The Korshak Chronicles:

David Korshak Meets the Press

Curator's note: On this page, David Korshak describes his activities as a "hired torch" between 1893 and 1911 and his two flights to foreign lands to evade prosecution (tipped off by his wife Fannie, a private detective named Flannagan located David in London and brought him to New York City where Chicago law enforcement officials took him into custody). David confessed to authorities who granted immunity from prosecution so he could become the star witness (along with his wife) in the state's case against Joseph Fish, a wealthy and socially prominent insurance adjuster. (The photo on the left appeared in the Chicago Daily Journal on June 11th, 1911. The caption claimed it was "the first picture ever printed of the alleged king of the firebugs").

Right: The headline from p. 3 of the Chicago Tribune on May 1st, 1914. The previous day, David recounted his misdeeds to a group of reporters, probably in the bar of the Bradley Hotel where he was under house arrest and, according to press accounts, eating and boozing at the expense of taxpayers. In another era, David could have profited handsomely by selling the screen rights to his story.

Text of the Chicago Tribune Article of 5/1/1914:

David Korshak, dealer in fires, for nearly an hour yesterday revealed to a group of newspapermen the tricks of his trade.

The reputed head of the "arson trust" for whom the police searched for nearly two years, toyed with a cigar and held himself up with boastful pride as a "benefactor of Chicago", a man who by burning down a lot of "shacks" had caused better buildings to be constructed. He pictured himself as one of the greatest forces for a "Chicago Beautiful".

At times he moralized on the dishonesty of other incendiaries who had defrauded him out of his just recompense as "torch bearer". He boasted of his efficiency as an incendiary and proudly pointed to his record of about forty fires. He told of the ups and downs of his business since 1893, when he started his criminal career. He explained how the men higher up in the arson ring had told him he must sacrifice himself for the sake of others.

Carried Death in Pocket

He was given three poisoned pills, he said, which he was to take rather than face the courts. He was warned to shoot himself as a last resort, and yet to do it in a way that his wife would be able to collect his insurance. He was to cheat the insurance companies even in death.

Joseph Fish, millionaire insurance adjuster, now under indictment, guaranteed him $5000 to keep out of the clutches of the law, he said. State's Attorney Hoyne asserted that Fish is still more deeply implicated in Korshak's confession, all of which the prisoner was not permitted to give out.

Mr. Fish was told of the confession. "It is the same olf story of the State's Attorney's office making a grandstand play, making a criminala state's witness to attack a prominent man," he said. "I am innocent, of course."

Finicky as to Profession

In the same breath in which Korshak related how he had earned more than $50,000 as a professional incendiary, he objected strenuously to being referred to as a "firebug", saying he didn't care for himself, but that out of consideration for his family he would rather be called just a plain "incendiary."

Korshak's career as a "torch bearer" began, he said, shortly after he had gone into the grocery business in 1893.

"I first started in the fire business when I had my own fire," he said. "That first 'accident' was so successful that friends began coming to me and saying they wanted to have 'accidents', too. Some of the fires I set were bad jobs, as they didn't do as much damage as was wanted. Sometimes I was paid in cash for my work and other times I received notes.

"One of my best methods was the use of the time torch. This would give me plenty of time to get away and frame an alibi. Usually I ran several blocks and found a policeman or maybe two or three of them. Then I'd get drunk and invite them into a saloon and buy drinks for them. Then I had a perfect alibi. A policeman is the best in the world." Korshak then related his scale of prices.

Had Sliding Scale

"My rate varied according to the amount of insurance my customers wanted to collect," he said. "Then, too, if it was a bad job and the fellow couldn't collect it all I'd let him off easy. I got all the way from $200 to $3000 for each job and made most of my money in 1909 and 1910. I think I earned about $50,000 in those two years. On one job I gave $1000 to the man who recommended me.
"I set fire to one place because the man thought his rent was too high and wanted to take that means of cancelling his lease."

The prisoner complemented the Chicago Fire Department.

"It's the best in the world," he said. "Four minutes is the usual time for the firemen to arrive on the scene. The time when I nearly lost my life was when some children were playing on the steps of a building I had been hired to burn. They stayed around there for an hour and a half after the time I was to set the fire.

Caught by Blast

"Finally they left and I went into the basement but didn't put the time torch as I had intended for fear the children would come back on the steps and be burned. When the explosion came I hadn't time to get out of the place myself and had to climb through a coal hole in the basement. I thought I would be killed, but managed to squeeze out in time and got away.

Korshak came down to the time when he disappeared following the beginning of the investigation into the arson trust.

"I ducked in 1911, just after they had caught me in Vancouver and brought me back," he said. "Before I left there was a fund of $5,000 raised for me. I got $500 when I left and my wife was guaranteed $200 a month. It was understood I was to get from $50 to $75 a month while I was away. My wife was present at the meeting with the man whose name I have given to Mr. Hoyne. Two lawyers were present. It was at that time that Fish guaranteed me $5,000. Joe Clarke promised me $2,000. I was advised to go away and not be a coward and if I was caught to be game and to use a gun in such a way it would not look like suicide so my wife could get my life insurance.

"Nathan Spira gave me three pills saying, 'Dave, if you ever get caught, take these pills and commit suicide rather than come back and go to jail.' (Spira is now under conviction in connection with the workings of the "trust".) I kept those pills until all my money ran out in London and then I threw them away.

Wife Carries a Message

"After I left Chicago I traveled under the name of 'A. Miller.' On Jan 2 I was told I would have to leave America. I was in Memphis. My wife came to me with the news. She gave me some money and told me what those fellows wanted. From Memphis I went to Philadelphia with my wife and then to New York where I stayed one day. Then I went to London.

"After my supply of money ran out in London I went to work in a perfumery factory and later as a nurse to an invalid. It was about this time when I didn't get any more money that I threw away the pills Spira gave me. I figured then that no matter what happened to me I would not commit suicide. I was tired of being a fugitive from justice.

Fish Trial in Two Weeks

"I expect to go on trial with Joseph Fish in two weeks." "I have made no promises of immunity to Korshak," said State's Attorney Hoyne.

David Korshak takes the stand (Part I)

Return to the Korshak Chronicles

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