Curing America of Arson
This Most Despicable of Crimes Can Be Controlled—Evidence Must Be Carefully Prepared—Four Things Necessary to Convict
THE prevalence of the crime of arson and the difficulties that confront chiefs and others charged with the apprehension and punishment of this worst type of criminal, is well known. The following article deals zeith the subject in an important and practical zoay:
By common agreement arson is the most despicable of all crimes. It is sordid in motive and utterly regardless of other people and frequently causes the death, not only of innocent occupants of buiidings which have been set on fire, but also the lives of many firemen which have been needlessly sacrificed to this plague. The public is commencing to realize that this is the one crime that is virtually always committed in cold blood. Murder in its several bloody degrees and other crimes conceived and executed by humans are sometimes committed in the heat of passion and are unpremeditated but not so arson. It is cruel, cold, cunning, slinking; planned always in advance and carried out by stealth, in the truest sense a midnight crime. And who is it that commits this dastardly act? The popular conception of an incendiary, the person who burns to defraud, is a hideous, brutish, hulk of a man, unkempt and with a cap pulled down over his shifty eyes. Most people would be astounded to read the occupational list of the hundreds who have been found guilty of this crime in the past few years—rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief, doctor lawyer merchant and the roster of arsonists is by no means complete with this wide category. The average person will pass him on the street without knowing him. He is in all walks of life literally. He may have been living next door.
Many Motives for this Crime
There are, of course, many motives for this crime. Sometimes it is perpetrated to recoup mounting financial losses or to avert bankruptcy by selling the property to the insurance companies, or rather the insured part of the population since, in the end, they pay all the losses. Again, it may be greed that prompts the formation of arson rings and yet there are many other motives, revenge for real or fancied wrongs, to conceal another crime, race or religious prejudice. All these and many more, including insanity in several of its forms have led to innumerable criminal fires.
The person who deliberately sets fire for the purpose of defrauding the insurance company or for any other tnotive should have meted out to him the punishment prescribed by the statutes of the state. Every person owes it to himself and to his community to prevent crime of whatever character and yet it is the attitude of the people in excusing and condoning crime that makes it difficult for investigators and prosecutors to convict those guilty of infractions of the law.
The Preparation of an Arson Case
In order to do justice to it and present it with some semblance of intelligence 1 am going briefly into the preparation of an arson case. In most cases of burning to defraud the initial investigation of the fire must, necessarily, be made by the members of the Fire Department. The police officials and the Fire Marshals should lie notified in order that the investigation may be continued and the incendiary identified and prosecuted. Officers who are charged with the handling of arson cases should take all possible steps to prepare themselves with a knowledge of the crime itself, the law governing its commission and what evidence is necessary to secure a conviction.
It is my certain knowledge that cases have been lost and those responsible for the crime of arson have not been brought to justice because of the fact that those whose duty it was to see did not, in fact, sec the things that were there and which they could easily have discovered had they been posted on what evidence is necessary and the weight of each incriminating fact in arson investigation. It is my belief that there should be one man designated at each fire to keep his eyes open and to make it his first duty to search most carefully for the origin and the cause of the fire while the fire is burning, and only after such scrutinous investigation to make it his next duty to fight the fire. There will be nothing gained by saving some old barn and letting evidence get away which would land the fire bug whose next lire may be the best structure in the city, which may turn out to be a total loss.
Four Things Must Be Established to Prove Guilt
To develop a case of arson and justify a hope of conviction, there are four things that should be established in order to prove the guilt of the accused beyond a reasonable doubt.
first—The Fire. It is necessary to introduce evidence that the fire actually occurred at a certain time within the jurisdiction of the court. In large cities and towns where there is a paid department the hour of the fire is recorded. In smaller towns and villages the approximate time of the fire can usually be shown, either by some member of the fire department or by an interested neighbor. It is always important to ascertain who discovered the fire and to interrogate him carefully as to the appearance of the building, the extent of the fire, its location and other related facts.
