Pyromaniac — Dodds watched excitedly as the explosion brought down the walls of the Radford-Wright Building

by Bruce Cherney (part 2)

Leo Blute was standing in front of the main door of the Radford-Wright Building when the explosion occurred, “and was hurled with terrific force almost across the street, where he felled covered with debris, a mangled mass, and almost crushed beyond recognition,” according to the March 11, 1912, Manitoba Free Press.

Charles Wiker, 21-years-old, a Canadian Pacific Railway dining car employee, was watching the Radford-Wright fire from the glass roof of the train shed at the CPR depot when he fell through the roof and plunged nearly 10 metres to his death.

The injured were taken to the rotunda of the Sutherland Hotel, which had been turned into a temporary hospital, for initial treatment.

What no one realized at the time was that the man who started the fire was watching all the events of the tragic evening unfold.

“I was standing on a pile of lumber in a yard between Higgins Avenue and the CP tracks for about twenty minutes  (James Dodds’ confession published in the March 29, 1913, Winnipeg Tribune). I then went back to the fire. I came up Sutherland Avenue and turned past the hotel and the International Harvester building when I saw two men, one with a lantern come along and look at the fire (in the shed). They then walked toward the fire box at the corner of Main and Sutherland and informed a policeman, who turned in an alarm.”

Dodds waited for the fire brigade to arrive. What he did next shows how brazen the pyromaniac had become and how callous he was toward the carnage he had created. When he saw them coming down the street, he ran along with the firefighters to watch them battle the fire.

“I saw the fire chief (John Buchanan) tell his driver to send in another alarm. I thought (to) myself the fire was inside the building and I think the chief thought the same. After that I came the rear of the building and went toward Main Street. Just as I got round the corner I saw a crowd gather around the front of the building.

“At that moment the thing blew up. I was standing then at the corner of Sutherland and Main. I ran with the rest of the people as far as I could to get out of the way. As soon as the explosion was over I came back to the front of the building and I saw two men lying there. I heard one fellow say that one of them was dead. I saw the trolley street railway wire lying on top of the man whom they said was dead.”

Dodds said he was convinced that the two men lying in the street were the ones who had been killed; that is, Blute and Walter Rowley.

What he did next confirms his lack of remorse, although he later claimed to have been deeply troubled by the tragedy he created.

“I stayed at the fire until 3:30 in the morning. I then went into the city and went to Turner’s Turkish baths in the Traveller’s building. I had a bath and in  the morning I went down to the fire again. I asked a constable how many had been killed. He said six — two firemen and four civilians. I stayed there all that day, and in the evening I had a meal in the Venice restaurant on Portage avenue.”

During the following days, Dodds said he read all about the fire in the city’s newspapers. He also read accounts of the inquiry into the fire. “Some of them seemed to think it was not set on fire (arson); others thought sparks from the CPR engine set the fire to the straw.”

At the inquest, arson was indeed suspected, since the electrical wiring in the building was new and enclosed in casing. The wiring couldn’t have been the source of a spark that ignited the fumes from the naphtha vats on the second floor. As well, there were strict rules in effect to prevent fires: no shavings or refuse were allowed to accumulate and a smoking prohibition was firmly enforced.

In addition, the boiler was new and there was no fire in it after 5:30 p.m. on that fateful day in March.

O.E. Johnston, a bookkeeper, had gone into the building at 10 p.m. to get his newspaper, which had earlier been delivered. When he left by the front door of the building, he saw no evidence of a fire.

In later testimony at the police court, it was related that Dodds plead with his boss at the sign painting company to come with him to watch the firemen put out the remnants  of the fire the following day. His boss, Mr. Irvine, later recalled that Dodds seemed to have a strange expression as the firemen doused the embers.

Mr. Derrett, the other co-owner of the sign painting firm, also recalled that Dodds always showed a morbid interest in fires and always seemed to be on the scene when fires broke out.

Irvine reported that he saw Dodds take several photographs of the ruins, including the bodies of the deceased.

Both men and co-workers said they had their suspicions that Dodds had set the fire that destroyed the Irvine-Derrett paint shop on Fort Street, but they did not openly accuse him. With the building razed, Dodds left Winnipeg to work as a farmhand near Roland, Manitoba.

In another instance, he set a blaze in Emanuel Baptiste Church at the corner of Emily and Bannatyne. At the time, he took care of the church’s furnace and had a key. Again, no one suspected him of setting the fire, which caused an estimated $10,000 in damages.

In addition, he set fire to the J. Light Foot Co., 112 Charlotte St., the Mason-Risch Piano Co., the Lightfoot Furniture warehouse, the Canada Oil Company’s warehouse in Elmwood, the Rat Portage Lumber Company yards with damages estimated at $40,000.

In St. Boniface, Dodds admitted to being responsible for the burning of seven newly-erected dwellings on Kittson and College streets and the burning of the new convent school.

Between the time of the Radford-Wright tragedy and his eventual arrest, Dodds couldn’t sate his morbid desire to start more fires. Dodds would periodically slip back into Winnipeg to set new fires. Once his urge was temporarily satisfied, he would return to his job in Roland for several weeks before his next foray into the city.

It was on one of these trips to Winnipeg that Dodds was finally apprehended and his reign as a pyromaniac in the city ended. He used the St. James Hotel on Logan Avenue as a base to commit his last acts of arson.

The March 27, 1913, Tribune reported that Dodds had come to the city a week earlier. During his stay, police detectives, Fred Bathos and William Smith, became aware of the young man lingering when flames were sighted and began to suspect him of being a fire-starter. They trailed the man for two days when a fire broke out in a shed at 217 Smith St.

Dodds was seen to enter the building and shortly afterward emerge as smoke billowed out of the premises. In a few minutes, flames burst forth and Dodds then notified the proprietor of an auto garage (stable) on the property of the fire, who rang the alarm. The proprietor also told Dodds that there were two pet rabbits in building, which Dodds rescued from the fire, according to later statements he would make. Dodds appeared to be very excited by the fire and also helped to move an auto from the garage to keep it out of harm’s way.

Dodds was arrested by the two detectives on Smith Avenue. At first he denied being the arsonist, despite matches being found in his pocket, and being in an excited state while watching the fire, but while in custody spilled out his confession.

The fact that the fires ceased for extended periods of time and then restarted at a later date, puzzled police investigators. It was reported that police had not noticed Dodds as being connected to any previous fires since he no longer was a Winnipeg resident.

(Next week: part 3)