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—
Abnormal sex desires
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,—
Fire Chief’s son
College Professor’s son
Fire Captain’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.
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.
Then small buildings, and finally, larger ones.
Case No. 2.
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.
Lowest type imaginable.
Family history bad.
Degeneracy ail along line.
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.
Insanity two generations back.
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.
Married and divorced.
Family background good.
Realized fire setting was wrong.
Wrote threat notes to herself to throw suspicion on others.
Case No. 6.
Forefathers came over in Mayflower.
One of oldest and best families of the Community.
Burned barns when drunk.
No sex element.
Case No. 7.
Good family history.
Burned churches and schools.
When apprehended, was employed as telephone switch-board operator in Hospital containing 300 bed patients.
Case No. 8.
Poor family history.
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.
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.