The Arsonist Was a Scholar
By Kim Clarke
He was at worst emotionally unstable. He was sort of a ‘lone duck,’ living all by himself.– Warren E. Blake, classical studies professor
Chapter 1 The Accused
From his jail cell in downtown Ann Arbor, 30-year-old Robert H. Stacy put pen to paper and tried to explain himself to the president of the University of Michigan.
He was, he wrote, being falsely accused of setting a fire unlike anything U-M or Ann Arbor had seen in years. The destruction of Haven Hall was a malicious act of arson, but not one he committed. And as he awaited trial, the University of Michigan – the place where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and now taught as a doctoral student – had abandoned Stacy when he most needed support.
“I should like to say that never before have I felt as I do now the distance between myself and the College and University I have attended for eight years,” Stacy wrote in neat print to President Alexander Ruthven. “Although perhaps I do not deserve one, I cannot claim an Alma Mater.”
He wanted Ruthven to know two things: First, he was wholly innocent. And second, regardless of a jury’s verdict, his life’s goal of becoming a college professor was “all but destroyed.”
Stacy would be proven wrong on both counts.
Chapter 2 The Fire
Veo G. Foster was wrapping up another day as a librarian working in the Natural Science Building. It was the late afternoon of June 6, 1950, and final exams were in full bloom. As the 51-year-old employee prepared to leave the library and campus for home, her eyes were drawn to the east and the neighboring Chemistry Building. The windows of the four-story brick building shimmered with black and orange. Realizing she was seeing a reflection, Foster quickly looked to the west. “Then we rushed to the corner and saw the fire in Haven Hall at full height,” she recalled. “The whole building looked like a huge furnace.”
Haven Hall, one of the oldest buildings on campus, was burning to the ground.
Constructed during the Civil War, the building was the first home for the Law School. It sat at the northwest corner of the campus, and became headquarters for several LSA departments in 1933, when the Law School completed its move to the new Law Quadrangle at the opposite end of campus.
By the summer of 1950, Haven Hall – named for U-M’s second president, Erastus O. Haven – housed the History, Journalism and Sociology departments, as well as the Bureau of Government and the Institute of Public Administration. As Veo Foster and her colleagues watched, the property of all those programs was now being incinerated.
Amazingly, students raced up the building’s exterior fire escapes, climbed through windows and grabbed anything they could. Forming a human chain, they passed armloads of books and papers in an effort to save the materials. Even as dozens of Ann Arbor firefighters poured water on the fire, soaked students ferried materials from the burning building. Journalism students dragged typewriters and teletype machines onto the lawn. Others helped firemen with the 10 hoses trained on the flames.
“If it hadn’t been for the students,” the fire chief said later, “there’s no telling how far the fire might have gone.”
To the south of Haven Hall, firemen poured water on Angell Hall to prevent it from catching fire. Across the way, at the Natural Science Building, Veo Foster and others watched as embers landed on the roof of their building. Small fires erupted. Foster and others grabbed empty jars, filled them with water and flung them at the flames. Two students joined her in breaking open the cabinet of an emergency fire hose. “I jerked lengths of hose out of the container,” she said, “while the boys sprayed the roof, soaking it well all around the fire.”
Upward of 20,000 people crowded around North University and State Street to watch the spectacle. The building was a total loss.
Chapter 3 The Losses
No one died in the Haven Hall fire. But academic careers were seriously injured.
Hours after the fire was extinguished, and shortly before firemen shooed him away, Professor Dwight L. Dumond poked through the charred remains of his second-floor office. A Civil War historian, the 54-year-old Dumond was deep into researching the American anti-slavery movement for what he envisioned as a two-volume history.
The fire ravaged his work. Flames ruined 500 rare anti-slavery pamphlets, along with 600 photographs and negatives documenting antebellum life (“completely destroyed”). Water destroyed 400 books about the Civil War, many of them out of print. Also gone were 5,000 bibliography cards of sources supporting Dumond’s research. “These were rendered completely useless by water. Many were burned. All must be re-copied,” he wrote.
Elsewhere in the History Department, Palmer A. Throop, an associate professor, absorbed a similar blow. For 10 years he had studied and researched the Renaissance, traveling to Italy and developing a method of cultural analysis that drew upon the disciplines of social psychology and cultural anthropology. A manuscript was nearly complete, and an upcoming sabbatical would provide time for the finishing touches on his book, which several publishers were awaiting. Now, it was gone, every page consumed by flames. Throop’s loss was deemed the worst among numerous faculty who saw their research obliterated.
