The mysterious barber shop fire of 1902; A 1953 Daily Record article reported witnesses saw Percy Schofield near a gasoline storage tank moments before the fire began

May 21, 2017 • Vistas

Smoke from a destructive fire in Roswell in 1902 is shown boiling up above. The blaze was set accidentally or on purpose by a barber who liked his liquor, reports reveal 50 years later. (Photo courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)


(Photos courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)



(Photos courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico)


Recently, I wrote about some notable floods in early Roswell. In my research, I ran across a couple of articles on early fires in our town, so I thought I would share.
In our archives, there are some great pictures of the development of our fire departments over the years, so I will share those, too.
The Roswell Daily Record had an article written on Tuesday, July 14, 1953, with this headline: “Drunken Barber Reported Responsible For Disastrous Fire Here Back in 1902.”
The most disastrous fire that had hit Roswell occurred in the afternoon of July 3, 1902, according to reports in the Roswell Record (weekly) dated July 11, 1902. It was reported the fire started with an explosion in the back of a barber shop, with flames spreading rapidly, destroying five business buildings and warehouses on the east side of Main Street between First and Second streets.
The fire jumped the alley and destroyed the E.K. Hotel and restaurant, said the old newspaper article. Losses were sustained amounting to $26,000, partly covered by insurance. All these and many other details were mentioned.
However, neither the Record nor the Dispatch, both Roswell weeklies at the time, mentioned a whisper of what has since been learned was “common knowledge” about the person responsible for setting the fire. Obviously, no charges were ever filed against him.
Editors as well as townspeople, including the police, were evidently allergic to lead poisoning in 1902. Ventilation by the Colt system was still frequent in Roswell at the time, sometimes or what would presently be considered “little or no provocation.”
The latter was recently found to be the principle reason that no charges were ever made and that newspaper accounts did not include details of “the drunken barber who set the fire.”
The fact that this person is now dead and that he is not survived by any relatives who might be hurt by the disclosures, gave a “now it can be told” feeling to the several substantial old-timers who were contacted last week in Roswell about the old fire.
When shown a picture of the fire, all of them said, “That’s the fire that drunken barber, Percy Schofield, set.”
Each one also recounted the same motivation as the motive for Schofield’s destructive act –– a prolonging feud with his brother-in-law George Friedenbloom, who owned the barber shop.
Edd Amonett’s account lifts all the other stories out of this legend category. It goes like this: Amonett, then a 10-year-old, and a playmate, Luther Pilant, of the same age, were playing in the backyard of the E. T. Amonett Saddle Shop, which was next door to the barber shop. Luther’s father was a policeman.
Amonett said he and Luther saw Schofield working around the gasoline hot water heater in the back of the barbershop. They were less than 20 feet away from Schofield.
They also noticed Schofield near the gasoline storage tank, which was kept a few feet away from the heater. And they noticed fluid spilling from the spigot of the gasoline storage tank onto the floor.
Amonett does not claim that either boy saw Schofield open and leave the spigot running, nor did either one see the barber touch a match to the gasoline.
However, minutes after seeing the spilled gasoline, the boys heard an explosion. They were then playing in the yard about 60 feet from the rear of the barbershop. The destructive fire followed.
From what is presently known of the action of gasoline fumes in an enclosed room, it is not difficult to surmise that the flame in the heater could easily have set off the explosion that set the disastrous fire.
Whether it was set intentionally, or by a drunken accident remained an unsolved mystery with the death of Schofield.
Janice Dunnahoo is an archive volunteer at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or email at

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