Second—Origin—Incendiary. Evidence of some sort must be introduced to establish the fact that the fire was of incendiary origin. All fires are presumed to be of accidental origin, and it is necessary for the state to introduce positive evidence to overcome this presumption. It is not, however, necessary to prove the incendiary origin of the fire by direct evidence. It can be shown satisfactorily by circumstantial evidence entirely. In one case of record the court said :
“Where evidence shows that certain buildings have been burned and that there were marks of a carriage having been driven to such premises, and footprints leading from the place where the carriage stopped to the house, there was sutticient proof of the body of the crime.”
T is my certain knowledge that cases have been lost and those responsible X for the crime of arson have not been brought to justice because of the fact that those whose duty it was to see did not, in fact, see the things that were there and which they could easily have discovered had they been posted on what evidence is necessary and the weight of each incriminating fact in arson investigation.”
And in another case the Court said:
“Proof that a achoolhouse in a country district was destroyed by fire about two o’clock in the morning: and that a man’s footprints, made at a time when the grass and stubble were wet with dew. were found leading: to .and from the building’, is sufficient proof of the body of the crime to admit the conviction of the accused.”
Sometimes Can Be Established by Direct Evidence
It frequently happens that the incendiary origin of a fire can IKshown by direct eivdence such as the saturation of the premises with kerosene, gasoline, or some other inflammable fluid. It can be established by showing that there were two or three fires w’hich were separate and distinct, each having no connection with the other. If articles of furniture have been so arranged as to retard the work of the firemen or if evidence is found that a considerable part of the furniture, fixtures or stock was removed from the building previous to the fire, it indicates that it was the result of design. Such suspicious circumstances as these can always l)e introduced to strengthen the proof of the body of the crime. It is highly important in all cases where evidences of the incendiary origin of the fire are found that the premises be photographed in order that the jury may be able to see the exact conditions. If the investigation indicates that articles of stock, furniture, fixtures and so on were removed from the building before the fire occurred, the importance of locating these articles and having them identified and photographed cannot be over-emphasized.
Great Care Needed in Examining Fire
It is extremely important that the investigator exercise the greatest care in examining articles found near the fire such as bottles candles and similar “tools’’ of the arsonist’s trade, which show evidence of having been handled by the incendiary. All such articles should IK carefully investigated by an expert for evidence of finger prints. Finger prints are most conclusive evidence. The prints of no two persons are exactly alike, and a finger print expert can make positive identification from them. It is a form of evidence where demonstration can be made in the presence of a jury and an expert be able to testify positively. In this respect it differs from the testimony of a handwriting expert, who always gives mere opinion evidence.
It is frequently advisable to eliminate insofar as possible all the accidental causes which might IK put forward by the accused as the probable cause of the fire. It is therefore highly important, if possible, to examine the heating and electrical equipment of the building in order to prove that the fire was not due to any defect in these systems. All accidental causes should be eliminated. This should be done because a fire may be so suspicious as to indicate the act of an incendiary when in fact it was not’..
Establishing Positive Motive
Third—Motive. It is extremely important, though not absolutely necessary, to establish a positive motive on the part of the accused in the trial of a case of arson. The motive for the crime is usually revenge or a desire to defraud the insurer. Over-insurance is not always necessary to prompt an attempt at burning to defraud. Straitened financial circumstances or a desire to change location or some other such motive, may be sufficient to prompt a man criminally inclined to attempt a quick “sale” of his property to some insurance company. It is quite important, in all cases of arson in which a desire to defraud the insurer is the motive, that the value of the property destroyed be determined as accurately as possible. In all cases where the property is not burned entirely out of sight, an inventory should be taken by some person who can qualify before the court as an expert on values.