In the Sociology Department, on the first and third floors, the story was repeated. “There are so many personal tragedies, it’s difficult to enumerate them,” said Professor Theodore Newcomb. “Nearly everyone in our department lost his entire personal library.”
What fire didn’t devour, water destroyed: Bookcases, chairs, magazines, lamps, desks, typewriters, flower pots, posters, filing chests. In a time before hard drives and cloud storage, the loss of anything committed to paper was irretrievable. Graduate students lost dissertations. Undergrads learned that bluebooks and term papers submitted hours earlier were reduced to ash and soggy pulp.
And then there was the Bureau of Government Library, housed on the second floor and a recognized national resource for anyone studying or teaching public policy. A repository of books and one-of-a-kind pamphlets and reports about municipal government, the collection had been built up by chief librarian Ione Dority over the course of nearly two decades. It took all of an afternoon of fire and water to destroy the library’s 20,000 volumes.
“It will be necessary to replace thousands of volumes which have long been out of print and an even greater number of documents, many of them from municipalities and state agencies which will find it difficult to supply copies,” reported Library Director Warner Rice. As for the library’s future, “it may take years to restore it to its former level of excellence and utility.”
That Haven Hall went up in flames surprised few. University officials knew the building was one of nearly a dozen fire traps on campus. “Remove this building and replace with a fireproof structure as this building is a serious fire hazard,” the state fire inspector had told U-M in 1947.
What no one knew was how the Haven Hall fire started. The Ann Arbor fire chief said the cause would probably never be known.
While wrecking crews razed the skeleton of the building in the summer of 1950 and U-M officials moved forward with plans for a new building with the same name, graduate student Robert Stacy took a break from his studies to visit an old girlfriend on Cape Cod. He had something to tell her.
There are so many personal tragedies, it’s difficult to enumerate them.– Theodore Newcomb, professor of sociology
Chapter 4 The Student
Robert Stacy came to the University of Michigan via New York state and Cornell University. He was born and raised in Manhattan, and lived with his parents and younger brother. When his mother died when he was 15, Stacy was dispatched by his father to live with an aunt and uncle in Gowanda, at the western end of the state; his brother moved in with different relatives in a different town. Robert transferred to Gowanda High School as a junior, and did best in Latin, French and history classes. As a graduating senior in 1938, he wanted to study literature in college.
Cornell offered him a partial scholarship and Stacy left Gowanda for Ithaca. But he was unable to afford the balance of his tuition and dropped out in his first semester.
When he applied to Michigan in the spring of 1939, Stacy was 19 and working part-time at a grocery back in Gowanda. Where the U-M application asked, Are you planning to become a teacher?, Stacy scribbled, “Yes, College Professor.” He provided a reference letter from the grocer, who wrote: “He is most willing and able worker, honest, steady and faithful. We feel very safe in highly recommending him to you.”
There were other references, from teachers and administrators at Gowanda High. Robert, they all agreed, was an accomplished student with great potential. College, they said, could bring out the best in him.
But there were red flags, too, in the recommendations. Stacy was overly emotional and anti-social, his teachers cautioned. He thought too highly of himself.
“Robert is brilliant but apt to get depressed easily. He likes and does well with independent activity but is irritated by too much conformity,” wrote high school principal Harold Hoffman. He described Stacy as “quite moody at times.”
Another teacher said Stacy was courteous and “reasonably” cooperative, but lacked social skills. “He always impressed me as being a boy with ability worth developing, but one who was difficult to reach because he tended to withdraw into himself much of the time,” wrote history teacher Richard Leonard. “I have long felt that an appreciation of people is a quality he most needs to develop.”
The most heartfelt recommendation came from Aileen Wynne Foster, who had Stacy in several of her French classes. After checking off boxes indicating Stacy could be apathetic and disengaged, she wanted to explain herself. “Robert is an excellent student, but is so to the exclusion of social contacts. He prefers to shut himself in a room with his books. His moodiness and erratic ways are, I believe, due to an abnormal background.”
