Pawnee High School fire, 1958

Pawnee High School was demolished by a fire on Feb. 24, 1958, that was ignited by a student attempting to break into the school’s vault.

Frank Ewing Jr. following his arrest in the Pawnee High fire. Escorting him is Sangamon County Deputy Sheriff Kenneth Revell. (SJ-R)

Frank Ewing Jr. following his arrest in the Pawnee High School fire. Escorting him is Sangamon County Deputy Sheriff Kenneth Revell. (SJ-R)

Frank Carlos Ewing Jr., 15, admitted to Sangamon County sheriff’s investigators that he broke into the school intending to burglarize the walk-in vault. When the vault withstood a sledge hammer, crowbars and hacksaws, he decided to use a blowtorch from the school’s woodworking shop on the door.

However, Ewing said he spilled gasoline while filling the torch, and the gas ignited when he struck a match to light the torch. Flames enveloped the blowtorch itself, Ewing told investigator Paul Terril, and when he threw the torch away from him, the blaze rose quickly to the ceiling of the school office.

The school – which had been built after a lightning fire destroyed its predecessor in 1923 – was demolished. Damage was estimated at $400,000.

The Pawnee school system built another new high school on the site of the previous two; it was dedicated on May 1, 1960.

Ewing was arrested in class a month after the fire. He not only admitted that he had accidentally started the blaze, he told police he also had burglarized the high school once before and the grade school twice in a month. He also said he had gotten $8 cash and $300 worth of merchandise in a drug store burglary.

His motive may have been more than profit, the Illinois State Journal said in a story March 27, 1958.

Terril said the boy told him he is a heavy reader of detective stories and likes such shows on television. Later, however, Ewing said he would have committed the offenses anyway, “for kicks.”

Ewing eventually underwent 10 months of mental therapy at the Alton State Hospital. But that wasn’t the last of his encounters with the Sangamon County court system.

In December 1959, Ewing, then 17 and living in Springfield, and another youth were arrested for laying two railroad ties across tracks west of Springfield in an attempt to derail a freight train. Ewing was sentenced on April 28, 1960, to one to 10 years in state prison for that crime.

Back in the county jail (then at Seventh and Jefferson streets) after his sentencing, Ewing broke away from deputies as his handcuffs were being removed. He then dashed out the jail door and ran through alleys and junk yards in a brief – five- to six-minute – escape attempt. He was caught, “completely spent,” deputies said, at Second and Carpenter streets.

Ewing spent at least part of his prison sentence in the Menard State Penitentiary, where he was joined by his father, Frank C. Ewing Sr. (1920-82), in 1965. The older man, a petty criminal for much of his life, had murdered his aunt and his girlfriend in their home in Johnson City. Both victims – Grace Ewing and Louise Nance – were former residents of Springfield, as was the elder Ewing.

“I guess I’m just an animal,” Frank Sr. told authorities after his arrest.

Illinois State Journal reporter Bob Estill, who wrote a story about the father-son prison reunion, added the detail that Frank Jr.’s grandfather also had spent time at Menard. (The grandfather, Elijah Ewing (1898-1952), was convicted of a holdup and shooting in Herrin in 1929. Following his prison term, he worked as a coal miner and died in a mine accident at Peabody No. 8 near Tovey.)

Frank Ewing Jr. returned to Springfield after his prison sentence. Newspaper records show he was arrested several more times in connection with burglaries, firearms violations and other relatively low-level crimes. When his father died, still in prison, in 1982, his obituary said the younger Ewing was living in California.

Note: Additional information from a family member in comments. schs-logo-22

Original content copyright Sangamon County Historical Society. You are free to republish this content as long as credit is given to the Society.


This entry was posted in Buildings, Communities, Crime and vice, Disasters, Education, Law enforcement. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Pawnee High School fire, 1958

  1. mike davis/mike clark says:

    I knew Frankie well,we played as children and he was my neighbor sad too hear how things went for him,as I remembered he was troubled young man

    • editor says:

      Mike: Thanks for the note, and thanks very much for reading.

    • Dr. Rebecca Ewing says:

      Mike, I passed along your comments to Frank. He is alive and well! After he left Illinois, he moved to a small artist community in California and lived for over 30 years as a model citizen with no more problems. In fact, he has a painting that hangs in the Monterrey Museum of Art. He now resides in the same state as I do and is loved by all who come in contact with him.

      • editor says:

        Dr. Ewing. Thank you for the updates. It’s really good to learn that Frank overcame his rough early years. Congratulations to him.

  2. Dr. Rebecca Ewing says:

    So lovely to be reading this crap after so many years. Why not print how Frank Jr. was bullied by the small town hoods in Pawnee and abused by his stepfather, while the town stood by and did nothing? If the whole town burned down, it would be no great loss. Every time I return to visit Horse Creek Cemetery, I thank God that I did not have to spend any more time in that small minded, evil town. By the way, Elijah Ewing served his time in prison, was released, and was killed at Peabody Number 10 in 1952, while making a living for his family. All that I achieved I did because of my family and rose above others’ expectations of our criminal family.

    • editor says:

      Dr. Ewing: Again, thank you for providing more context about Frank’s youthful problems.

      FYI, the Illinois State Journal published a short story about Elijah Ewing’s death. According to the article, he was a driller at Peabody No. 8 near Tovey and was caught in a drilling machine. I’ve added a little more information about him to the story above.

  3. John D Berry says:

    I remember watching the school burn that night both of my parents were teachers at At that high school. I was seven years old . David Berry

  4. Sergio Tobias says:

    Is there any more information on these three?

    • Dr. Rebecca Ewing says:

      What would you like to know?

      • Sergio Tobias says:

        My reply was deleted and I didn’t notice until now. I was wondering about the reasons “Bud” was in a holdup, was he in a gang/do you know what gang he would have been in? I hope you don’t mind me asking.

        • editor says:

          Mr. Tobias: I’m not sure how often Dr. Ewing checks this site. But for my part, everything I know about Elijah Ewing — I assume he’s the “Bud” you’re referring to, since he was the only one accused of a holdup — is in the entry. So I don’t know anything about any possible gang connections.

        • Dr Rebecca Ewing says:

          My father Elijah “Earl” Ewing was also called Bud. He was from Southern Illinois and no, he was not in a gang that I know of. He was a coal miner from the age of 14 supporting his fatherless family. The holdup happened on Herrin IL during the 1920s. My father was born in 1898 and as history shows, there was a lot of criminal activity in southern Illinois during the 1920s. He was part of the Herrin Massacre. I’m not excusing his behavior or Frank Jr’s, just relating facts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *