WHY ARSON THRIVES IN NEW YORK
The arson and insurance exhibit of the New York fire department was opened by Mayor Gaynor Thursday in No. 61 Chambers street. It consisted of a collection of fire insurance policies obtained by members of the department on articles having a total value of $3.96. The policies amounted to $127,500. A curious throng passed in and out of the store all afternoon with expressions of amazement on their faces. The property insured was in the center of the room. The collection if sold at auction might bring $2. The object was to show the public how careless fire insurance companies are in issuing policies, thereby giving the incendiary great opportunity to ply his trade. Fire Commissioner Johnson submitted to the mayor an elaborate report on incendiarism in the city. In the report Johnson says:
“It has been amply demonstrated that any amount of insurance may be obtained by almost anybody—either directly or through agents or brokers—from practically all fire insurance companies doing business in Greater New York. The ease with which this insurance was obtained and the utter lack of caution on the part of the companies or their agents, even in hazardous districts, will afford an intimation of how would-be incendiaries provided themselves with insurance policies whch form the necessary incentives to their crimes.”
The mayor attacked the New York board of fire underwriters in his address opening the exhibit. He said conditions exposed in Commissioner Johnson’s report were shocking. “I could not believe such things could happen here in this city,” the mayor said. “But here it is attested, and all the policies taken out can be seen by anyone. The sum and substance of it is that on a few little articles of household furniture which cost $3.44 the department had no trouble whatever to obtain a total of $127,500 insurance. No wonder that 25 per cent, of our fires are incendiary. Why should they not be when such business can go on here?” The mayor said no doubt some companies would not do that, but the business was in the hands of agents who did. Referring to fire adjusters, he said: “After the fires occur there is more than strong reason to believe that adjusters are in this business, who certify damage that was never done at all by fires, and certify to the burning of articles that were never touched by fire at all. You could not carry it out any other way. We also have bands of incendiaries, bands of people who take out this insurance on nothing and then burn up the place and claim a total loss and get their insurance. And I believe that they have people also who come forward and teach how to make out proofs of loss and everything— a complete system. But -that could not go on possibly except by the connivance or the aid of the insurance companies. When this investigation started I had by doubts whether it could be done. It did not seem to me possible that such a condition could exist here under the board of fire underwriters. You know they claim to be the censors of other people. They want to run the fire department and half the city government. I am bound to say that one of the first things I did when I came in was to warn the fire department against the board of fire underwriters, that I did not wish their judgment substituted for that of the city government. This exhibition is enough to convince me that however often I may be wrong, at least once in my life I was right. Now that is really all I have to say. This exhibition to the citizens was planned because we want to bring this home to the whole city if possible. We want to bring it home to the honest business community. On account of these incendiary fires you honest people have to pay a higher rate of insurance. don’t you? The money has to be made up some way, and the honest people who take out honest insurance and do not burn their places up, but carefully guard their property, have to pay for the rascality that this report reveals. The people of this city want to take it up and discuss it and see that the insurance companies do not continue this order of things.”
“We are not dealing with the professional firebug,” Johnson said, “although we have uncovered organized bands of criminals who make a business of setting fire to premises to get insurance. We are dealing broadly with the method of issuing fire insurance policies without inspection or proper knowledge of the risk, which places a premium upon arson by offering the financially weak, tottering or bankrupt an irresistible temptation. This exhibit to-day is proof of our contention.”