She and other teachers noted Stacy’s difficult childhood, but did not know the details. (Stacy’s father would commit suicide in May 1939, two months after his son applied to U-M; he had been under treatment for depression at a state-run mental health hospital for two years.) Foster said the aunt and uncle raising Stacy were “utterly baffled by Robert’s repulse of their efforts to make him more sociable.”
“He seems lonely and needs companionship, and yet shuts people away from him,” Foster wrote. “I’m sure as far as studies go, you will be proud of him as a student of Michigan.”
I have long felt that an appreciation of people is a quality he most needs to develop.– Richard Leonard, high school teacher
Chapter 5 The Confession
As his high school teachers predicted, Stacy excelled as an undergraduate. He was inducted into Phi Eta Sigma, the freshman honor society, and continued as an honors student until leaving campus in 1942 to enlist in World War II. As a master sergeant, he worked in military intelligence interpreting aerial photographs. He was discharged in 1945 and immediately returned to Ann Arbor and his studies. By 1947, he held bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Latin.
As a graduate student, Stacy was repeatedly awarded teaching fellowships, as well as a prestigious predoctoral fellowship from the Rackham School. It was also as a graduate student that he began dating Zelda Clarkson. She was seven years his senior, a nurse and part-time U-M student. He was in his late 20s, working on a doctorate in classical studies and teaching English to U-M freshmen. They were both Army veterans; she had served with the Nurse Corps and he was stationed in England.
Their relationship was tempestuous. Once, after an argument, Stacy tried to break into Clarkson’s home and was arrested after she called police. A psychiatrist said Stacy needed treatment, not jail time, and he was given a suspended sentence. Clarkson repeatedly rejected marriage proposals and broke off the relationship, but Stacy continued to bother her with phone calls and letters. Stacy, she said, “watched my every move.” She eventually moved out of state.
When Stacy showed up at her home in Provincetown, Mass., in the summer of 1950, she was an art student and he was an uninvited guest. Clarkson told Stacy she was dating a man she planned to marry. “He was so upset, I was frankly frightened,” she later testified. Stacy retorted by saying he had set fire to a building on campus. The Haven Hall fire. When she asked him why, Stacy said it was “to relieve the tension.”
Clarkson reported Stacy’s confession to local police, but nothing happened. When she moved back to Michigan in the fall of 1950, Stacy again stalked her. She petitioned an Ann Arbor judge to have him admitted to a psychiatric hospital, saying he not only threatened her life but also confessed to the Haven Hall fire.
Ann Arbor police arrested Stacy on Oct. 10, 1950, four months after the Haven fire. Between the fire and his arrest, he had registered for fall coursework and started teaching classical studies to undergraduates. After his arrest and an all-night interrogation, he confessed to torching Haven Hall by dropping a match into a pile of old maps on the building’s second floor. He also told of setting several small fires on and near campus – in Alumni Memorial Hall, in the University Library, at the First United Methodist Church – and to stealing purses from local schools, churches and U-M buildings over the past year. The purse snatchings, police said, were out of spite; Stacy confessed he did not like seeing happy people, and stealing was a way “to take it out on them.”
Professor Warren E. Blake was stunned by the arrest. He had supervised Stacy as a teaching fellow for Latin and Greek classes, and called him “a brilliant student.”
“He was at worst emotionally unstable,” Blake told the Michigan Daily. “He was sort of a ‘lone duck,’ living all by himself.”
Chapter 6 The Trial
Robert Stacy said he had been on the second floor of the Rackham Building, reading the work of Horace, when the Haven Hall fire broke out. “Unfortunately … I could not remember distinctly any persons who were also there, nor, evidently, did any remember me.”
After he was jailed, Stacy attempted suicide. He tried to throw himself down a seven-story stairwell before his arraignment and, later that same day, was found hanging unconscious from a knotted shirt in his jail cell. A guard revived him.
He repeatedly proclaimed he was innocent and his police confession coerced. He told anyone he could: his public defender, the Michigan Daily, the judge at his trial, and President Ruthven. The police interrogation was endless – “I was not allowed to rest or sleep during the night and had very little to eat.” Police forced him to confront Zelda Clarkson and the humiliation of being rejected as a suitor. “I was physically and mentally exhausted and emotionally upset from facing Miss Clarkson, so I attempted to commit suicide,” he told the Daily.
At no time did he deny his summertime confession to Clarkson. But in his letter from jail, he told Ruthven his case was one of “guilt where guilt does not in reality exist – especially in cases like mine in which the accused is not only ill, but has actually been under psychiatric treatment.”
