Lenawee County arsonist burned businesses, school, church and homes

Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series.

Last week, we looked at the origins of Grover Cleveland Pauter, the notorious arsonist responsible for 21 suspicious fires in Lenawee and Hillsdale counties between 1924 and 1926. Pauter had some run-ins with the law in the years leading up to the fires. , including for violating local law prohibiting the possession and consumption of alcohol and assault, as well as a messy divorce from his first wife. The former Bessie Stuck obtained a decree of separation from Grover on “grounds of cruelty”.

The first act of arson attributed to Pauter was a warehouse, pool hall, and store, early Thanksgiving morning, November 27, 1924, in Pittsford. A nearby barn and farm also fell victim to Pauter’s quest for destruction by fire. He then changed location, heading near Blissfield. He burned down what was then known as North Blissfield Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church, a loss of $40,000. His next stop was Addison. He broke into the school basement in the early morning hours of December 20, 1924, and a fire broke out as he ran away, mitigated by rain, sleet and winds violent. The school was reduced to a burnt brick shell within minutes.

Grover Cleveland Pauter broke into the Addison school basement in the early morning hours of December 20, 1924, and a fire broke out as he ran away.

With each fire, investigators could not determine the cause, except that it was suspicious. Pauter typically used oil, matches, paper, or straw to light his fires, all of which were destroyed in the fires.

At the start of the new year, Pauter was far from over with his series of arson attacks.

Bert Lawrence’s farmhouse, barn, and adjoining garage in Hudson Township caught fire on May 21, 1925. The house, barn, and adjoining garage were all set on fire by “incendiary” means. The Lawrence family and the horses escaped from the buildings just in time. However, their chickens were lost. It was the only known fire that had the potential to claim lives.

Police scanned each site carefully, looking for clues to the sources of the fire. In almost all cases, the cause has remained well hidden. Pauter’s name remained out of the newspapers, although his deeds were immortalized in the press.

Neighbors were turned against neighbors, amplifying feelings of contention between political, personal or religious differences over the potential reasons their properties were burned. According to later recollections by his ex-wife, Bessie Stuck, Pauter would read about his crimes in the newspapers and make passive-aggressive remarks about them, prompting her to reprimand his behavior. However, she did not report Pauter for his actions.

One of Pauter’s last fires was on the night of September 22, 1926. After watching the fireworks display at the Lenawee County Fair in Adrian, he stopped at the Richard Van Etten Farm north -west of town and set the barns and silo on fire. The fire diverted the attention of the crowd from the fair and the fire, where all the roads leading to the farm were jammed with cars and onlookers.

In early December 1926, Pauter was brought in by the police for questioning regarding an assault charge brought against him by his current wife, Patience Pauter. He was jailed for two weeks while police investigate the case.

While questioning Pauter for hitting his wife with a pipe during an argument, police received information from Stuck about the arson sequence. Pauter confessed to starting 21 fires in the area. Exhausted from the overnight interrogation and claiming his memory was poor, Pauter said his ex-wife, Bessie, who had accompanied him on many of his “trips”, knew many details regarding his actions and had asked him other questions.

When police asked Stuck if she accompanied him on all of his nighttime hikes and if they had detected the pattern of these outings leading to a fire, she said no to both.

“Oh, no,” she said, “Once in a while we would go for a walk and he wouldn’t set anything on fire.”

Stuck also said that Pauter chose his targets at random, that there was no indication that he knew any of the victims of his actions, but only one. The Van Etten farm was owned by his current father-in-law, and Pauter’s later confession was that he knew the buildings were insured and that he thought his father-in-law could have used the insurance money.

In mid-December 1926, Pauter’s current wife, Patience, was also brought in for questioning. Her statements, while limited and without knowledge of her husband’s acts of arson, matched what Stuck had previously provided regarding when they were heading together and the weather conditions on some of those nights. Both women were fired from the investigation and all attention was focused solely on Grover Pauter.

Find out what happens to Grover Pauter, Patience Pauter and Bessie Stuck in the final part of this series.

Dan Cherry is a Lenawee County historian.

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