Incendiarism and Arson Versus Fire Prevention

Incendiarism and Arson Versus Fire Prevention

Huge Fire Losses Through Incendiarism—How Different States Treat the Crime of Arson—Importance of Observing the Evidence After a Fire


Special Agent

National Board of Fire Underwriters

I AM very glad again to have the opportunity of addressing the members of the National Firemen’s Association and to discuss with you, for a short time, in this, your 1920 Convention, the subject of “Incendiarism and Arson.” I am glad to present this subject before a body of men to whom no apologies are necessary and who realize that this crime of Arson is not so uncommon as some people would lead us to believe.

I would not attempt to estimate the amount of incendiary loss in this country for any year, but in the year 1916 there were reported to the National Board of Fire Underwriters incendiary fire losses to the amount of eight million dollars. There was also reported a loss of eightyeight million dollars from fires of unknown origin. It is undoubtedly true that a considerable part of this loss was also caused by the incendiary.

In my judgment the day of intensive Fire Prevention has arrived. I believe that more attention will be paid to Fire Prevention in the immediate future than has ever been directed towards it in the past. This will be brought about by absolute necessity and not by any increase in fire loss. Housing conditions in this country were never so acute as they are at this time. Hotels and apartment houses are crowded and dwellings for rent or even for sale at any reasonable price are not to be found. And yet, during the past two years 500,000 fires have occurred in dwellings. The property loss occasioned by these dwelling fires, not including contents, amounts to about $150,000,000, so that we can form some reasonable idea as to the number of people who have been made homeless in the last two years by such fires.

Preventing Crime of Incendiarism

The particular form of Fire Prevention in which I am most interested is that of preventing the burning of dwellings and other property by the incendiary. Every man owes it to himself and to the community to do what he can to prevent crime of whatsoever character, and yet, it is the attitude of the people at large in condoning and excusing crime that makes it so difficult for prosecutors to convict those guilty of infractions of the law. In most of our states Arson statutes were passed many years ago when the crime of Burning to Defraud was practically unknown and the crime of Arson was that of burning the habitation of another. All our laws are based on the old Common Law of England and under the Common Law Arson, being an offense against the habitation, was the wilful and malicious burning of the dwelling of another. Malice was the essence of the crime and the same ingredient must necessarily enter into the offense created by statute, although the offense has been materially extended in practically all of the states.

Arson Statutes of Various States

In certain states, as for example Georgia, Maine, Michigan, Massachusetts, Maryland and others, Arson is still practically an offense against the habitation. In these states the law has been somewhat changed and enlarged by legislative enactment so as to include certain buildings not dwellings, but the statutes of these states still define Arson as the burning of dwellings, or certain other buildings. The courts of these states seem inclined to define Arson as a crime against the security of the habitation rather than against the right of property. Under such statutes, therefore, a tenant in possession cannot properly be indicted for Arson for burning the house of the landlord. In certain other states, including Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Wyoming and others, Arson is defined as the wilful and malicious burning of dwellings, or certain other buildings, the property of another, or the property of another person. In interpreting such statutes the courts have universally held that the intention of the legislatures in enacting such laws was to protect the property as well as the habitation and that being for the protection of property a tenant in possession who wilfully and maliciously burns the property of the landlord is guilty of “Arson.” In still a third group of states, including New Jersey and Delaware, the offense has been defined as the burning of certain buildings, regardless of ownership or occupancy. In such states the crime of Arson is intended to be an offense against the community at large, as well as for the protection of property rights and the protection of the habitation. In New York, Kansas, Missouri and some other states the legislatures have seen fit to classify the burning of buildings under certain conditions into Arson of various degrees as first, second, third, etc., depending upon the seriousness of the offense. Such laws practically cover the burning of all classes of buildings under all kinds of conditions.

Motives Inducing Incendiarism

The National Board of Fire Underwriters has collected and compiled under “Motive” all the convictions in the entire country for Arson and Burning to Defraud for the years 1917, 1918, 1919. Our record for 1919 are not complete, but during the year 1918 there were 511 such convictions. The motives which actuated the fires for which these convictions were found are subdivided as follows:

To conceal crime…………………………… 36 Revenge ………………………………….. 97 Pyromania and other forms of insanity………… 177 To defraud the insurer………………………. 201

In any discussion of incendiarism some recognition must be made of the great number of fires which have been caused by those who are mentally irresponsible and for the purpose of identification all these insane fire bugs are classified, incorrectly no doubt, as pyromaniacs. Much of the crime in this country can be traced directly to those who are mentally defective. It is not at all strange that fire, which plays such a prominent part in our sane existence, should make such strong appeal to the person of unsound mind. The true pyromaniac is that type who has an irresistible impulse to set fires, just as the kleptomaniac has the uncontrollable impulse to steal. There is usually very small chance of effecting a cure in such cases. However, many fires are set by young boys and girls, who have a desire to be the center of interest, or who desire some satisfaction from the excitement caused by the fire and by seeing the firemen conquer the flames. In other cases the impulse to set fires is nothing more than the hysterical reaction against surroundings which have become irksome. The latter two classes are usually curable, either by change in environment or systematic training in emotional control.

