Incendiary Sets 140 Fires
THE clock hands had moved around to eleven in a Russian restaurant located in a section of Seattle, Wash., commonly termed the “Russian Settlement.” It marked the beginning of a most eventful evening.
Those working inside the dining place were annoyed by the persistent barking of a small watch dog housed in a pen at the rear. Such continuous sounds were unusual, for the animal was generally content to gnaw the bones that were frequently placed near him.
“Shut up, you dog,” an employee shouted through the back door.
Hut the dog continued his barking, eyes focused on a nearby vacant lot.
A waiter could stand it no longer. He marched to a rear window to see what prompted the howling. He saw a small fire at the rear of a church, one hundred feet away.
“The church is on fire!” he yelled for the benefit of the others, and seizing a cleaver, ran towards the frame house of worship. I le collided with a man whom he had never seen before. Although excited by the emergency, he held on to the stranger for other arrivals to guard while he went to fight the fire.
Police atifl fire inspectors who arrived later found few articles on the supposed firebug, and an absence of matches. It was a bundle of folded toilet paper that linked this forty-three-year-old man with a series of fires, which in the course of a few years, endangered property valued at $6,500,000.
Unlike most fires which are started for personal gain, this series of 140 fires were made because of a grudge against the money-class of society. To understand the mental reaction which was the driving force, it is necessary to know the life history of the man and his background.
Robert Bruce Driscoll, 43, the eldest of a family of seven children, was born in Spokane, Wash. His parents, of Irish descent, were also born in this country. His mother, troubled by cancer for many years, extremely irritable and on the slightest provocation would punish the children beyond reason. Robert being the eldest, received the major portion of this punishment. When sixteen years old, he ran away from home and never returned.
During his school years at home it was the ambition of his parents that when old enough, he would enter a preparatory school for the Priesthood. Robert had other ideas as he enjoyed such subjects as physics, chemistry, science and art, he pleaded to be permitted to become a teacher.
Unsatisfactory Home Life
The unbearable condition prevailing at his home, however, became the deciding factor to both questions, and Robert had not only his own future but his living to make as well. Surmounting all handicaps he completed bis high school education and a business school course where he learned bookkeeping and stenography.
For a number of years he was employed by the Northern Pacific Railway and the Northern Express Company as a stenographer. Still being of a studious nature he was not satisfied with this type of labor and in February, 1914, secured employment in a law office. For three years he worked and studied law, planning to save enough to complete his education at some university and to take his bar examinations. Here fate played him her worst trick.
A Story of Two Girls
Robert being a young and ambitious man was not unattractive to many of the fairer sex and soon he was engaged to a charming young lady who shared his ambitions and was willing to wait and to help him in his plan for a career. At this period of his life entered another girl who although pleasing of appearance and perhaps quite popular had no high ideas regarding the future, and like many others, took her pleasures when and where she found or desired them. Robert being only human, was soon in the power of this girl. Before long her condition became such that marriage was the only answer. This happening, and the attendant publicity, broke up all his plans. He left his place of employment discontinued his studies and went out to make his living in newer fields where his past was unknown.
He was without a trade and as he had difficulty in securing work he took up a homestead. For three years he labored on it when he had no other employment. This homestead no doubt seemed to him the only real thing left in life. It was a bitter blow when it came time for final proof of his claim, that certain irregularities were found and he was unable to gain title. He soon became discouraged and his marriage proved extremely unhappy. As time went on things went from bad to worse and lie finally secured a divorce, although it was against the edicts of his religion. This, together with the loss of his homestead, and certain difficulties he had had with draft officials during the world war period, prompted a hatred of the so-called Capitalists and the conditions for which he believed them responsible. This nurtured grudge became the one excuse for his many years as a vagrant and law violator.
Start of Police Record
Leaving the Pacific Northwest he went to Texas and held numerous jobs until unemployment again put him on the road. It is not known what law violations he committed there, but in certain crank notes he left he refers to being run out of the south. He spent several years in California and Oregon during which time he was mostly an unemployed vagrant, being arrested for disturbances on several occasions.
He returned to his native state of Washington and worked in various logging camps in the vicinity of Tacoma and Seattle, finally making Seattle his headquarters, as the depression closed the various mills and camps. From March, 1931, to October, 1933, he had no place of abode and slept in vacant buildings and box cars as night overtook him. It was during this period that he claims he first started on his long career as a firebug. The first fire of record to which he has confessed occurred on March 19, 1931. From this time on until caught he plied his torch whenever his fancy led him to do so and wherever he might be at the time, his only regard was not to endanger human life, other than officials.
