The Remedy for Incendiarism.
The question of incendiarism, says The Chronicle, is a growing question with insurance companies and ought to be a burning question, in a double sense, with the authorities charged with the duty of protecting society by the discovery and punishment of crime. What proportion of the something like $125,000 000 of fire loss for this year of our Lord 1891. is due to intentional burning, it is difficult to say with certainty, but that at least ten per cent is the result of guilty intention, will, we think, be generally conceded. Another considerable percentage is due to criminal carelessness, which, though not presenting the same moral aspect, is quite as bad in results to the fire insurance companies. To say nothing of the numerous cases revealed of late where individuals or gangs have deliberately set fires for revenge or pure cussedness, the burning of insured property by or at the instigation of the owners has become alarmingly common.
The pressing and practical question is how the crime shall be prevented or materially lessened. The companies themselves cannot adequately cope with it, for they are handicapped in advance by a mistaken prejudice in the public mind against any evidence of arson presented by the insuring company, the cry of interested motive being raised at once. That there are hundreds of cases where the company adjuster is perfectly convinced that the fires are of incendiary origin, though not capable of such proof as, furnished by the company, would serve to convict before the average jury, is well known.
It is, we think, becom.ng more and more obvious that investigation of all fires of uncertain origin, by the authority of the State, must he systematically entered upon before the work of he incendiary can be effectualy stayed. Mr. Hine, in his paper read before the Northwestern Fire Underwriters Association at Chicago recently, no doubt went to the root of this matter in his advocacy of a regular coroner’s quest instituted by the public authorities, whatever modification of his specific plan might be desirable in practice. Arson is a crime under the statutes, for which none too severe penalties are fixed. It is a distinct crime against society and a menance to its safety, as well as a fraud against insurance capital. Every fire kindled endangers not only the adjacent property of honest and innocent men, but puts human life in peril. How many of the fires in which human life, singly or in scores, has been sacrificed have been kindled by incendiary hands will never be known, but that grim death in its worst form often lurks in his midnight torch is beyond question.
It is as much the duty of the State to hunt down and punish the man who. for personal gain, puts the match to his own property at the peril of the lives and property of his neighbors, as it is to hunt down and punish the footpad, who, also for personal gain, puts the pistol to the head of the traveler upon the highway. In motive there is no difference, in result the former may be the greater criminal. The present machinery of the law is obviously inadequate to deal with incendiarism. What is needed is a competent, honest, courageous official in every country or district, empowered to investigate and prononnee upon every fire about the origin of which uncertainty exists, just as the coroner is empowered to inquire into every death from uncertain cause. To be efficient he must be charged exclusively with this duty and no other, and have power to pursue inquiry upon judicial lines fully equal to that of the existing coroner. With such an official in every designated district in Canada and in the United States, incendiarism might soon come to be regarded as a crime, with the terrors of its attendant penalty, instead of a profitable pastime. But how shall such a desirable arrangement be brought about ? Just as other needed reforms are brought about—by agitation ; by writing about it, and talking about it, and educating the public mind on the subject. It is only necessary, we believe, for the people, including the law makers, to realize fully the gravity of this unchecked peril in order to apply the remedy. Investigaiion and reflection by an intelligent public must, in the light of facts, be followed by conviction, and conviction be followed by action. So far as the city of Montreal is concerned, we are glad to say that fire marshals appointed by the city council have done good work, as some recent convictions of incendiaries attest.