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Arson vs. Fire Prevention

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Influence of Greed on Arson

By far the greatest number of criminal fires with which we have to deal are those resulting from a desire to make a quick sale of the property to the insurer. The Good Book tells us that love of money is the root of all evil. The greed of gold has been and is a most powerful motive for the commission of crime. The present generation is one of intensified commercialism. This spirit has made itself felt in our social as well as in our business life and the measure of a man has come to be what he has, rather than what he is. The great god graft, instead of being considered a monster of such fearful mien that to be hated needs but to be seen, has become so familiar that he is not only tolerated but embraced. The problem of eliminating or reducing incendiarism, where the impelling motive is a greed for gold, must address itself first to a change in public sentiment touching all kinds of law enforcement. For until such a change is made America will continue to stand first among the civilized nations in unpunished crime. It must address itself, second, to the restraint of the law or the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for criminal fires. In order to develop a case of Arson there are certain things that must be proved to the satisfaction of the court. It is necessary to introduce evidence that the fire actually occurred at a certain time and at a place within the jurisdiction of the court. Second, direct and positive evidence of some kind must be introduced to establish the fact that the fire was of incendiary origin. Every fire is presumed to be of accidental origin and it is necessary for the state to introduce positive evidence to overcome this presumption. Sometimes the incendiary origin of a fire can be shown by direct evidence such as the saturation of the premises with kerosene, gasoline or some other inflammable compound. It can be established by showing that there were two or three fires which were separate and distinct, and having no connetion with each other.

Careful Examination of Evidence

In the investigation of a fire care should always be taken to ascertain its character, in what part of the building it originated, how it burned, and other facts and circumstances which may be suggestive of its origin. The appearance of the interior of the building is important, and this frequently shows whether the fire was the result of accident or design. If articles of furniture have been so arranged as to retard the work of the firemen, or if evidence is found that a considerable portion of the furniture, fixtures or stock had been removed previous to the fire, it indicates that same was the result of design. If the investigation shows that such articles were removed previous to the fire the importance of ascertaining their whereabouts and having them identified and photographed if necessary, cannot be overestimated. It sometimes happens that the remains of a plant arranged by the incendiary to cause or accelerate the fire is found in the building after it has been extinguished. It is highly important in the event that candles, oily rags or things of that character are discovered, that they be left exactly as found until they can be photographed. It is extremely important that great care be exercised in handling such articles as candles, oily bottles, or other things of this character, which were evidently handled by the incendiary. Such articles should always be carefully examined for evidence of finger prints. It is frequently important to eliminate, insofar as possible, all of the accidental causes which might be put forward by the accused as the probable cause of the fire. It is therefore highly important to inspect the heating and electrical equipment of the building in order to be able to prove that the fire was not of accidental origin. All accidental causes should be eliminated insofar as possible. This should be done because a fire may be so suspicious as to indicate the act of an incendiary. In the case of the State TS. Simonsen, 107 Cal. 347, the Court said: “It is quite possible, however, to have a building burned under such suspicious circumstances as to exclude the notion of the fire being the result of accident or natural causes. A building may be burned under such suspicious circumstances as to indicate the act of an incendiary and thus the Corpus Delicti extablished and the door opened for the defendant’s admissions and confessions.” Third, it is extremely important, although not absolutely necessary, to establish a positive motive in the trial of a case of Arson. The motive for the crime may be revenge, the desire to destroy evidence of some other crime, or an attempt to defraud the insurer. Overinsurance is not always necessary to prompt an attempt at burning to defraud. Straightened financial circumstances, or a desire to change location, of some other such motive may be sufficient to prompt the man criminally inclined to attempt a quick sale to some insurance company. It is quite important in all cases of arson in which a a desire to defraud the insurer is the motive, that the value of the property destroyed be determined as accurately as possible. In cases where this property is not burned out of sight an inventory of it should be taken in order to fix its value. This inventory should be taken by some person who can qualify before the court as an expert on values. Fourth, it is necessary to show by facts or circumstances or both that the party under suspicion could and actually did set the fire in question. After the “Corpus Delicti” has been established in an Arson trial every fact or circumstance tending to show any light on the case is usually admissible as evidence against the accused.

While it is usually not important to introduce evidence of other fires on the part of the accused, it is frequently advisable to have this evidence available, in order to establish motive, intent, absence or accident, or connected crime, etc., and to establish this evidence is frequently admissible. In my judgment in all cases of Arson or Burning to Defraud the initial investigation of the fire should be made by the members of the fire department. These firemen should accumulate all of the evidence pointing to the origin of the fire, and after sufficient evidence has been developed to show that the fire was not accidental it can then be turned over to the police department or such other investigating bureau as is available for this work.

An Ohio law that went into effect April 29, of this year, orders that fire drills shall be held in manufacturing establishments any part of which is three or more stories in height.

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