Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Clukey Fire of 1949

The tragic story of George F. Clukey of Vinegar Road, Scarborough, is part of the eerier fabric of the Town of Scarborough.  Mr. Clukey was a neighbor to my grandparents, Frank and Emily Clarke, who lived around the corner from him on Payne Road.

On March 21, 1949, a terrible fire quickly consumed the single-story Clukey shanty house on Vinegar Road near the Payne Road intersection.  Mrs. Marjorie Clukey and her two daughters had reportedly escaped the blaze in time, but unfortunately, her husband, dump picker and WWII veteran George F. Clukey, perished in the blaze. 

On the evening of the 21st, Mrs. Clukey went to the police immediately after the house fire to file an arson warrant against her husband.  She testified to the police that there had been an altercation, and that George had been flinging kerosene all over the walls in a drunken rage, and that she had run from the house to get away from him, also stating that she didn't see him go back into the house.

Young children later exploring the burned building discovered his charred remains, along with the family dog lying dead next to his head.  George's wife Marjorie (along with her two brothers) identified the body only by witnessing the belt buckle and ring still stuck to the body

The fire left nothing but ash.  Mrs. Clukey and her two children had only the clothes on their backs, and stayed at a neighbor's house.  Mr. Clukey's death was ruled accidental.


My mother (then aged nine), and her parents remembered having been interviewed by police and the local papers not long after the fire.

Two days after the fire, the police arrested neighboring pig farmer Robert B. Curlew for setting the blaze, with the motive of being an "admirer" of Mrs. Clukey.  Mr. Clukey's body was then reexamined for potential evidence of manslaughter.

The suspicion of Mr. Curlew was triggered by none other than Mrs. Clukey, who had claimed she saw Mr. Curlew strike her husband and set fire to the home.  This was contrary to her testimony of the day of the fire whereby she claimed she saw her husband set fire to the home.

In her secondary testimony, she claimed that her husband was angry that Curlew had taken Mrs. Clukey for a ride in his truck to get slab wood, and that the altercation proceeded from there, with Curlew taking a one gallon glass jug of kerosene and hitting Mr. Clukey on the head with it, and then setting the house on fire.  Questioning revealed that Mr. Curlew had a romantic interest in Mrs. Clukey.

After many witnesses and neighbors were questioned, the county attorney obtained testimony that eyewitnesses had seen Curlew arguing with Mr. Clukey outside the Clukey house about an hour before the fire broke out, and that they heard a loud thud, screaming, dog barking, the fire breaking out, and the sound of Mr. Clukey breaking a window and yelling for help.  They also mentioned that Mrs. Clukey had brought her two children over to be watched by a neighbor prior to the argument.  The neighbors didn't help Mr. Clukey escape, since the authorities were not contacted at the time of the fire, but their eyewitness account helped the police determine that the death wasn't a suicide after all, and that Mr. Clukey wasn't likely the one to have committed the violence.

One week after the blaze, on the 28th, Mrs. Clukey was then deemed to be within suspicion of felony charges.  She was questioned repeatedly about the events, and about her recanting of testimony, while the pig farmer remained in jail.  It was at that point that they arrested Mrs. Clukey for being an accomplice to murder.

28 MARCH 1949
Mrs. Clukey's testimony included allegations that her husband had beat and neglected her and her children.  Two years prior, on February 14, 1947, she had filed a warrant charging her husband of non-support of his wife and child, and he was arrested by William Chase of the Scarborough Police.  Quite a Valentine's Day present...

Her testimony further alleged that she had planned the murder with Curlew for several weeks prior to the killing, and that her request for an arson warrant against her husband immediately after the fire was part of the strategy to make the murder look like a suicide.  She also admitted that, as her husband lay there with his head injury and Curlew spread the kerosene around the shack, she regretted her actions and swore to her dying husband that she wouldn't "marry Bobby."

She also admitted that Curlew had begun providing for her and her children months prior to the fire.  She viewed him as a nicer man to whom she was indebted.  The prosecutor in the case insisted, however, that Mrs. Clukey was merely leading Curlew on, giving him false hope of a marriage with her, in the hope that he would assist her with the killing.

