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Arson case recalled in Montgomery

By Staff | Mar 10, 2020

CINDY KNIER/The Luminary During the February Third Thursday program, speaker Don Smith provided information regarding an 1898 arson case in Montgomery. The arsonist was named Henry Nuss and three of his descendants met and shared geneaology. Gordy Foote points to a picture which interests distant cousin Darla Wright, formerly of Montgomery, while Steve Foote listens in the background. The Footes are brothers, both living within a stone’s throw of each other’s residences in South Williamsport.

When multi-media wizard Don Smith visited the Montgomery Area Historical Society last month, he brought along with him a fascinating presentation involving the town. Ranging from the Revolutionary period to the age of Star Trek, Smith’s program revolved around an arson which occurred in 1898.

Smith is a comic book writer, author, speaker and host originating from Hawthorne, New Jersey, having recently settled in Williamsport. While conducting research for an unrelated article on a newspaper archive website, Smith encountered the arson case. Intrigued, he began to dig deeper into the archives, which eventually led to a published article in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette in early January. That article caught the attention of historical society members; Smith was contacted and asked to speak at the February event-his first-before a crowd of 30.

The following article, written by Smith, appeared in the Sun-Gazette:

It was on the night of July 7, 1898 that a Montgomery resident George Decker – sometimes called Henry – saw “three men emerge from the cellar of the (Opera House) and run down street” the Harrisburg Daily Independent said on July 9, 1898.

Decker went to check on the opera house and, to his horror, found “the building on fire in three different places.”

The Northumberland County Democrat said, in the Sept. 1, 1898 issue, that thanks to the residents and firefighters and their “hard work was the building saved.”

This had not been the first time that Decker had been threatened.

“An attempt to burn the building was also made on the night of July 3rd (four nights previous). Three years ago when Decker erected the building and started a meat market therein, he was notified in an anonymous letter to quit business or he would be burned out. A week later an attempt was made to burn the place,” the Harrisburg Daily Independent said.

Sometime in between late July and early August of 1898, a Philadelphia man arrived in Montgomery. His name was Francis Dimaio, he was a 24-year-old man who had been asked by A.A. Estin to investigate the fire.

Estin, according the Dec. 8, 1898 issue of the Northumberland County Democrat, was “a district superintendent of the Pinkerton Detective Agency at Philadelphia.”

The Pinkertons were started in 1850 by Scotsman Allan Pinkerton. He coined the term “private eye” and his organization acted as the Federal Bureau Investigations, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Secret Service, long before those agencies existed.

While in Montgomery, Dimaio would meet the family of Henry F. Nuss.

According to the Pennsylvania, Prison, Reformatory, and Workhouse Records, 1829-1971, Nuss was a 56-year-old laborer and veteran of the Civil War. He was a private who had served in Company F of the First Pennsylvania Regiment.

Many online records, show he had been married twice and had several children and one of them was 28-year-old Leroy, who had been born in 1870.

LeRoy Nuss ended up befriending Dimaio.

Dimaio, as was said in the Sept. 1, 1898 issue of the Northumberland County Democrat, “worked himself into the confidence of the Nusses by going fishing with them and in various other ways.” They talked, and he listened.

Even Estin arrived from Philadelphia to join in on the investigation.

“Henry Nuss had confessed to him that he was the author of a certain anonymous threatening letter which Decker had received,” the same Northumberland newspaper reported on Dec. 8.

When the two had collected enough evidence, Henry and LeRoy Nuss were arrested, along with sister Matilda, who was sometimes identified as Julia in the newspapers.

“The little village of Montgomery was thrown into a furor of excitement Tuesday (Aug. 30) over the arrest of Henry F. Nuss, LeRoy Nuss and Julia Nuss, father, brother and sister, respectively charged with arson,” a writer for the “Northumberland County Democrat” said on Sept. 1st.

In the Oct. 25, 1898 issue of The Danville Morning News, it was mentioned that Henry Nuss “who is at present incarcerated in the Williamsport jail is becoming insane from brooding over the affair.”

He had his day in court when in December of 1898, he appeared before Judge Metzger with LeRoy and Matilda.

During the trial, Dimaio explained how LeRoy detailed “how the building was set on fire. (LeRoy Nuss) also told him that he and his father were going to work a dynamite plan on Mr. Decker,” said the Northumberland paper on Dec. 8.

“They were going to put dynamite under the front of the building and blow it up,” Dimaio testified.

Fortunately, for Matilda, it was found she was an “ignorant accomplice” and she was “discharged from custody.”

As for the “why?”of it all, the Northumberland County Democrat reported, in the Dec. 8 edition, that Decker would be in trouble if “he did not restore a certain house to an old soldier, his building (the opera house) would be blown up.”

The defense did attempt a rebuttal but it proved unsuccessful.

The Call of Schuylkill Haven, reported on Dec. 10, that the jury deliberated for three hours “rendered a verdict of guilty” for the charge of arson. On Dec. 9, 1898, The Lewisburg Journal reported that Judge Metzger sentenced Henry and LeRoy Nuss to “three and a half years in the Eastern penitentiary for attempting to burn down the Montgomery Opera House.”

As to what happened to the Nuss family, a search of Find-A-Grave confirms that a Henry F. Nuss, an American Civil War veteran lived from 1843 until 1924. He is buried in the Fairview Cemetery in Montgomery. Find-A-Grave does have a listing for a LeRoy Lester Nuss who lived from 1870 until 1951 is buried in the same cemetery in Montgomery. However both Henry and Lester’s names were not linked in the family sibling section.

As for the opera house, it would continue to be a place for rallies, entertainment and get-togethers. However, president of the historical society Larry Stout explained the opera house is no longer standing. He said it was located where a parking lot is now today which is next to a former Baptist church.

On a final historical note, in 1905, Dimaio would make further history as he went to South America to arrest famed outlaw Butch Cassidy. However, due to weather conditions and friends loyal to Cassidy, Dimaio did not succeed.

According to “The American Mafia” internet site, found at Mob-Who.Blogpsot.com, Dimaio “lived to a ripe old age, (and retired) to a hotel in Delaware” and died at the age of 94 in 1958.