Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Arson or Tragedy?

Ada "Addie" Wells was a niece of one of my great great grandmothers, Clementine (Wells) Riggin Collins. Addie married Edward Grotz, who immigrated to the United States from what is now Baden, Germany. They had six children[1] before Addie died some time before the 1910 census was enumerated.

One of her daughters, Edna Grotz, was born on 4 June 1895 in Collinsville. Her mother died before she was 10 years old. When the 1910 census was enumerated, Edna lived with her father, who was a coal miner, and siblings. Her maternal grandmother, Sarah (Smith) Wells, also lived with the family.

Edna married Charles Griffith Neathery on 8 June 1916 in Greenville, Illinois. Charles was a widower with two small children. In 1917 Edna, her husband and his children lived with her father. Charles was a cook at the Bay Avenue restaurant in East St. Louis. In 1920 they had purchased a home on St. Francis Road in Caseyville and Charles owned a restaurant.

1876 map of Edwardsville, Illinois, courtesy of the Illinois Digital Archives

On 11 December 1923, the couple owned a restaurant in Edwardsville on Purcell Street opposite the courthouse. They lived in an apartment over the restaurant. About 4:30 in the morning a fire was discovered. The fire spread to a connected building and destroyed a general store named Schneider & Poole. Edna and Charles were thought to be asleep upstairs when a gas stove in their restaurant exploded. Their remains were found in the fire debris later that day. Charles' children were out of town visiting their grandparents.

Members of Charles' family reported he was active in the Ku Klux Klan, which had about 8,000 members in Madison County at the time. According to his family, he had received a threatening letter about his Klan activities and was considering selling the restaurant so he could leave town. "It was a case of sell out and go away or lose his life." In fact, Charles Neathery had sold his restaurant to Walter Loarts the day before the fire, according to an article in The Edwardsville Intelligencer.

The investigation into the fire lasted several months. State and local fire marshals were never able to determine the cause of the blaze. During the March 1924 term, the grand jury determined no murder had occurred. The foreman stated, "We have wasted a lot of time investigating this fire but there is absolutely nothing on which to base an indictment charging murder. Probably it is for the best that the fire was taken up and the public will be more satisfied."

[1] Ada "Addie" Wells and Edward Grotz married 22 September 1890 in St. Clair County, Illinois. Addie had one daughter Jessie Helms in 1883. After her marriage to Edward, Jessie used the Grotz surname. She later married a Mr. Thies.

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