Suspected of fire for hire


Near Darke

By Hank Nuwer

Greenville welcomed Lithuanian immigrant Louis J. Kamons at the end of World War One.

He was rich, apparently, and impeccably groomed. He liked his shirt collars starched.

His family impressed one and all at synagogue. Two sons were headed to medical school. Another intended to join pop in the family tobacco and cigar enterprise. Daughters Lenore and Portia were dark-hair beauties like their mother Maisie.

Then, in a single year, some local firefighters grew suspicious after Kamons’ tobacco plant and all his stock burned to the ground.

Each time, Kamons had an airtight alibi.

He collected his fat insurance payouts and moved his family to Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, a neighborhood favored by millionaires and big shots.

Then in 1928, Kamons made national news. He sued a business colleague after Maisie confessed that months earlier the man had made a pass at her and wrapped her in his arms.

Kamons won a $12,500 judgment for alienation of affections but lost the judgment on appeal.

His honor concluded where there was smoke was also fire.

Maisie admitted under oath she had accepted a movie date with the partner, went on long walks with him, and once visited him in his hotel room.

Oy vey.

Three years later, Kamons found himself in court again. This time he was the defendant, along with his then 21-year-old son, Abbon.

They were accused of torching a failing suburban shoe store so the owner could collect the insurance. Authorities discovered that the inventory claimed as a loss now sat in a nearby warehouse.

The store owner was busted and fingered Kamons and his son as the masterminds.

Investigators found arson materials in the ruins and police unearthed similar paraphernalia in the Kamons residence.

Father and son had alibis, but a prosecutor proved their stories were bald-faced lies.

No sooner had father and son adjusted to cell life in a Pennsylvania penitentiary than their former chauffeur made a stunning charge to police.

He said Kamons had been the firebug who torched a Cleveland apartment building at the request of a barber supply store owner who operated on the ground floor. The snitch also claimed Kamons had been the firebug in more than 125 fire-for-hire schemes.

Newspapers everywhere — including Darke County — covered the trial after Pennsylvania prison officials transferred him to a Cleveland jail. “Ex-Greenville Man May Face Murder Charge As Result of Cleveland Fire,” blared a Daily Advocate banner headline. The paper reminded readers that Kamons had collected insurance on two suspected infernos.

The fire on June 7, 1932, had killed 13 people. Some jumped to their deaths from the sixth floor. Many aged victims stood screaming at their windows and disappeared as the roof and top floors collapsed.

Many more victims would have perished had it not been for the heroics of the visiting Philadelphia Athletics ballclub who were staying in an adjacent hotel. Catcher Mickey Cochrane zipped up a ladder to carry out an elderly man clutching a Stradivarius violin.

Newspaper columnists described Kamons as a man with predatory hawk’s eyes. Several demanded Kamons pay a pound of flesh. They wanted him to sizzle in the electric chair.

But Kamons had an alibi. He had been in West Virginia — or so he claimed.

Moreover, his attractive daughter Lenore took the stand in daddy’s defense. She swore that the chauffeur was out for revenge because she had spurned his advances time after time. She added that when he got too amorous, Abbon had kicked his butt and tossed him out the door.

The jury’s verdict was not guilty. Maisie swooned and fainted in court. Lenore broke into relieved tears.

Kamons hired a lawyer to argue that Pennsylvania had no right to put him back in the pen.

Not true, a Common Pleas Court judge ruled. He denied the plea of habeas corpus.

You beat a death rap, sir, not earned a pardon.

Son Abbon was released before his dad. A heavyset man, he married, sired two children, and tried to go straight. But a heart attack felled Abbon at age 30.

Kamons applied for early release and won this request.

But legal fees and his sons’ medical school tuitions had squeezed his bank account dry. He not only could not afford Squirrel Hill, but he barely had enough for squirrel food.

Getting a job was out of the question. Not only was he aging, but no business wanted any part of a man who once had been accused of creating the horrific Cleveland deathtrap. He and Maisie had to move in with daughter Portia and her husband.

He died at 64 in 1949. He was a broken man in ill health. The family ordered a huge stone bearing the Star of David.

If Kamons was innocent of starting the Cleveland conflagration, I hope his last crime-free years earned him a place at the celestial table.

If his alibi was bogus and he was guilty of killing 13 terrified souls, I hope Satan greets him by stoking the coals a little hotter.

Hank Nuwer is an author, columnist and playwright. He and wife Gosia live on the Indiana side of the Union City state line. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author. The Daily Advocate does not endorse these viewpoints or the independent activities of the author.

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