Classifying and Controlling the Firebug

Classifying and Controlling the Firebug

Arson. Incendiarism and Pyromaniacy Are Degrees of This Crime— How Best to Control the Criminal— Difficulties of Conviction

THE following article contains some excellent suggestions for the definition and handling of the general subject of incendiarism, and should be of value to chiefs in combatting this scourge of all fire departments:

In dealing with the subject of Arson, Incendiarism and Pyromaniacy, it is well to clearly define the three classes, so that each may become distinct and definite. It will help to expedite the judgment of the court, as to each offense, and should clear up for all time the muddled state of affairs which now seem to prevail. It would, in my opinion, be well to universally adopt these or other similar classifications, and formulate and incorporate them in state laws to govern each class in fixing sentences.


Arson is the act of setting fire to property by the owner, or his hirelings, to collect insurance, or to cover-up theft, or to destroy his property by fire to save demolition cost.

Incendiarism is the act of setting fire, or cause to be on fire, any property by, or for revenge, by other than the owner or his hirelings.

Pyromaniacy is divided into two classes, namely: one who has a superdeveloped craving for excitement, or heroism, with an attending lifting of mental strain; and the pyromania dementia praecox victim who gets a distinctive abnormal thrill from his act.


Alcohol, gasoline, and naphtha are used most often. Cleaning liquids and volatile fluids are used in general. Containers with string attached, to be pulled over on small kindled fires upon leaving the building, are used with highly inflamables. Electric wires are short circuited in advance to cover-up arson, making it appear that the fire was due to this cause. Small fires are started in oil soaked waste and refuse, to collect decoration and smoke damage. Incendiary fires are started from the outside usually. Inflammable bombs, firebrands, and oil soaked waste are thrown into buildings and basements. Pyromaniacs in general, try to gain admission to the building, and start a conflagration of major size. Stairways and recesses are chosen where the fire will gain rapid headway. The use of materials giving off intense smoke will he noticed. This type of criminal will be found in the crowd watching the activities of the firemen, and gloating over the success of his efforts.


The main reason, as we know, in the case of arson, is over-insurance. Some other reasons are: depleted and inferior stock, business competition and depression, large supplies of old or “dead” stock, firms selling out, covering-up inside thefts, large smoke and water damage policies, and worn out roofs on residences. The owner may burn down his building to get his insurance out before he wrecks it to build a new one. A man or firm may be refused insurance in one company and take out practically the same policy in some other; or he may take out several where it would pay him a handsome profit to collect on a fire. The insurance underwriter must be able to read human nature, use discretion, and profit by previous exoeriences. Consultation with the Bureau of Fire Prevention should be encouraged on excessive risks.

Incendiarism is caused by all types of revenge such as: encroachment of resident or business districts by undesirables, true and imaginary grievances, business jealousy and the destruction of delapitated hazards. Bootleggers set fire to too busy competitor’s stills, and make the fire department a means to notify the police.

Pyromaniaism can occur at any time or place, under any and all conditions. No property or institution is immune from this form of depredation. Vacant, and excessively hazardous types of business are chosen by the “firebugs,” because of the large and rapid fire accruing. They are night prowlers and get their thrill from seeing masses of flame shooting through the darkness. Highly occupied buildings are targets for another type. An overpowering sense of heroism and personal glory in rescuing trapped persons, has been the cause of many hospital, detention home, school, and apartment fires. An intense craving to see fire apparatus responding to calls, is the cause of many false alarms. This type develops into, and becomes, a pyro-bug, furnishing himself his real thrill finally in a fire, by which he can see fire administration put into practice.

Detection and Conviction

Detection of arson is quite simple. Conviction of arson is practically impossible in some states. Confessions by the arsonist, and good positive cases are liable to convictions, hut through smart defense lawyers, and inexperienced prosecuting attorneys, only one in ten of these are ever sentenced. Incendiaries and pyromaniacs are easily convicted and sentenced if caught, and they arc caught, by a process of elimination carried out by the police and fire departments.

