successful fires

Mon Jun 5 22:21:36 UTC 2000

Some months ago I walked down Broadway heading for the NYCity
Archives.  I crossed Canal St. just as the fire dept. was stowing its
gear after putting out a fire in a low and rather ratty looking
builidng that's somewhat of a landmark in the area, since it housed
"Pearl River", a Chinese department store.  Later that day I
overheard a couple of guys talking who had heard a news report on the
fire and were speculating as to where exactly it had been.  I told
them what I had seen, and they placed the building immediately.  Then
I said, "It looked like a pretty successful fire."  They both smiled
and nodded and added a few similar pleasantries, showing that they
were New Yorkers of the old breed.  My father never passed a burned
building without giving it a connoisseur's eye and pronouncing it "a
successful fire" or otherwise.

In the next few days I did a random but unscientific sampling of
friends.  The general results were that the young people I know
didn't know the phrase, and the non-New Yorkers didn't know it
either.  My wife, who's my age but was born to respectable parents in
southwestern Pennsylvania, tells me that she had never heard it until
she came to the big city and began consorting with low company, such
as me and my father.  Actually, I only asked two New Yorkers of my
own age.  One, when I asked him if he used or recognized the phrase,
immediately said "The old Jewish lightning, eh?"  He was born and
raised in the Bronx, and is as Irish as Paddy's pig.(1)  I was
surprised that the other, born and raised in Brooklyn, I believe, and
as Jewish as -- but I don't know a parallel expression -- didn't know
it.  Does any one out there use it?

Whether RHHDAS, vol. 3, will have "successful fire" is hidden in the
mists of time.  It does not have "Jewish lightning" among its
phrases beginning with the word "Jewish".

I have been sitting on this note until I could get my hands on Jenna
Weissman Joselit's book "Our Gang: Jewish Crime and the New York
Jewish Community," (Bloomington: Indiana U. Pr., 1983,) since I
thought I remembered that she had reproduced a relevant cartoon.  Her
discussion of arson as a tool of business management is on pp. 36-39.
 It begins "Of all the offenses commonly associated with New York
Jews, arson, or "Jewish lightning," as it was popularly called,
received the most attention."  (pp. 36-37)  She does not give a
printed contemporary source for "Jewish lightning".  The cartoon
turned out to be from Puck and undated, and not directly relevant
with regards the expression.  It had been captioned "Adding Insult to
Injury"; frame #1 showed members of a volunteer fire company in a
businessman's office, asking him to contribute toward the purchase of
a new fire engine.  In frame #2, the businessman, ("Mr. Burnupski")
throws an inkwell and a bottle at the fleeing firemen.  The caption
is: "Mr. Burnupski (excitedly)  So hellup me Fadder Abram!  Asks me
to hellup dem puy a new undt more bowerful engine ven der oldt von
put oudt four fires in mein store in der last six months!"

For the benefit of those of you who are young, or respectable, or not
New Yorkers, I will explain that the expression carries a cynical
imputation that the fire had been started on purpose, in order to
collect on the fire insurance.  The more completely the building was
destroyed, the more "successful" the fire.

(1)  I admit to never having heard spoken the expression "as Irish as
Paddy's pig", and to having seen it only once, in a book from the
late 1920s about low life in NYC.  A very major gambler and criminal
power-broker and financier named Arnold Rothstein had been murdered.
An Irish-born cleaning woman who worked in the hotel where Rothstein
was last alive said that she had seen him talking to a man she
described as "a big feller, and as Irish as Paddy's pig".  The cops,
reasoning shrewdly, thought that the description was not
inappropriate for George McManus, who was considerably taller than 6
feet and who was on poor terms with Rothstein.  Nothing came of this.
 Rothstein's murder generated a lot of heat but even more pressure to
cover it up, and covered up it was.


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