Mrs. Clukey was held for a month in jail while awaiting the grand jury decision.  In the meantime, Curlew's case was continued five times, and took several weeks to resolve.  His case didn't come up for two months, not until May 23.  According to the prosecutor, a mere $60 would have paid for the divorce that would have extricated Mrs. Clukey from her marriage.  It's unlikely that she would have been able to afford it, though.  To that end, Curlew reportedly had offered to pay $2 per week for the divorce fund.

The jury in Curlew's case, which was difficult to secure given the popularity of the case and the number of 'talesmen' out there looking to tell lies, was sequestered for two days and nights in the Falmouth Hotel on Middle Street in Portland, as the case continued.  It was believed that the case would go on for at least a week.  Fifteen witnesses were called to testify against Curlew, including Robin and James Clukey (brothers of the deceased), Roy Chandler, Harry and Florence Richardson, and Harold and Louise Moulton, all neighbors of the deceased.

Among the witnesses was Mrs. Clukey herself, who quoted Curlew as saying to her, on the night of the murder "Don't worry about him, if he comes home drunk, you can hit him with a club or a jug or a gun butt and set fire to the place and make it look like a suicide."

The verdict came back quicker than expected.  Bill Curlew was given two to four years in the State prison, while Mrs. Clukey was given two years at the Skowhegan Reformatory.  Marjorie's two daughters were to be raised in foster care.  In 1958, nine years after the murder, Marjorie married Forrest "Boy" Tedford of Portland (originally from VT), and they lived at 92 Danforth Street in the West End.  For some reason they remarried in 1980.  Her husband Boy died in 1990, and Marjorie died in 2003 while living at 128 Grant Street.  It's unclear if she ever reunited with her daughters, or if they perhaps had been given different names due to the scandal.  Mr. Curlew died in 1990.

On Christmas of the year following the murder, George Clukey's parents and siblings posted the following "IN MEMORIAM" in the Portland Press Herald:

In February of 1950, about one year after the murder, the Town of Scarborough seized the Clukey property on the basis of back taxes having been owed since 1947 in the amount of $11.25.

Vinegar Road

As mentioned above, the site of the murder was in Mr. Clukey's shanty home on Vinegar Road in Scarborough.  Around 1800, the road was sardonically given its name due to the vinegar operations of Nehemiah Libby.  Libby had lived on the road (on the property later owned by George Pilsbury) and produced the town's vinegar.   He would use the road to transport his kegs to market, and took ownership of the road in this manner, which was met with much objection from the townspeople.  Those objecting to Libby's ownership of the road began calling it Vinegar Road as a joke (according to Libby Family in America (1881)).

In March of 1951, however, exactly two years after the Clukey murder, the Town of Scarborough elected to extend the road - making it expand from the Saco line to the Payne Road, and also to change the name of the road to "Holmes Road", which was already the name of the other part of the road.  I wonder if this name change was due to the scandal.  Hearsay from a Scarborough resident in 2011 tells the story that a property owner on Vinegar Road at the time had believed their home would be viewed as more valuable if the road's name was changed, but many local residents still referred to it as Vinegar Road for many years afterward.

Copycat Killing?

Shortly after the news of the cause of the fire was published, a Portland woman named Mrs. Madeline Ladrigan of Portland was found burned to death by kerosene in the cabin of woodsman Louis H. O'Brion off the Hardy Road in Falmouth.  The two were having an affair while the woman's husband was in Boston, and were drunk on whiskey and beer.

The Cumberland County Sheriff's office treated the Ladrigan case and the Clukey case as a double investigation.  The Ladrigan case was settled within a week, however, when the autopsy revealed the large amount of liquor consumed, and the kerosene stove having been on since she had been cooking dinner.

Whatever George Clukey did to his wife, he did not deserve to be burned to death.  It's a sad and eerie story, and will always be a part of Scarborough's history.

(formerly part of Vinegar/Holmes Road)



The Libby Family in America

Maine Marriage Records

Maine Birth Records

U.S. WWII Army Enlistment Records

U.S. Census Records

Portland City Directories

Portland Press Herald Newspaper

1 comment:

  1. I remember George Clukey as being a kind person.
    I remember , my sister and I playing outside our home at times when George would walk by, on his way to the store. He always picked up returnable bottles, turn them in at the store, and get penny candy for his two girls, yet always save out two pieces for my sis and me.
    He was always singing along the way, and we thought it was really funny, cause he didn't have a good tone to his voice.
    The fire and all that happened that dreadful night, is all very SAD !!!
    P-nut Clarke