“THE courts, judges and lawmakers are the only ones who can deal with the fire criminal. Legislation must be introduced so that fire criminals can be punished without so much loss of time, and discarding of evidence. A county or district court with a fire judge, and a fire prosecuting attorney could be the solution, to handle all fire cases and nothing else.”

A clothing business burned out on the last of seven arson attempts, with the aid of alcohol sprinkled alxmt the store. A high total loss was paid on inferior stock on that store; and on two adjoining businesses, because of smoke and water damage.

The city suffered that loss to be added to its fire loss total for the year; the wear and tear on city apparatus was great over a period of hours; the fire districts were left open, and any large fire at the same time would find the department short-handed temporarily; that surrounding business district was immediately endangered; and 40 to 50 firemen’s lives were endangered because of the flimsy construction of the building. Street car traffic was paralyzed; telephone and electric wires leveled; and employees were thrown out of work. A deputy state fire marshal was present during the combatting of the fire. He took steps immediately afterwards to bring charges, with the fire department cooperating.

All of the above charges are true, and were the result of a positively known case of arson, yet no convictions were ever obtained.

In all fairness this practice is not done by the business man who has the welfare and pride of his city close to his heart. But, it is done by the “fly by night” concern, which sells inferior quality merchandise, and which has no conception of civic pride.

Elimination of This Type of Fire Hazards

In these United States the fire insurance rates for individual cities are computed on the condition of hazardous buildings and businesses in the fire zones; and the equipment and alarm system employed by the city fire department.

Elimination of faulty property is hard to accomplish even through court action, and the result is buildings are standing today which should be remedied or rebuilt from a safety standpoint. The expense, of course, must be taken into consideration, and possibly the owner cannot carry such a financial burden. Still, when you think of the terrible death hazards involved on occupied buildings of this type, it seems that something should be done, because we must remember that every building is subject to the arsonist, incendiarist, and pyromaniac.

Old delapidated vacant buildings should not present such difficulties in demolition cases, where the fire insurance is cancelled, because they are not income bearing property. Yet because of the income tax partial exemption clause, these buildings stand to save the owner money by being idle.

Insurance companies must band together through their underwriters, and form a board of arbitration which shall have the power, if possible, to nullify all insurance on property carried by that individual or firm until serious conditions have been remedied; and to refuse as a body to insure prohibitive risks. More stringent actual inspections of merchandise and property by the underwriters when writing policies, and in the payments by adjusters, must be inaugurated if ever the fire loss is to be reduced.

The arson, incendiary, and pyromania loss in the United States for 1926 was 200 millions of dollars, or 2/5 of the total loss from all fire causes for that year.

People can be taught to be careful in the prevention, but the courts, judges, and law makers are the only ones who can deal with the fire criminal. Legislation must be introduced so that fire criminals can be punished without so much loss of time, and discarding of evidence. A county or district court with a fire judge, and fire prosecuting attorney could be the solution, to handle all fire cases, and nothing else.

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Classifying and Controlling the Firebug

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Control and Punishment of Fire Criminals

Arsonists who deliberately plan felonies, are in the majority, and should he treated as criminals and sentenced to not more than 10 years, at hard labor. Should human life be lost due to this cause, it should stand as manslaughter, and the sentence be not less than 14 years.

Incendiaries who do their work from spite, or to terrorize, or for revenge, are dangerous and the terms should be 1 to 10 years. Should human life be lost due to this cause, the term should be not less than 25 years.

Excitement pyromaniacs could be sent to a detention home where a wholesome interest could be developed in other lines of interest, so that such cravings could have outlets in other endeavors.

Pyromania dementia praecox victims can never be entirely cured any more than any other mental sickness. They should have a separate institution for their confinement, as they are dangerous, and cannot very well be placed with other types of insanity patients.

Both types of pyromaniacs should have neurological and psychopathic treatment, and that can be given only through confinement and segregation. That is the only practical solution of this problem.

Waterville, N. Y., to Purchase Apparatus—Waterville, N. Y., will purchase a 500-gallon pumper. Bonds will be issued to finance the purchase.

Lancaster County Firemen Dine—Four hundred firemen attended the fourth annual banquet of the Lancaster County, Pa.. Firemen’s Association in Lancaster. Firemen from principal departments in the county attended.

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