Pyromania—a Cause for Growing Concern

Pyromania—a Cause for Growing Concern

An Intensive Study of the Causes of Pyromania, Methods of Combatting It and the Confinement and Care of Those Afflicted with the Disease

INCENDIARISM continues to be one of the major causes of fire losses in the United States. Annually, millions of dollars worth of property is consumed by fires which have been deliberately set. Aside from the large insurance loss, there is also a vast total loss due to the fact that much of the property burned is never rebuilt, with the ensuing loss of taxable revenue which vitally affects every community. Consequently, every fire prevention program should include a drive against the fire bug. The most effective method to check the activity of the incendiary is arrest and prosecution.

Fire Bugs Cost Nation $7,000,000

A national organization engaged in fire protection and prevention, in its report of fire losses for 1936, gave the loss from incendiarism as $6,850,000, with a loss of $1,850,000 ascribed to fires of suspicious origin, so that on this basis it would appear that losses which may be attributed to fire bugs total upward of at least seven million dollars. Records of past years show that incendiarism has caused even greater losses.

It has been noticeable in the past few years that there has been a decrease in the number of fires which have been set to defraud insurance companies, and for spite or revenge. There has been, however, a decided increase in the number of fires which are directly attributed to persons afflicted with pyromania. This type is to be found everywhere and furnishes fire and police officials with a problem which has many ramifications.

What Massachusetts Has Done to Control the Evil

Massachusetts authorities have gone beyond arrest and prosecution of this type and have endeavored to learn more about the cause and background of the individuals who are afflicted with pyromania. This State has accomplished much along this line and, in many cases where the subjects fail to respond to treatment, such subjects have been permanently confined in proper institutions, thus, at least being removed as a danger to society ; in other words, they have been taken out of circulation, so to speak.

George O. Q. Mansfield

Through the courtesy of Commissioner of Public Safety Eugene M. McSweeney and State Fire Marshal Stephen C. Garrity, of the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety, FIRE ENGINEERING is bringing to the fire service of the country the benefits of the study made in Massachusetts on the subject of “Pyromania,” by publishing an article which has been especially prepared by George O. Q. Mansfield, Chief of Fire Investigation of that department.

What Is a Pyromaniac?

At the outset, it must be pointed out that the question “What is pyromania?” has long been an unsolved riddle and, while the exact cause of pyromania is not known, much has been learned in recent years concerning the subject and the characteristics of those who are afflicted. The word “pyromania” is derived from two words ; first, “pyro,” meaning fire and heat: and second, “mania.” meaning excessive and unreasonable excitement and enthusiasm or violent desire or passion. The word “pyromaniac” is also used and many times incorrectly, due to the fact that “maniac” means raving with madness, raving lunatic or a madman ; consequently, unless the person is violently insane, the word “pyromaniac” does not apply. However, in actual practice, the word “pyromaniac” is used to describe all persons who set fires for reasons other than spite, revenge or to defraud insurance companies, so that we must look to the word “pyromaniac” more as a descriptive term, than to apply it to all people who set fires. One of the foremost law dictionaries gives the legal definition of “pyromania” as “an irresistible propensity to burn”; while another authority explains it by saying: “Fire setting under an abnormally conditioned impulse by a person not determinably insane.” This latter definition, to my mind, appears to be most substantially correct and, at least, the most practical. Experience has shown that the majority of actual cases follow within this definition.

Pathological Arson

Some authorities, and more so in recent years, have termed such fire setting as “pathological arson.” Again looking to the definition, we find that pathological means “morbid.” “due to disease,” “pertaining to the passions or emotions.”

As pyromania usually predominates among imbeciles, epileptics, dements, sex perverts, and sex degenerates, it would seem from the definition of pathological arson, that the words have been well chosen for burnings resulting from pyromania.

Pyromania Can Only Be Recognized by Acts

If the state of mind, or the mental abnormality of the persons in the throes of pyromania could be easily recognized, the many problems arising from the acts of such persons could be readily solved by preventive measures being taken, before these persons had an opportunity to satisfy their desires. In other words, if we knew their condition in advance, such persons could be given proper medical treatment, or, at least, be confined to an institution where they could do no harm.

