HIGH POINT CONFIDENTIAL: Did local attorney try to torch his own house in 1936?

Jimmy Tomlin, The High Point Enterprise, N.C.
·5 min read

Feb. 28—HIGH POINT — Everybody knows what a slumlord is, but here's a unique twist on the stereotypical bad landlord: What would you call a landlord who actually tries to burn down his own rental house ... with the tenants still in the house?

An arsonist, that's what.

That was the accusation against Paul Swanson, an otherwise well-respected attorney and newspaper publisher — and landlord — who allegedly tried to torch a High Point house he owned, even though the tenants were in the house when he supposedly struck the match.

The year was 1936, and the 32-year-old Swanson was a busy young man. At the time, he not only practiced law and delivered newspapers in Winston-Salem, he also published a small weekly paper in Kernersville.

Swanson had strong ties to High Point, having graduated from High Point College in 1928 and practicing law here before settling in Forsyth County. He also owned rental property here, including a small house on Roy Avenue.

That four-room house was the scene of the crime — allegedly — on the night of Jan. 4, when the tenants claimed Swanson tried to burn their house down with them still inside.

The house was occupied by the family of well-digger Monroe Tate and his wife, Lula, who told a most remarkable story about a visitor who came to the house around 7:45 that evening.

According to the couple, Monroe Tate happened to look out a rear window and spy a man sneaking toward the house in the moonlight. When the 30-year-old husband ran outside to confront the stranger, he found the man stuffing a bundle of kerosene-soaked newspapers underneath a corner of the house and setting it on fire. Tate said he frantically stamped out the fire, then chased down the fleeing firebug and punched him, at which time he caught a better glimpse of the man and recognized him as his landlord, Paul Swanson.

Tate said Swanson's only comment was, "Mr. Tate, why haven't you moved?," before he broke free, ran to his car and hurriedly drove away before Tate could catch him.

Police arrested Swanson in Winston-Salem a few hours later and charged him with arson. Swanson adamantly denied any involvement in the crime — he wasn't even in High Point that night, he said. Furthermore, he continued, he had threatened to evict the Tates for not paying their rent, so this whole arson story could've been a spiteful act on their part.

Incriminating circumstances certainly seemed to point an accusing finger at Swanson, though.

For starters, police discovered the rear floor mat in Swanson's car was soaked with kerosene, bolstering their theory that he had doused the newspapers with kerosene before driving to the rental house. Swanson explained he had purchased a can of kerosene for heating his office in Kernersville, but the can was nowhere to be found when police searched his office.

Also, less than a month before the alleged burning incident, Swanson had doubled the value of his insurance policy on the house, from $500 to $1,000. Police believed that gave him a clear motive for setting the house on fire.

By the time the case went to trial in late February, the sensational story had made plenty of headlines, but everything readers thought they knew about the case was about to be torpedoed by a surprise witness.

First, three family members — Tate, his wife, and their 12-year-old son, Sam — gave matching accounts of what they said had happened the night of the attempted arson. A neighbor testified she'd seen two men scuffling in the Tates' backyard, but it was too dark for her to identify them.

The kerosene-soaked newspapers were entered into evidence, and an insurance representative testified about Swanson doubling his policy.

The trial's most dramatic moments were reserved for the defense, when Swanson testified on his own behalf. The young attorney painstakingly traced his whereabouts on Jan. 4, particularly between 7 and 9 p.m., when the crime allegedly occurred. He was never even in High Point, he testified, and several witnesses from Winston-Salem corroborated that statement.

Then came the surprise witness. A High Point man named Walter Lee Yow testified that Monroe Tate had approached him on Jan. 5 — the day after the alleged arson attempt — and offered him $2 to testify that he had seen Swanson commit the crime. Yow obviously declined the offer and testified against Tate instead. Prosecutors struck back by calling attention to Yow's prison record, casting doubt on his credibility.

Finally, the jury weighed all of the testimony. Had Paul Swanson really tried to torch his own rental house, with occupants still inside? If not, then who was that man scuffling in the yard with Monroe Tate? Could he have been someone Swanson hired to burn down the house?

And what about that kerosene on Swanson's floor mat? That seemed awfully coincidental.

Or had the Tates concocted the whole scheme — as Yow's testimony seemed to suggest — to spite their landlord?

We'll never know exactly what swayed the jurors, but they rendered their verdict quickly. After only 25 minutes of deliberating, they found Swanson not guilty.

Because the house hadn't actually burned, Swanson's charge was only for attempted arson, rather than arson. If it had burned, though — and had he been convicted — Swanson could've faced the death penalty.

Instead, the young attorney walked away and ended up practicing law in North Carolina for another half-century.

Meanwhile, the Tates remained in High Point, but — as you can imagine — they no longer lived in the little house on Roy Avenue.

jtomlin@hpenews.com — 336-888-3579