Must Show Proof of Guilt
Fourth—Proof of Guilt. If a man is directly accused of the crime of arson, it is necessary to show by facts or circumstances, or both, that he could and actually did set the fire in question. If he procured another to set the fire, or if he aided or abetted the real incendiary, he is equally guilty and liable to prosecution. After the body of the crime has been established in an arson case, every fact or circumstance tending to throw any light on the case is usually admissible as evidence against the accused.
Assaying the Suspect
The demeanor, conduct and actions of the persons suspected of a crime, such as attempted flight, the desire to elude discovery, and anxiety to conceal the crime or evidence of it, are always important as indicative of a guilty mind. It is important to investigate every incriminating circumstance tending to show that the fire was of incendiary origin and that the accused was connected therewith. Therefore his actions, statements, conduct and whereabouts at or near the time of the fire should always be investigated. Any act of preparation, or the possession by the accused of the means or instruments by which the fire was set, or his possession of goods proved to have been in the building immediately before the fire, or proof that he removed goods from thebuilding shortly before it occurred, is always important and admissable as evidence against him.
Those who are engaged in the nefarious business of burning are well aware of all the differences, all the confusion, all the legal checkmates and technicalities encountered by the authorities in administering the various arson laws and in prosecuting suspects. They study them and in some instances even contrive to live within the letter of the law while treating its spirit with the utmost contempt. That the result is an enormous economic waste to the country, as well as a demoralizing influence generally, need hardly be said.
The Fire Bug
Thus far nothing, or but little, has been said concerning the so-called “fire-bug.” He, it is, with whose operations the public at large is perhaps most familiar, for his name seems to be legion. People usually think of him, when incendiarism is discussed, although the truth is that he is only a part, albeit a dangerous part, of the army of burners which preys upon the American public.
Every fire-bug of course, in the language of the street, is crazy. His affliction may range from a mild perversion which psychiatrists and students of abnormal psychology identify almost always with certain sexual crises—through the various forms of dementia down to hopeless insanity. Starting a fire, with him, satisfies some obscure urge; he obtains from watching the licking flames a definite thrill or, again as the man in the street has it, a “kick.” Fire fascinates him; he is drawn to it irresistibly; he is the human moth lured willy-nilly to the flames of his own creation.
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Curing America of Arson
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Peculiarities of this Type
Crafty at one moment, pathetically child-like at the next, he and his torch are found everywhere and many and heinous are the human tolls he has taken. He is not always easy to apprehend, since very often he is possessed of all the cunning of an animal; yet more ami more of his ways arc becoming known as science advances in its study of him. He is, for instance, almost certain not to leave the scene of any fire he has set, or, if he leaves, then he will return; for his only purpose in starting the blaze is to watch it burn. Expert investigators, therefore, have come to look for him, at a suspicious fire, somewhere among the throng which usually collects. Following these tactics, they have been successful in capturing hundreds of pyro-maniacs.
Again, certain incendiaries of the pyromaniac type show a predilection, as it were, for starting their fires in certain ways or in certain circumstances. New York remembers still a veritable epidemic of tenement fires which originated in baby carriages left in lower hallways. A dozen or more of such blazes were finally traced to one man. Other fire-bugs prey upon special occupancies or classes of buildings, as farms, for instance or school houses. Their peculiarities, indeed, are quite too many to be more than suggested here.
The monomaniac is the person with a systematized delusion. When the delusion centers around fire it produces the pyromaniac; just as there is the kleptomaniac in the uncontrollable thief, livery institution for the care of the insane contains many inmates who might properly be classed as pyromaniacs. Unfortunately asylums do not hold all these insane fire-bugs. They are to be found in practically every community and their contribution to the fire loss of the country is appalling. These unfortunates should be carefully watched, since, taken as a whole, they constitute a serious public menace.
Excitement One Factor in Cases of Young People
Many incendiary fires are set by young boys and girls who have a desire to be the center of interest or who derive some satisfaction from the excitement caused by seeing the firemen conquer the flames. In other cases the impulse to set fires is nothing more than an hysterical reaction against surroundings which have become irksome. These classes of pyromaniacs are usually curable, either by a change of environment or systematic training in emotional control.
