The Korshak Chronicles:

David Korshak Takes the Stand: Part I


Background: On December 9th and 10th of 1914, admitted arsonist David Korshak took the stand to give spectacular testimony in the trial of wealthy insurance adjuster Joseph Fish. The socially prominent Fish was indicted the previous spring, largely on the testimony of David's wife Fannie, who functioned as an intermediary and bag woman in the arson-for-profit plot (David was hiding out in London at the time of Fannie's grand jury testimony; he returned to Chicago to testify against Fish as part of an agreement whereby he was granted immunity from prosecution). Jury selection in this highly publicized case took fifteen days. Defense attorney Benjamin Bachrach (who, a decade later, was part of the defense team for Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb) and Levy Mayer (founder of the firm now known as Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw) represented Joseph Fish. (The photo to the left of David Korshak appeared in the December 10th, 1910 edition of the Chicago Evening American).

David Korshak's Testimony (according to the Chicago Tribune of 12/10/1914:

"Dave" Korshak, the "torch", "squealed" again yesterday.

Not in the state's attorney's office, as he did several months ago. But on the witness stand in Judge O'Connor's courtroom, where he faced the man he called his "boss". This man was Joseph Fish, alleged to be the "arson czar" and originator of the plans by which Korshak set fire to property worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Fish is on trial for arson.

Korshak, constantly interrupted by counsel for the defense, made a dramatic recital of the fires he set at the direction of Fish.

While he was on the witness stand, another startling development in the arson case was disclosed. Information reached Frank Johnston, Jr., first assistant state's attorney, that frantic efforts were being made to "buy" other important witnesses for the state in order to keep them from testifying against Fish

Adds to Counsel Staff

Additional counsel in the person of attorney Levy Mayer has been engaged to assist in the defense of the wealthy adjuster, it was also discovered.

Korshak told his story at the direction of Prosecutor Johnston without hesitating. He sat quietly in the witness chair, at times toying with his silver bound cane which he carried, the lines of his thin, yellowish face emphasized by the black overcoat which he kept on all during the day. Occasionally he would glance out of his shrewd, small eyes at the man who may be sent to prison because of his testimony. Mr.Fish paid no attention to him, but kept a quiet watch of the jurors to see how they received Mr. Korshak's testimony.

"When did you first meet the defendant?" asked Mr. Johnston.
"It was in the latter part of 1909, about November, I think."
"Where did you meet him?"

Met in Fish's Office

"Well, the first time I met him was in his office in the New York Life building."
"What did he say to you about the business of setting fires?"
"He told me if I ever got intoany trouble he would take care of me; he said he would furnish the lawyers and give me money. He told me every fire I knew of that was being planned I should let him know of and get the insurance policies. He told me he had great influence with the insurance companiesand the brokers. He also told me how to get an inventory of the property for him so he could adjust the loss. My wife was to act as the 'go between' in order that I might not be seen in his office.
"What was the first fire you set for him?"

First Job for Fish

"It was in February of 1910, when I set fire to Abe Ratner's clothing store at 1831 South Halsted street."
Objection was raised by the defense on the introduction of testimony about this fire, because Fish was not indicted for it. Korshak was allowed to proceed and told of how he arranged to set the fire because Ratner was not making any money in his business.
At this point the witness described his businessof setting fires in detail.
"First you take a ball of cotton about this size," said he, as he grasped an imaginary sphere, "and soak it in gasoline. Usually I take and stick a few matches inside it. Then I scatter paper and thin cloth, rags about the room, all soaked with gasoline. Everything is ready as soon as you soak some of the other things that will burn easily in gasoline."

Acts It All Out

He lit an imaginary match, thrust it into the ball of cotton which he pretended to hold, and stepped back as if to avoid the burst of flames that followed.
Proceeding with the testimony, he related how he fired the store of Samuel Stark at 2027 South Halsted street, in the latter part of 1909, after Stark agreed that Fish was to have the business of adjusting the loss.
"My wife told Fish about the fire," he said, glancing at the defendant, "and told him Stark only caried $6,000 insurance. Mr. Fish said that wouldn;t do, and told her to arrange for more insurance. So Stark bought some more goods on credit and got more insurance."

Other Fires He Set

Other fires which the witness described as having been set by him at Fish's direction were:

Store of Maurice Mann, 2251 South State street, November 29th, 1910.

Store of M. Goldstein, 3013 South state, December 20th, 1910.

Store of Joseph Lewis, 3425 Superior street, April 24th, 1910

Maurice Breit's dry goods store, 2900 South state, January 8th, 1911.

Tailor shop of Maurice Miller, Halsted and 35th street, January 1st, 1911.

Store of Jacob Ranski, 3243 Lincoln avenue, February 15, 1911.

Store of Bloom and Perry, 2000 South State street, March, 1911.

Wholesale house of Leopold Dreyfus, 232 South Market street, June 8, 1911.

The last partof his direct examination was devoted to the story of how he fled Chicago and spent two years abroad in evading arrest by the state's attorney's office. He declared that Fish had paid for his expenses while a fugitive from justice.

It was in this part of his story that he revealed a new angle in the confession, in that he charged that Attorney Benjamin Bachrach, counsel for Fish, had advised him to go to South America to escape extradition.

[More to follow]

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