The Fire Commissioner of New York City in a recent manifesto has informed the citizens that organized groups of firebugs—incendiaries for profit—have operated in this city for years. That is no news. The same statement was given out by FIRE AND WATER ENGINEERING of just such a gang in October, 1896, when there was an epidemic of incendiarism and some dozen or more persons were arrested for the crime. The same statement has been repeated in these columns at more or less frequent intervals, and there is no doubt that if the city’s fire marshals of that date and those of Brooklyn and the police of each city had co-operated as they ought and made it their business to root out such criminals and made New York and Brooklyn too hot to hold them, by haling them before the court, the judges, by the severity of their sentences, would very soon have reduced their number, and, as a consequence, the amount of loss of life and property at the same time. It need, therefore, be no matter of surprise to the readers of this journal to be told that to-day 25 per cent, of the fires of 1912, as well as those of 1911, were of an incendiary origin, and that a very large portion of the $400,000,000 in insurance might have been saved. The subject of incendiarism should have been faced squarely in 1911, when it was a matter of common talk that the arson syndicate was having it all its own way more than ever before, and to have delayed taking up the matter and pressing it home both to the police and the public, was something that called tor immediate action. Still it is better late than never, and if the bureau of fire prevention of the city’s fire department, after having been in existence for so many months without showing SUCH results as the public had the right to expect, since the existence of this syndicate of thieves and worse has been so well known both to the police and the fire department. It is true that in 1911 twenty-three incendiaries were convicted of arson and that a large number of others were arrested and found guilty in 1912. But it is also true, as the fire commissioner is fain to confess, that “these convictions represent a very small percentage indeed of the men, and women, too, who are systematically engaged in making fires for profit. It is also true that investigation on the part of the fire department “has disclosed that groups of firebugs have operated in this and other cities for years.” But when bands of men and women are “systematically engaged in making fires for profit,” and with only the minimum of investigation and without the proper facilities for such investigation those outside of the constituted authorities have known that the operations of these firehugs have been going on “for years,” it only shows that the fire marshal’s office has been a costly farce. The fire commissioner urges in extenuation for the fewness of the arrests and convictions (he does not give the proportion of convictions to arrests), that the methods followed by these incendiaries in setting fires have been “so clever that practically all traces of incendiarism have been destroyed and they have gone on reaping a rich harvest until some inadvertent act has led to their detection by our fire marshals”,—which simply goes to prove either that the fire marshals did not bestir themselves in the matter or that they were incompeten— that is, they had not, what every fire marshal should have, a nose for detective work, and, therefore, were not fit for their position. It is not too late, however, for the fire commissioner to change all that and not only to break up these groups of firebugs, but to land the greater number of their members within the walls of State prison, and so to show the remainder that in every sense of the word it is a dangerous game to play with and at fire.
While FIRE AND WATER ENGINEERING is only too willing to give Fire Commissioner Johnson all due praise for his desire to put down incendiarism in New York City and to indorse his figures as to its prevalence, it must at the same time remind the commissioner that in the abstract of his report of his department—which appeared the other day in the public press of the city, he only repeats what appeared editorially in these columns as far back as October 24. 1896. In that editorial it was shown that the authorities were as unable then as to-day to ferret out, bring to trial and insure the conviction of the whole of the infamous hand of incendiaries who at that time, as at the present, dominated the city and defied the police, the fire marshal and all concerned to put them down and firing them to condign punishment. To-day the same powerlessness seems to rule, and has ruled, at least during the past two years. The editorial referred to is as follows:
“New York has been again suffering from an epidemic of incendiarism, which all the vigilance of the police, added to the most careful investigation on the part of the fire marshal, has been unable to check. The details of each attempt hardly vary in the least. The only item in the reports that needs to fie changed is the name of the street. Otherwise the paper-rag-fire-woodrufifiish-kerosene combination and the incendiary’s match, added to the midnight or early morning hour and the stampeding tenants from the tenement house, constitute features which are absolutely monotonous in their identity. The severe sentences recently dealt out to those who have been convicted of arson in this city do not seem to have had any effect in putting down the crime. All that we can hope for, therefore, is that out of the fifteen firebugs now in custody and awaiting trial for their offence of incendiarism, one or two may be induced—”for a consideration,” of course—to give such information as shall enable the authorties to lay hold of the actual promoters of these dastardly and cowardly outrages—the fellows who are making a gain out of the nefarious business, not merely their miserable tools.” FIRE AND WATER ENGINEERING, October 24, 1890.