Fire-bugs, being in some measure insane, are not, strictly speaking, criminals although their acts are dastardly enough. At law, however, there is no means at the present time by which the punishment meted out to them can be differentiated from that accorded to the fraud arsonists and to those others who, although sane, burn for various reasons. Hence the pyromaniac must be put where he can work no more harm, once he is seized. Some day however, when the law is willing to do more than coquette with science, a special kind of incarceration or segregation unquestionably will be theirs. There is said to be a case at the moment, indeed, in which a firebug, a man hitherto mentally sick on the subject of fire, has been rendered normal by assigning him to stoke the prison furnace! Such a cure, effected thus informally, opens high possibilities for the future in systematically treating pyromaniacs and in preventing their depredations.
How to Cure Disease of Arson
All these factors—the public attitude toward fraud fires, the amount of insurance, the inharmonious population, the lax and varying laws and prosecution procedures, and lastly, pyromania —have combined to give America the worst kind of preeminence. It has made her the home of the incendiary.
How shall she set about curing herself of this malady of arson which afflicts her?
For each of these contributing factors there is a cure or at least a counteractant. Public opinion is even now undergoing reform slowly. Less and less frequently is there heard that sneaking expression of approval of fraud fires, or at least of indifference to them, from otherwise good and reputable citizens. Honest people are awakening to the true nature of the crime and to its effects upon themselves and the country generally. There is unmistakable evidence that people are at last becoming aroused. They are on the defensive now, and before long they can be relied upon to join the authorities actively and without reserve in running down the incendiary. Juries today are covicting with decisive vigor—which, in itself, is the strongest possible deterrent to the potential burner.
Greater Care Needed in Extending Insurance
And there is another deterrent, one that insurance itself is master of—greater care in extending insurance protection. Moral hazard and a condition of over-insurance are synonymous. Not only are underwriters scrutinizing more closely than hitherto the character and reputation of applicants, and their fire records, but they are taking special means to prevent the placing of more insurance on a risk than the sound value of that risk justifies. Volume of “sales” in fire insurance is giving way to selective placing of insurance, and the effect upon the dishonest fire record is already marked.
It is encouraging indeed to observe that in the light of better understanding, the public is beginning to recognize crime stripped in its most cowardly form. Arson is the Crime of Crimes—responsible for more than 50 per cent of lives of firemen lost in all fires. An arson fire is said to cost more than a dozen unpreventable fires. Why shouldn’t the public be concerned about it when it is people’s money that rrtust pay for the national fire waste each year—not the insurance companies but the people who are unwittingly taxed by commerce on every commodity or type of service they buy, in order that business can afford to pay for financial protection? The disgraceful cost of arson which the American public must meet is the strongest reason for concerted action against a demoralizing force in the progress of the nation.
In conclusion, let me say we should have no apologies tc offer to anyone for our part in this war on the torch. There can be no higher profession or calling than that of fighting the battle of right against wrong, protecting the innocent from the wicked, the good against the dishonest and the truth against falsehood.
(From a paper read before the annual convention of the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs.)
E. Moline Rejects Station Bid—East Moline, la., has rejected the bid for the construction of a fire house.
Peekskill, N. Y., to Have Regular Inspections—Officers of the fire department, Peekskill, N. Y., are to make regular inspections of the business district.
Edgewater Firemen Want Pay Increase—A petition is being circulated in Edgewater, N. J., to increase the pay of firemen. The suggested increase would affect every member of the department.
New Jersey Governor Views Parade—Governor Larson of New Jersey viewed the parade in which three thousand firemen participated, to mark the placing in service of new fire apparatus at Westmont. Chiefs Ross B. Davis of Philadelphia, William J. Lutz of Wilmington, Del., Samuel Conver of Ocean City, and others, were present.