In October, 1933, he moved into a shack in “Louisville’’, a shacktown colon)’ on the tide flats of Seattle, and with the advent of the relief feeding stations and free clothing, became a man of leisure and well cared for. It was during these hours of congregation with the other unemployed that he would listen to the talk of agitators and become worked up to a high pitch of emotion, or would become insulted by contact with colored men, whom he evidently blamed for some of his trouble in the south. Following these incidents he would become morose and moody and wander off in the dark to relieve his pent up feelings by setting on fire from one to five buildings before being satisfied. This he continued until he was caught on May 3, 1935.
Many Hours Spent in Public Libraries
Throughout his many years as a vagrant and law violator he retained his love for study and spent many hours in public libraries reading and studying such subjects as radio, chemistry and other sciences. It is hardly conceivable that so brilliant a mind under normal conditions could become so deranged during the hours of darkness as to become the most crafty and dangerous pyromaniacs of modern times, but the facts bear out this circumstance.
During the month of March, 1931, Seattle suffered a number of serious fires which were either of known incendiary or of unknown suspicious character. Careful investigation by the department revealed little information that would tend to solve these cases. There apparently was no motive that would involve owners, tenants or employees and as the insurance collected was in all cases less than the values involved, no definite action could be taken. These incendiary and unknown-cause fires continued intermittently through out the rest of 1931.
Early in 1932 the number of incendiary fires increased so rapidly that it was apparent that it followed an organized effort to destroy property. Every available inspector was detailed to the investigation division and a special squad was assigned to night patrol duty along the waterfront and in industrial districts. This squad worked in civilian clothes for several weeks without once catching sight of anyone acting in a suspicious manner, although the number of incendiary fires continued to mount. During the summer months, the number of incendiary fires decreased to almost nil, and the details were withdrawn. In the early fall however these fires again became prevalent and fire investigators, police and special agents again took up their task of apprehending the person or persons responsible for this sabotage.
Special Department Patrol
From the day these details took up their task and during the six weeks they worked in the cold, fog and rain, not one incendiary fire occurred. They were again returned to their normal duties and almost at once these fires again became a nightly occurrence and continued intermittently throughout the years 1933 and 1934. During this time a complete study was made of all such fires and every possible clue was carefully analyzed. It became apparent that practically all of these fires were set in as’nearly as possible the same manner. Fires were in nearly all cases started at the rear or in between frame warehouses or factories. Wherever possible these sets were placed under the buildings or under a loading platform or outside stairway. In some instances they were placed through broken windows or other openings. In all cases that the source of the fire could he traced it was found that either paper, kindling, or box car journal waste had been used. It was also noted that these tires nearly always happened in groups of from two to five and usually between the hours of 8:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m., with an occasional change to the early morning hours between 4 :00 and 6:00 a.m. As these fires were in many instances a long time apart, and several reports were received of an auto hurriedly leaving the scene of the fire, it was generally believed that more than one person was involved.
During the months of March and April, 1935, the numler of incendiary fires increased rapidly, hardly a night passed without one or more alarms. These fires were not confined to the railroad yards, manufacturing and wholesale districts, but covered an area approximately six miles long and one mile wide and the properties involved included IK>X cars, bridges, automobiles, churches, vacant residences, factories, docks, warehouses, lumber yards and many miscellaneous buildings. Regularly assigned ins(K-ctors were unable to cover this vast area and although every effort was put forth, it was again deemed necessary to start a regular night patrol.
Patrol Again Used
On April 15 ten men working in pairs, were assigned to patrol districts. These sections included the areas deemed most dangerous. Inspectors were ordered, in case of a fire, to take positions on each side of the fire and to observe and to check everyone watching the fire. While on this detail the inspectors discovered a number of set fires and covered all sides of at least a dozen such fires without once seeing the actual firebug, although dozens of persons were questioned and searched.
