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

(Concluded from the June issue)

HERE is the law which has to do with defective delinquents and drug addicts.

Chapter 123—Section 113—Defective Delinquents and Drug Addicts.

“Section 113. At any time prior to the final disposition of a case in which the court might commit an offender to the state prison, the reformatory for women, any jail or house of correction, the Massachusetts reformatory, the state farm, the industrial school for boys, the industrial school for girls, the Lyman school, any county training school, or to the custody of the department of public welfare, for any offense not punishable by death or imprisonment for life, a district attorney, probation officer or officer of the department of correction, public welfare or mental diseases may file in court an application for the commitment of the defendant in such a case to a department for defective delinquents established under sections one hundred and seventeen and one hundred and twenty-four, or to a department for the care and treatment of drug addicts, established by the governor and council under authority of said sections. On the filing of such an application the court may continue the original case from time to time to await disposition thereof. If, on a hearing on an application for commitment as a defective delinquent, the court finds the defendant to be mentally defective and, after examination into his record, character and personality, that he has shown himself to be an habitual delinquent or shows tendencies towards becoming such and that such delinquency is or may become a menace to the public, and that he is not a proper subject for the schools for the feeble minded or for commitment as an insane person, the court shall make and record a finding to the effect that the defendant is a defective delinquent and may commit him to such a department for defective delinquents according to his age and sex, as hereinafter provided. If on a hearing on an application for commitment as a drug addict, it appears that the defendant is addicted to the intemperate use of stimulants or narcotics, the court may commit him to a department for the care and treatment of drug addicts if and when such a department is provided.”

Incidentally, this law provides for examination by proper physicians who shall report to the Court as to the condition of the defendant. These physicians are usually Superintendents of two different State Insane Hospitals, who have a staff of Social Workers to assist them in the actual examination, and also the preparation of family histories, and other pertinent features, in arriving at a conclusion.

This method is proving most beneficial, not only in fire cases, but also in all criminal cases.

You can readily see the benefits of this procedure, because if a person suffering with pyromania is merely thrown into jail, and then released, he would be back in Society and again set fires. In Massachusetts, we have been able to keep such persons out of circulation, so to speak, as there are many individuals now confined who will never be released.

As I said at the outset, the answer to the cause of pyromania has not been found, and while this is so, nevertheless, much has been learned about the subject, and perhaps in the not too distant future psychiatrists and psychologists may give us that much looked for answer. As to what we have learned about the subject, we now know the characteristics of those thus afflicted and, at least, we can now more readily detect and apprehend such persons.

Characteristics of Actual Cases

In specifying some of these characteristics, I am drawing from actual cases which I have personally encountered in my eighteen years connection with the State Fire Marshal’s office in Massachusetts.

We will first take the basic characteristics which are—




Sex perversion

Sex degeneracy

Abnormal sex desires



Painful menstruation


Secondary Characteristics

Next, may I list the secondary characteristics, which include:

Excitement of watching or

Helping to extinguish a fire, gaining pleasurable relief or satisfaction from such, desire to play a hero’s role in the discovery of the fire, and rescue of occupants of the building, or

To attract attention to himself, or

To enjoy mingling with the crowds that gather at a fire, or

Cruel disposition to watch animals perish in a barn fire, or

To enjoy the horrors of people having difficulty in escaping from a burning building,

And many other common characteristics with which you are familiar.

Now, that we know more about these individuals, perhaps something as to the methods of apprehending them would be pertinent at this time.

Best Results by Patrolling Fire Area

In our efforts to apprehend such persons, it will be necessary to adjust the procedure to each case, as you will find, in most instances, that every case is different and peculiar to itself.

We, in Massachusetts, have found the best results in patrolling the area where fires occur:

To pick up all suspicious acting persons ;

To check up on all suspects, which would include all the types already mentioned:

To trail such suspects;

To watch and observe persons at the scene of such fires, because it is a trait of the fire maker of this type to remain at the scene, or to return to the scene, for it is only through watching the fire that he or she derives the satisfaction that he or she craves.

Then, there are those who set fires in certain types of buildings, such as churches, schools, barns, etc.

So, consequently, it would be proper to put a watch on all such buildings, as we did in a certain case in Worcester, Mass., where churches were being set afire, and in due time the guilty person was apprehended, as he admitted the church fire.

Any other methods that you might devise, of course, would be proper.

Another illustration of a certain type of fire is found in the case of a travelling salesman who set fires in linen closets in a dozen hotels, in as many cities where he had registered.

If we cannot find the answer to the cause of pyromania, we, at least, know what to associate it with.

Root of Most Arson Cases

As I delve into the subject and study actual cases, I am becoming convinced that the great majority of cases have a sexual root.

Sex degenerates Sex perverts and Persons with an abnormal sex desire are unquestionably responsible for a high percentage of set fires.

