Alfred Rigual’s confession seven years after he started the fire that destroyed the J.W. Wells Lumber Co, and for a time threatened the entire north end of Menominee, brought closure to an arson mystery that haunted not only this community, but several others in the Upper Peninsula. The Wells blaze burst out April 13, 1931, and terrified the town for 24 hours before a relieved Fire Chief L.C. Collins informed townspeople that the inferno was under control.

Arson was suspected from the time weary firefighters turned off their hoses, packed up their equipment and left the sprawling premises of destruction for a well-deserved rest while fire units and volunteers from neighboring towns stood watch over the smoking ruins and smoldering embers. The spring season was dry and the earth and its holdings were parched from the drought-like conditions.

While the Wells fire and the suspicion of arson attracted most of the attention in the U.P. and Northeastern Wisconsin, several other major fires had quizzical beginnings, including Catholic churches in Iron Mountain and Flat Rock.

Sheriff Edward J. Reindl, who went on to become the longest serving sheriff in the U.S. during his 42-year tenure, was generally credited with breaking the case wide open. Michigan State Police and sheriffs in Delta and Dickinson counties also participated in the arson investigations.

A major fire swept through the Wallace area on the same night of the Wells sea of flames, inflicting more than$112,000 in property damage. Hot embers from coal-fired railroad engines dropping along the rail tracks and igniting the shriveled grass and brush were blamed for some of the numerous fires breaking out in the region. Still, arson was suspected in others.

Rigual was under questioning in Delta County in connection with other fires when Sheriff Reindl was given per-mission to take the suspect to Menominee to be interrogated on the Wells fire. The Miranda warning didn’t come along until the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1963. Under intense questioning in three different counties, and no Miranda law for protection, I’m not sure how Rigual’s defense would have played out under today’s standards.

The suspect didn’t only confess to setting the Menominee fire, but several others in the U.P. when questioned by Reindl.

Rigual said he watched the fire burn at Wells for about 10 minutes, then hitched a ride on a passing freight train and continued to watch the flames from his position in a boxcar. He told the sheriff he came to Menominee on the night of April 12 (Sunday), 1931. He used his standard method of transportation by riding a boxcar here. The central rail system snaked through the city to the railroad depot on State Street (7th), across from Esser Paint & Glass Co.

Rigual said he visited a coffee shop near the depot where he bought coffee and a doughnut. The eatery was operated by Joe and Ella Landre. Rigual said he then went to a freight car parked on a side track at the train station, and went to sleep. He was spotted by a city policeman who advised him to walk the one block to the county jail and ask for lodging for the night. He said the officer walked him to the Ogden Avenue (10th Avenue) crossing and then continued on his night patrol.

Once the police officer was out of sight, Rigual said he walked the tracks to the Wells company property about 10 blocks to the north. He went to a boxcar loaded with sawdust in the lumber yard, setting the time at approximately 11 p.m. He said he spread paper on the sawdust in the rail car and was approached by two young men. He told the sheriff the unidentified young men encouraged him “to come with them” and threatened him if he didn’t start a fire. He estimated the young men to be in the 19-21 age group, small in size, about 5-feet-6 and 150 pounds. In questioning about other fires in the U.P., Rigual also men-ioned being threatened “by other men” if he didn’t start a fire.

“So I set the fire to this paper inside the boxcar and I jumped out of the car onto the ground,” Rigual told the Menominee sheriff. “As I did, paper stuck to my shoes and I kicked the paper over by the lumber shed. The buildings caught fire and also the boxcar.”

The suspect took the sheriff to the railroad station and walked the route he took to reach the Wells property. After describing how he ignited the fire, Rigual said he could “hear bells and sirens of fire trucks” as he began to exit the sizable lumber company territory. He explained he could see a “glow in the sky” as he headed north out of the city on a freight car.

He told the sheriff he carried a tin can of kitchen matches with him when he traveled about so he could light his pipe. When the sheriff asked the suspect if he had a grudge against the company, the man replied he had worked one day for the company at one of its lumber camps in Delta County, but quit because he didn’t like the work or the job foreman.

“I’m not sorry the mill burned, but I was sorry when I read in the paper that those horses (21 of them) had burned,” he told the sheriff. He said he returned to Menominee six months later to inspect the fire site.

Rigual said he was born in France in 1887 and came to the U.S. in 1899. He worked in a foundry in Pontiac, Mich., where he became attracted to fires. He indicated he settled in Escanaba in 1915. According to Reindl, Rigual told him his father, August, had started a fire in France that destroyed a village. He said his father later hanged himself.

County Prosecutor F. Earl Lanthier indicated he needed more than the man’s confession to go to trial. Circuit Judge Frank Bell said he was willing to allow the process to work its way out in Delta County before taking the next step.

Rigual entered a not guilty plea on Jan. 9, 1939. Attorney G.W. Strom of Gladstone was appointed to defend him. The defense moved toward a temporary insanity plea. The defendant told Delta authorities he preferred to be sent to the Camp Custer Veterans Hospital in Lower Michigan.

Judge Bell presided at Rigual’s jury trial in January 1939 in Delta County. A jury of eight men and four women found Rigual guilty of insanity. Compelling testimony came from three Escanaba physicians who considered the defendant to be “a dangerous pyromaniac.” One physician testified Rigual “would not be able to resist set-ting the fires.”

Rigual was sentenced to the Michigan State Prison for the Criminally Insane at Ionia.