On the night of May 2 two fires occurred in the industrial district, both being discovered by detailed inspectors. As these fires were practically surrounded by inspectors it was thought to be impossible for anyone to escape, but although every vacant lot, building or other place of concealment was searched, no trace of the firebug could be found. However it was at one of these fires that the clue which led to the wholesale confession was obtained. An officer of the inspection division, who arrived at the fire before companies had started the extinguishing operation, noted several sheets of folded toilet paper in some kindling directly at the base of the fire, under the edge of the building. While this paper evidently had no bearing on the fire it was preserved as evidence along with the kindling, etc.
Russian Restaurant Fire
The next night Friday, May 3, about 11:00 p.m. the employees of a Russian restaurant, located in the Russian settlement on the east side of Capitol Hill became concerned by’ the continued barking of a small watch dog. Several times they attempted to quiet the dog but he continued barking. Apparently he was watching on the vacant lots to the rear of his pen. Being unable to pacify the dog, a waiter named Tellason looked out of a rear window which was some thirty feet above the ground. His attention was at once attracted to a small fire against the rear of a frame church building some hundred feet south. In the light of the fire, which was then very small, he could see a man. He at once shouted to the others that the church was on fire and seizing a meat cleaver ran back through the building to the front and down the sidewalk to the church building, where he intended to go down a very steep earth incline between the buildings to reach the rear. As he ran around the cornel he bumped into a man coming out from between the buildings. Not knowing this man, he caught hold of them and called to two men at a nearby garage building for help. They came and helped hold the man and extinguish the fire.
When questioned, this man claimed to have no knowledge of the fire and stated that he had just stepped in between these two vacant buildings to relieve a call of nature, when he was run into and knocked down by the man then holding him. This excuse was not accepted, however, and police were called. The man was locked up for investigation.
It was about 1:00 a.m. that the Fire Department was notified. As the man was in jail, no investigation was started until 7:00 a.m. At that time inspectors visited the scene of the fire and found that Police had failed to properly pick up and preserve the kindling and papers with which the fire was started. As this evidence had not been properly guarded its value was practically lost; however it was carefully gathered along with the only match which could be found in the vicinity. The articles were taken to fire headquarters for analysis. Inspectors were sent with a photographer to secure proper pictures of the buildings and the actual burning which was slight.
At 9:00 a.m. Fire Inspectors and Detectives started to question this man who gave the name of Robert Bruce Driscoll, age forty-three years and stated that he lived in a shack in the south end of town and had been on relief for over two years. A check of articles in his property box revealed little that would aid in the investigation, but the entire absence of matches was noted. When questioned, the man maintained that he carried matches at the time of arrest. During the questioning it was noted that Driscoll still had some articles in his pockets and he was again searched and from an inside pocket a bundle of folded toilet paper was taken.
This paper was subjected to tests and found to be the same as that found at the seat of a fire two nights before.
Driscoll maintained his innocence throughout the day and it was quite evident that he would not talk under those conditions. During the early evening Battalion Chief McIntosh and Inspectors Harshfield and Smith took the written statements of all witnesses at the scene of the fire or involved in the arrest. At about 9:00 p.m. they took Driscoll from the jail to a number of places where fires had been set and where watchmen or merchant patrolmen might have seen the man. Several watchmen looked this man over but were not allowed to question him or express themselves in his presence. However, none of them could remember ever seeing him near their buildings.
He was taken to Fire Headquarters and again questioned. After about 3hours of questioning regarding the fire at the church, he began to show signs of weakening and at about 2 a.m. Sunday morning, May 5 he signed a confession that he had set this fire with the intent of the destruction of this property. He said he was broke, was sore at the world in general, and just wanted to raise “hell.”
No further attempt was made to secure additional confessions at this time, and after a good meal Driscoll was returned to jail. Over Sunday a plan of further questioning was decided upon. On Monday morning the plan was outlined to Deputy Prosecutor Jack Schermer who agreed to work with us in obtaining further confessions, if possible. Driscoll was brought in and while readily admitting the church fire, steadfastly maintained his innocence of any other.
He was asked to write and to print many words and sentences in both large and small letters after which a comparison was made with the printing on a number of threatening notes which had been received during the past few years. Although he had evidently attempted to disguise the printing there was certain peculiarities to several individual letters which convinced all concerned that this was the man. The fact of the toilet paper found at a fire and on his person was also brought to his attention along with the information that several watchmen would probably identify him as being near their buildings before fires. He still disclaimed any knowledge of other fires at this time. It was evident we would be unable to prove any fires other than the one to which he had confessed. A proposal was made that if he would come clean and tell us of any other fires he may have set, he would only be charged with the one fire and would be able to clear his record on them all. After many questions on his part, he accepted this agreement and signified his willingness to make further confessions.