In years past, little attention was given to this angle, and it is strange that the sexual root of pyromania had been entirely overlooked by most criminologists.

One of the first cases I encountered eighteen years ago, I found was a sex case, due to masturbation. The subject confessed that he set fires for this reason, and derived sexual gratification while watching the flames.

Since that time, I have had eleven other cases which I personally investigated; while there were many others which were conducted by officers of this Department.

Strange as it may seem, a study of the various cases fails to show the cause of their condition, because, in many instances, family background has been excellent. Nor, can you ascribe it to any particular class. For instance, in twenty-five cases I have studied, I found a,—


Minister’s son

Fire Chief’s son

College Professor’s son

Lawyer’s daughter

Fire Captain’s son

Artist’s son

and I could go on down the list and enumerate others:

The high and the low

The educated and the uneducated

The poor and the rich, and

The Doctor, the Butcher, the Baker and the Candle-Stick Maker.

Case Histories of Convicted Firebugs

Here are a few case histories of convicted firebugs suffering from pyromania:

Case No. 1.

Age—26 years.

Son of hardworking mechanic.

Mother and father good appearing.

Nothing unusual in family history.

198 false alarms.

46 set fires.

Property involved, upward of $5,000,000.

Loss paid, $247,621.

Churches, schools, Town Hall, G. A. R. Hall, factory, bams, theatres— No houses—did not wish to endanger human lives.

False alarms first.

After awhile, not sufficient thrill.

His Specialty Was Barn FiresSet 12 Barn Fires Before He Was CaughtBurned Two Barns at School for Feeble Minded. Set 12 Fires in Insane Hospital

Then small buildings, and finally, larger ones.

Craves excitement.

Case No. 2.

Age—30 years.

Banker’s son.

Peeping Tom.


High School—Prep School—College.

Family history, excellent.

Kept diary, and when arrested complete record of all his fires found in diary; also running cards of Fire Departments of several cities and towns.

Case No. 3.

Age—17 years.


Lowest type imaginable.

Family history bad.

Degeneracy ail along line.

Venereal disease.

Born out of wedlock.

The product of degeneracy.

Lowest mentality, but, however, clever and cunning.

Burned two barns at a State Institution where he was confined.

Wanted to see cows die in fire, and enjoyed their suffering.

Not discovered until transferred to another Institution, where he set 12 fires, in hopes of escaping.

Stole matches and secluded them in lining of his coat collar.

Case No. 4.

Age—25 years.


Parents normal.

Insanity two generations back.

Sex Pervert.

Mutilitated nine year old girl, and strangled her to death.

Now serving life in State of Rhode Island.

Set fires in Massachusetts to gratify sex desire.

Arrested for these fires.

When apprehended, discovery was made of small red automobile buried in sawdust in his barn. Recalling that the Rhode Island Police were looking for a little red car, in connection with this murder, they were called into the case, and the car dug out and evidence found in the car which connected him with the murder.

Case No. 5.

Age—22 years.

Married and divorced.

Family background good.

Sex Pervert.

Unnatural Acts.

Realized fire setting was wrong.

Wrote threat notes to herself to throw suspicion on others.

Case No. 6.

Age—68 years.

Forefathers came over in Mayflower.

One of oldest and best families of the Community.


Burned barns when drunk.

No sex element.

Case No. 7.

Age—22 years.

Good family history.

Well educated.

Religious fanatic.

Burned churches and schools.

When apprehended, was employed as telephone switch-board operator in Hospital containing 300 bed patients.

Case No. 8.

Age—30 years.

Poor family history.

Convicted thief.

Started riot in jail.

Set fires to be a hero.

Case No. 9.

Real estate dealer’s son.

Good family background.

Annoyed members of the opposite sex.

Set 12 fires.


Case No. 10.

Age—27 years.

“Peeping Tom.”

Family history good.

Burned churches—$750,000 loss before being apprehended.

The problem of pyromania is of great importance, no matter how we look at it, whether it be from the viewpoint of the apprehension and proper treatment of the individuals confined, or from the dollar and cents standpoint; because, as to the latter, millions of dollars worth of property are burned annually by this type of fire maker. What is destroyed by fire is lost forever, and, therefore, we have losses from the social point of view.

These individuals are certainly a menace to Society in many ways, and as I have illustrated by these few cases, they are a great moral risk, as you have seen.

In concluding, may I state that, if what I have written here will aid you in the problem which this subject presents, and aid, not only in the apprehension and segregation of these unfortunates, but in advancing the study of these cases from a pathological standpoint, I will feel repaid for my efforts. May I emphasize that justice to the individuals involved in fire making, where the motive indicates pyromania, demands a thorough examination of the cases, in the hope of determining the responsibility.

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)