“Although this situation has arisen out of, and is the culmination of, several years of severe emotional strain, during which time I sought help from various quarters, including doctors connected with the University Hospital; and although at first, after my arrest, I had not even the desire to live, much less defend myself,” he told Ruthven, “I am now sufficiently recovered to be at least aware of the consequences of my behavior, and intend, with competent counsel, to fight, not only for my own defense, but in order that justice shall be done.”
He asked Ruthven to conduct “an impartial, independent investigation of the facts in these cases of arson.”
Instead, Stacy’s felony charge of arson was left to a jury of nine women and three men and a three-day trial. Zelda Clarkson was the prosecution’s star witness (“I always felt he was ill”), as was a student who testified she saw a man resembling Stacy in Haven Hall shortly before the fire. A psychiatrist said he found Stacy competent and intelligent. “He couldn’t understand why he should do this (set the fire). ‘I did it just as easy as if I had taken a cup of coffee,’” said Dr. O. Ray Yoder.
The defense called no witnesses. “The very best you can conclude from the testimony presented by the state is a suspicion that the fire was set. In my opinion, that suspicion is far short of proof,” said Stacy’s attorney, Leonard H. Young.
After deliberating less than four hours, the jury found Robert Harold Stacy guilty. He was a week shy of his 31st birthday. The judge sentenced him to serve 5-10 years at the Southern Michigan Prison at Jackson.
On the day he was being transferred to prison – Jan. 12, 1951 – Stacy again tried to end his life. Jail guards, believing his recent behavior to be good, had given him a razor blade for shaving; Stacy used it to cut his wrists. Later that day, he arrived at Jackson with bandaged arms to become inmate number 76125. Prison officials recorded his occupation: Student.
Chapter 7 The Prisoner
Robert Stacy spent six years and six months in prison. He taught classes and wrote a column – “Of Prisons and Prisoners” – for a newspaper published weekly by inmates. He invoked Latin proverbs. He reviewed and quoted books on penology and American justice. He wrote of that “rather rare and pitiful bird” – the prisoner who wants to lead a good life and is mocked by both inmates and society for the attempt.
“… [P]rison, as it exists today, is hardly the place for achieving emotional stability, but, assuming that this desideratum is accomplished, it is with these comparatively few individuals who have been, so to speak, ‘purified through suffering,’ that the public must concern itself,” he wrote in 1955. “They are worth saving.”
He was paroled from Jackson in June 1957, seven years after the Haven Hall fire. In Ann Arbor, a new Haven Hall was home to LSA departments and classrooms. The site of the fire and old Haven Hall stood empty, grown over with grass and crisscrossed with student paths, as it does today, nearly 70 years later.
Stacy would never see U-M again. Instead, he moved to Syracuse in western New York state, where he began a new life at a new university.
Chapter 8 The Professor
On a late fall day in 1994, Robert Stacy left his home and went for a morning walk. He was 74 years old and, since his service in World War II, never had driven a car. He either walked or used public transportation to get around. Stepping outside for a long walk was not unusual, despite failing health and a drinking problem.
Given his plans for the day, he may have taken time to think back on his life. For 35 years, he’d made a home and career in Syracuse. After leaving prison and Michigan, he’d been hired by Syracuse University in 1958 in what was known as the East European Language Program. Here, he worked with servicemen in the U.S. Air Force, teaching and editing Russian. The Cold War was intensifying and the Air Force had turned to universities to assist in the fight against communism by learning the enemy’s language.
In addition to teaching, Stacy finished at Syracuse what he had started at Michigan: his doctorate. He would receive a Ph.D. in humanities in 1965 and join Syracuse’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literature. As a newly minted assistant professor of Russian literature, he was an experienced teacher of Latin, Greek and English, and holder of two degrees from the University of Michigan. Every biography made a point of his Ann Arbor diplomas. His Ann Arbor conviction was a specter.
(When he was awaiting trial in 1950, Stacy professed the “highest respect” for U-M. “I have spent, not only the most interesting years at the University, but, in many ways, my most important years.”)
For 20 years he did the work of a scholar: Teaching, research, writing. He published journal articles and several books. The content was dense – “A Note on a Type of Hendiadys in Technical Russian” and “Defamiliarization in Language and Literature.” He rose to become chairman of a new Slavic Department before retiring in 1985, and then gave occasional lectures in the community about Russian literature and writers.
