February 28: Fire & Murder – Edward Malley’s Very Worst Winter


February 1882 was not a very good month for New Haven businessman Edward Malley. The ambitious son of Irish immigrants, Malley had worked his way up from selling assorted dry goods to Elm City residents out of his aunt’s front parlor to purchasing a modest storefront on Chapel Street in 1852, making home deliveries on a mule-pulled cart. Within four years, Malley’s dry goods shop had expanded to a three-story department store that employed 100 people. By the 1870s, Malley’s department store was hailed as “one of the largest in New England,” and the Malley family was one of the wealthiest in town.

On the morning of February 28, 1882, however, Malley awoke to the news that his now extensive department store complex was completely engulfed in flames. A night watchman had spotted flames coming from the rear of the main building at 4:00am and sounded the alarm. The flames spread quickly, however, and ended up destroying Malley’s entire store. It was the second time Malley’s department store had caught fire in seven years. Newspapers across the country reported the event and set the loss at $175,000 (several million dollars in today’s money).

The Edw. Malley Co. store, before being damaged by the first of two late 19th century fires, circa 1871. (New Haven Museum)

News of his store’s total destruction only compounded what was already a difficult month for the immigrant turned department store magnate. At the same time his business was burning, his son and nephew were sitting in jail, awaiting trial for the sensational murder of Jennie Cramer, a beautiful young New Haven girl. In its report on the fire, the New York Times noted that Edward Malley had paid “large sums already to aid the [accused] boys in their defense” — including hiring several private detectives. The paper speculated that the loss of his department store might hinder his efforts to clear their names at their upcoming trial.

Though the Malley boys were eventually found not guilty of murdering Jennie Cramer by arsenic poisoning, the Malley family would face accusations of bribery and witness tampering for years. Malley’s department store, however, eventually fully recovered. Malley’s went on to be an icon of shopping in New Haven through much of the 20th century, despite the worst winter ever for one of New Haven’s wealthiest and most famous families, today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Downtown Tour: The Edw. Malley Co.” Walk New Haven

Jennie Cramer – New Haven’s “Beautiful Victim” of 1881,” New England Historical Society

Edward Malley’s Store Burned [1882],New York Times archives