A stenographer was called and fire record books sent for. The work of calling to his attention the location of all incendiary and suspicious or unknown fires was started. After about two hours he had indicated some thirty fires he had set recently and then as it was necessary to secure other record books, Driscoll was taken to Fire Headquarters where records were checked and some forty more fires admitted. He said his activities in Seattle only covered a period subsequent to December 1933, when he came to Seattle.
To clear up doubt on some fires he was taken to the buildings involved and explained in detail exactly how and where they were set. A number of fires that happened previous to December, 1933, were called to his attention, but these he denied. Not being entirely satisfied Fire Inspectors the next day took Driscoll out to further check on fires he had confessed setting. During this trip he confessed to several fires which occured previous to the date he had claimed to have arrived in Seattle.
When this was brought to his attention, he laughed and said, “Well I guess I might as well give you the whole works”.
He admitted to fires as far back as April, 1931. A complete list of fires was made and Driscoll was taken to the location of each one where he gave all facts of the fire in a manner which could leave no doubt as to his first hand knowledge. In three days, approximately 152 miles of city streets was covered and in a number of instances Driscoll pointed out buildings he had set afire on which no alarm had been received, for the fire either went out or was put out by those discovering it.
Many Fires Set
In attempting to verify the setting of numerous box car fires at various locations Driscoll stated that he had set so many of these that it was impossible for him to remember them all. Since from twenty-five to forty such fires occured each year, only those he could definitely remember were ascribed to him.
The long list of fires to which he confessed, and proved conclusively he had set, included a majority of all the large fires of the past four years. Outstanding among these were the fires at the Albers Bros. Milling Co., on June 9, 1931, which involved some seven separate buildings and occupancies and caused a loss to buildings and contents of $236,484.23; Washington Iron Works on February 22, 1932, which involved three occupancies and caused a loss of $42,450; Seattle Baseball Park on July 5, 1932, which involved several adjacent buildings and caused a loss of $37,735.17; A. F. Ghiglione & Sons Inc., macaroni manufacturing plant on October 7, 1932, with a loss of $61,528.46; The Globe Milling Company on July 1, 1934, with a loss of $51,186.97; and the Ehrlich Harrison Hardwood Lumber Co. on July 17, 1934, with a loss of $80,926.65. During the four-year jx’riod there was a score or more of other spectacular fires involving losses from $5,000 to $20,000.
No Lives Endangered
One of the most astonishing facts in this series of fires was that no lives were lost and no one was injured. A complete check revealed that in only three instances were buildings fired in which persons were endangered and these were buildings that would not indicate the presence of occupants. Throughout his confession Driscoll steadfastly maintained he had set no fire dangerous to human life other than firemen, and even this angle had been considered. Several buildings were not set because they looked dangerous. When told of the buildings where lives were endangered Driscoll appeared extremely remorseful and said he would not have set them if he had known.
It is not difficult to visualize what could have happened in Seattle where hundreds of frame hotels and rooming houses are built up on piles or stilts. Such houses presented an ideal setup for the type incendiary fires started by Driscoll, had he not had scruples against the taking of human lives.
A close analysis of this aversion to the loss of life leads to the old belief that there is some good in the worst of criminals.
It is manifestly apparent from his many notes, signed “Firebug all over the Coast” and from the elusive manner of his answers to questions regarding fires in other cities that further careful investigation may reveal a similar condition in other coast cities, where this man had operated during the fourteen years lie has admitted being without a home.
Credited With 140 Fires
A careful compilation of figures from the records kept in the office of the Chief of the Fire Department, after several days of close checking with Driscoll, reveals a total of 140 known incendiary fires, to which he had confessed and located, with probably a large number of others which were ascribed to various causes and which Driscoll could not remember. The value of buildings and contents involved in these fires was $6,538,405, and the insurance carried was $5,073,481. The total loss on buildings and contents was $751,501.
It is difficult to conceive how fire losses were held at such a low figure during the past three years with such a fiend as this at large. Incendiary fires set in large frame buildings at night usually gain considerable headway before being discovered and with such a large number of fires and the high values involved, the Seattle Fire Department under Chief Claude W. Corning can well be proud of its record of approximately ten per cent loss on the values involved.