And he found a life’s companion, a woman he first met in 1959 in the East European Language Program, where she was a translator. They married after her first husband died in 1971, and lived life in a village outside of Syracuse. They often took walks together.
It was Stacy’s wife and adult stepchildren who called police when he did not return from his day’s walk in November 1994. Rescuers searched through the night, on foot and from the air. More than 24 hours after Stacy left home, hunters found his body some six miles away, deep in woods near the old Erie Canal. An autopsy would reveal he overdosed on medication for a heart condition. He left no note.
He rose to become chairman of a new Slavic Department before retiring in 1985.
Chapter 9 Today
Stacy’s books on Russian literature and literary criticism can be found on the shelves of the Hatcher Graduate Library, a place he undoubtedly wandered as a student. The same library holds Professor Dwight Dumond’s epic Antislavery: The Crusade For Freedom in America, an award-winning book that Dumond wrote despite the devastating loss of research materials consumed by the Haven Hall fire. In it, Dumond forcefully demonstrated that slavery and racism, not economics, were the driving forces of the Civil War. It was a bombshell published in 1961 as the civil rights movement was taking hold.
One book missing from the Graduate Library is Palmer Throop’s study of the Renaissance. On the evening of the Haven Hall fire, realizing his near-finished manuscript was destroyed, he vowed to begin anew. He had the full backing of LSA Dean Hayward Keniston, who supported time away from campus for Throop to regroup. “Mr. Throop has shown a very fine spirit in the face of this tragedy, involving the work of an entire decade, and has courageously indicated that he will at once begin to rewrite the book.”
But Throop never published on the Renaissance, or any other topic, after the fire. His book was as much a phantom as was Robert Stacy’s history once he arrived at Syracuse.
Stacy – professor, department chair, husband and stepfather – told no one the truth about his previous life and apparently no one asked.
Nina Fedoroff is Stacy’s stepdaughter and an accomplished scientist at Penn State University. She is a National Medal of Science laureate who served as science adviser to two secretaries of state: Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. And she is baffled after learning of Stacy’s past.
“I just am curious whether my mother ever knew. My guess is that by that time, he’d buried it so effectively that he wasn’t going to share it with anybody,” she says today. “We’re left with a certain mystery about whether he actually did this or not. … It’s lost in the mists of time.”
Pyromania, while rare and complicated, typically afflicts men with no social skills who say setting fires helps relieve anxiety or tension, or to exact revenge. Why Stacy confessed to his former girlfriend, and to police, can never be known; it may have been to impress or because of duress. There was never any physical evidence connecting him to the Haven Hall fire. Also left to ponder is why, from jail, he wrote to President Ruthven, “no one but myself is directly responsible for the present situation. I have not, nor do I intend to, come weeping to others for a painless salvation; it is too late for that.”
Fedoroff says Stacy was different – she uses the words “a weird character” and “a peculiar man” – but never destructive. “Bob was clearly a very talented linguist and scholar. But it was also quite clear that he was – I wouldn’t have called him mentally disturbed – but he was always an odd person,” she says. “He did not have an easy way with people.”
It does not surprise her to learn that Stacy’s high school teachers used the same descriptions in 1939. “I suspect those personality traits were straight out of his genetic library. I’m a geneticist, and the older I grow, the more I realize that much of what we are is in our genetic makeup.”
She dismisses the notion that his life was a tragic one. Stacy built a successful academic career and a life with her mother, and for more than 20 years they cared for each other.
“It wasn’t a sad story in the end. It was a little sad that he was so closed that he couldn’t communicate his distress. He was very depressed at the end. But it could have been for physical reasons and it could have been his meds.
“He got a Ph.D. and became a professor – that was really quite remarkable.”
Note: If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
The writer is grateful to Nina Fedoroff for her insights about Robert Stacy. Many of the sources for this story can be found at the U-M Bentley Historical Library, including: Alumni Files; the Alexander G. Ruthven Papers; College of Literature, Science, and the Arts records; Ann Arbor Fire Department records; Marvin Lemmon Niehuss Papers; and University Library records. Additional sources include the Special Collections Research Center of the Syracuse University Libraries, The Michigan Daily, the Ann Arbor News, and other contemporary news accounts.