Monday, November 4, 2013
Who burned down the Rustic Pavilion, AKA the Brown House, in Forest Park on September 6, 1971? In an earlier post, I postulate that the Johnny Appleseed Gang was responsible, trying to avenge the stabbing death of member Frank Albano a little more than a year earlier at the hands of Brown House Gang member Daniel Amato.
Since that post, commenters to this blog have offered several rumors about who torched the Rustic Pavilion, and it has come to my attention claims that Albano’s role in the feud was not that of a troublemaker, but as a peacemaker.
So here goes nothing: an attempt to dig up something from the ashes of the Brown House to figure out why the historic structure went up in flames—and possibly clean up the legacy of Albano, who was first called a “gang member” in a newspaper headline…
… but then in a later story praised as a person who was trying to broker a peace between the gangs. The latter story (below) characterized him not as a member of the Appleseed Gang, but as a guy who merely used to play baseball with some of the gang.
A Hell’s Acres commenter who started hanging out at the Brown House a year after the Albano murder also questioned the notion that the Appleseed kids were responsible for the fire. “We were mostly bored kids,” he wrote. “We never had a fight with anyone. I wonder if the Johnny Appleseed Gang would have even cared about the pavilion by that time.” He pointed out that there was only one Brown House Gang member left at the pavilion from the year before, although the old leader, “Frenchie,” visited them once.
He contended that there were rumors that the X Gang or the Johnny Appleseed Gang set the fire, but he believes it was an accident. “We were a younger age group from the kids the previous year, mostly 12 to 15 years old, and we didn’t have any contact with the other gangs in the area, so no one had a reason to bother us,” he continued. “We would sometimes sleep overnight in the garret of the Brown House and there was an old mattress up there. Although no one I knew ever claimed to have set the fire I assumed someone had dropped a cigarette on the mattress and the old wood just went up in flames.”
Much of the speculation of the fire as revenge comes from the attempted arson of the “Green House,” the old trolley pavilion at Forest Park’s Sumner Avenue entrance (pictured below). It was where the Brown House Gang also hung out and was the site of the original confrontation that night.
The Green House was set afire five days after the slaying, but the blaze caused minimal damage. A reporter for the Springfield Union newspaper concluded that revenge was undoubtedly the motive, thereby fueling the notion that the Brown House fire was also directly due to the stabbing:
There were also threats to the accused, family members, and associates of those involved, including Amato’s original lawyer, Thomas J. Donahue, so a retaliatory fire less than a year after the guilty pleas was believable because bitterness no doubt lingered.
However, another Hell’s Acres commenter is confident that the Brown House fire had nothing to do with either gang, the murder, or a cigarette. “The fire was set because the police began to disperse anyone who would hang out at the structure,” he wrote. “The quote was that ‘if we can't hang there then nobody will.’”
With that being said, there is no doubt that the Brown House Gang had many enemies, especially after its members beat up a father and his son on the tennis courts in 1969. The tennis players had objected to the gang’s speeding cars near the courts, and they were brutally attacked. The Brown House Gang was certainly unwelcome in The X and Johnny Appleseed Park, and the Springfield Daily News interviewed a younger X Gang member—one of “The Little X” guys—who claimed he had been jumped by the Brown House gang. He added that as a result of this, he was buying a gun.
“No one liked” the Brown House Gang, which “was really just a group of freaks, like the island of misfit toys that joined together,” wrote a commenter whose opinion ended up at the end of another post. “They were essentially peace loving freaks,” he continued, “but everyone gave them crap because they were the ‘greasers’ and they had to defend themselves.”
So what exactly happened the night of the murder? According to the newspaper, Albano and a friend tried to convince the Appleseed Gang not to go to the park to get the Brown House Gang to “answer some questions” about a car window smashing incident because he had heard the gang was equipped with a shotgun. But they insisted on going, so the pair accompanied the group to “talk” with the other gang.
Appleseed members later insisted they were unarmed—a claim disputed by the Brown House Gang—and that they were confronted by a shotgun-toting Gerald Teece, pictured below.
A talk led to a skirmish, which was broken up when a police officer blasted his cruiser siren. Most of the Appleseed group got back in their cars and returned to Appleseed Park. Albano and four of his friends remained, and the “peace talks,” according to a witness “became friendly.” The window smashing incident was ironed out and they all waited for the Appleseed Gang to return and give them a ride home.
The Appleseed Gang did return and parked their cars on Sumner Terrace across the street from the pavilion. “Albano, his four friends, and about eight of the Brown House Gang then walked across Sumner Avenue toward the cars, according to the eyewitness.
“We walked toward the cars with the Brown House kids, but our friends didn’t know we were with the Brown House group, and one of them jumped a gang member and the fight started,” he said.
But just before Albano was stabbed, one Brown House Gang member claimed that Albano, holding a baseball bat, and other Appleseed members had surrounded Amato, who “panicked and pulled his knife automatically.” This account was related in the newspaper article below.
Was the baseball bat story just the false claim of someone who was trying to argue a case of self-defense for a friend charged with murder? Who knows? Anybody out there want to weigh in on this? I guess we can’t ask Teece, who died 10 years ago.
There was no trial after both Amato (pictured below) and Teece, who was charged as being an accessory after the fact because he hid Amato’s knife in his apartment, offered guilty pleas.
Amato’s defense attorney, Efrem A. Gordon, asserted to the newspapers that “the apprehension Daniel felt for his safety was not fanciful.” It was alleged that in a fight weeks earlier, Amato was hit in the head with a lead-filled pipe designed by Appleseed gang leader Robert Goldrup, a claim that could have gone two ways in a trial: explaining Amato’s state of mind as either fearful—or bent on revenge.
“The death of this boy is a deplorable thing,” argued Gordon. “It would have been our contention in the trial that the situation almost predestined the fatal injury to someone. I feel that the onus should not fall exclusively on Daniel.”
Assistant District Attorney Robert J. Moran also noted that Amato wasn’t alone in the park that night. Pointing to the back of the courtroom at six gang members who had been subpoenaed for the trial, he said, “Every one of the kids out in back should be here (on trial) too. Legally he’s (Amato) the only one we have, except for Teece.
Moran added, however, that Amato “didn’t have to be at Forest Park at that time. He had an opportunity to leave, but didn’t take it.”
On December 7, 1970, Amato pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to five years and one day to the Concord Correctional Institution. Teece, who pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact of manslaughter and two counts of assault by means of a dangerous weapon, was sentenced to concurrent one-year sentences at the Hampden County House of Correction on all charges. Amato was eligible for parole after one year, and Teece was eligible after serving a third of his sentence.
Whatever became of the Brown House Gang and its second generation? The latter, according to one of its members who had commented in the original post, eventually drifted away from hanging out on the grounds of Forest Park. “After the fire we did hang around in the Green House for a while,” he wrote, “but with winter coming we began to divide our time between two places. The first was a teen drop-in center called the Blue Door. It was across the street from the Forest Park Library on Belmont Ave. The second was at the home of one of the group. He had the third floor of one of the old Victorian houses in the area for his private use. It was furnished with bean bag chairs, glass beaded curtains and Peter Max posters. His parents never went up there and we were free to smoke, play music and do other things that unsupervised teens do.”
Whatever happened to the Johnny Appleseed Gang? Anyone care to comment?