had to do it."

Press photo of John "Jackie" Coogan during his trial in June 1939. (News file photo)

John Coogan was arrested and charged with first-degree murder and arson. He supplied police with a signed 18-page confession, which was later used against him in court. On June 19, 1939, a jury of “twelve married men” declared Coogan guilty of all charges.  

The News reported on June 26, 1939, that the judge had committed John “Jackie” Coogan to four life sentences – one for each of his victims – to be served “without the possibility of parole or any other release except death.”

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