Four Buildings Was Her Record

Unfortunately, however, it is not until the damage has been done, and the person apprehended, that he or she is found to be afflicted with pyromania, and, likewise, such may even be the case with those termed determinably insane, or imbeciles, or epileptics. This condition is due to the fact that the mental state of those thus afflicted manifests itself in no other way than through this propensity to set fires, as they are often possessed with extreme cunning and unusual cleverness, which make it more difficult to discover their actual status.

Cases Becoming Better Understood

Fortunately, this type of individual is becoming better understood today, due to the fact that their cases are now being studied by psychiatrists and psychologists. No longer are they, or, at least they should not be. just convicted as criminals for setting fires, and sent to jail as punishment. It is true—

First, they should be removed from Society for the safety of life and property, but,

Second, their cases should be treated properly, with a view to affecting a possible cure for their diseased minds,

and then, if incurable, they should be safely confined in the proper institution for the remainder of their lives, or. until pronounced safe to again be released among Society.

Insane Confined in Suitable Institution

If the fire setter is found to be legally insane, then there is little left to do but to confine such a person in an institution for the insane, but, at the same time, in such an institution where he or she will not be a menace to insane inmates of other types. By this I mean, that it would not be wise to send a person with an insane desire to set fires to a general hospital for the insane. Such a person would require a more strict confinement. To illustrate this point may I say, that in Massachusetts, insane persons who have set fires are sent to the Bridgewater Hospital for the Criminally Insane, although we have a dozen other institutions for the insane.

It would appear that the question of insanity must, therefore, be decided at the outset, as we find that setting fires results, in many cases, from an irresistible impulse by persons not legally insane, as such persons may know the difference between right and wrong, and that fire setting is wrong, but yet these persons are unable to resist the impulse. If they know that it is wrong and merely answer this impulse, then there is no defense or question of insanity.

Determining the question of insanity differs in various jurisdictions, but it is a fixed rule of law in the majority of states that the deciding point on the question of determining the responsibility when the question of insanity is involved, is what is termed the “right and wrong rule.” that is: “Did the defendant know the difference between right and wrong?”

Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity

If the defendant was laboring under such a defect of reason, that he or she was unable to distinguish between right and wrong, he or she would be held not guilty, by reason of insanity, and, therefore, confined to an institution for the insane.

In some jurisdictions, provisions are made for an examination by alienists who report to the court, and the magistrate may commit, if the alienists report the defendant insane. Some States rests the question with the jury, which considers the alienists’ report. In Massachusetts, the Judge may act himself, or, the jury can return a verdict of not guilty, by reason of insanity, or the defendant may demand a jury trial on the question of insanity.

If found, not to be insane, which occurs in the majority of cases, or, if the defendant does not plead guilty, then there must be a trial. If the person is, therefore, convicted, the question next to be considered is: What disposition must be made of this case involving pyromania? As previously stated, he should not be thrown into jail as punishment.

Set Ice House Fires and Annoyed ChildrenSet Four Fires and Wrote Threat Notes to HerselfSet 46 Fires and Transmitted 98 False Alarms

Disposition of Case Upon Conviction

Laws vary, according to jurisdiction, as to such disposition. In Massachusetts, I believe, we have the proper method. The defendants, upon conviction, are examined and declared to be defective delinquents, if fourteen years of age, or over, and if below fourteen years, then they are classed as juvenile or mental delinquents. Under this set-up. such persons are sent to the Bridgewater State Farm Insane Hospital, and confined in special wards, where they are accorded the proper treatment, in an effort to cure them. Chapter 123. Section 113, of the General Laws of Massachusetts, provides for this procedure.

Cases do respond to treatment, and are carefully studied, seeking light not only upon the nature of the illness, but also the possibilities of systematic treatment. If they recover sufficiently to be paroled, they are closely supervised after leaving the institution. Our officers and local authorities are promptly notified of their release, and their whereabouts are closely checked to prevent a recurrence of their acts. No longer are they carelessly turned loose to wreak further damage upon a community.

Recently, I had a good illustration of this procedure with the recurrence of fires in a neighborhood where a juvenile delinquent had been returned to the care of his parents. Our inspector promptly brought him in. whereupon the boy admitted the new fires, and was quickly returned to the institution.

(To be continued)

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