COLLECTING THE NATION’S FIRE TAX (Feb, 1909)

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COLLECTING THE NATION’S FIRE TAX

By HENRY S. CHASE

THIS is a story of incendiarism—a story of the lengths to which, under certain circumstances, some respected business men will go, and how and why they pass into the criminal class. This is a story showing, too, how men organize syndicates to carry on the exciting, pleasurable and profitable business of arson.

In the year 1907, and in each of its twenty predecessors, we paid to men and women in this country approximately fourteen- million dollars as a bonus for destroying their own property and for endangering—sometimes destroying, also —ours. This is the conservative estimate of the highest authorities in the insurance world. Thus in two decades over a quarter of a billion dollars has gone for criminal work, in one particular field, well and skillfully done. For above all, we insist upon deftness in this game —this game of building burning. The bungler receives no mercy. We refuse to pay his tax. In this respect our code is severely Spartan. For artistic thievery, boys in ancient Sparta were rewarded. For crude work, resulting in discovery, there was the stinging lash. The insurance companies handsomely compensate our clever incendiaries. The careless or the unskilled must flee the country or stand trial.

For this condition of affairs the insurance companies are partly at fault. In the sharp competition for business, agents neglect to look up the past record or present financial status of the applicant.

For example, in London, one man, by his own confession, committed arson six times in a twelvemonth, and in every instance collected his fire tax, and from the same company. Surely the frequency of fires in his case should have called for investigation from the office paying the indemnity. In times of panic and financial stringency insurance agents should be especially careful. It may be stated as an economic law that “as failures increase, so do fires, and as they decrease, the fire record follows the same course.”

But the public, even the non-incendiary portion, can not hold itself blameless. Neighbors encourage a family that has sustained a fire loss to make exorbitant claims. And often little or no effort is made, even by professedly honest people, to save the contents of their burning store or home. The insurance companies are corporations, and it is generally considered legitimate, by many “good” people, to plunder corporations.

Insurance companies do, of course, take precautions, and bar certain classes of risks. Thus, experience seems to prove that it is unwise to write up property that a business man, hard pressed by his creditors, has turned over to his wife. And, of course, palpably over – hazardous risks are not accepted.

The root of the whole matter, however, really lies in the shifting morality of mankind. The problem is one in psychology, and can never be reduced to the basis of mathematical calculation or exact science. Only in part can the insurance companies avoid writing undesirable risks. The honest man of today may be a moral as well as a financial bankrupt tomorrow. A crisis in his affairs may temporarily paralyze his conscience. Notes are due, creditors are at his heels, his stock of goods remains unsold. He has a wife and children depending upon him. His plight is desperate. What is he to do? “There is no more ready market than a fire for unsalable goods.” These, the words of an English adjuster of claims, admirably expresses the temptation that leaps to meet his despair. Crime opens up the easy way to financial salvation. How simple it is to overturn a lamp, to drop a match in a likely spot. Moreover, who will be the wiser?

To the man who meditates thus the question is, as has been already suggested, the old one of “getting even” with the corporations. But there is a difference and he pauses. The ordinary offense against the corporations is regarded as no great crime. In fact, the law is often very lenient with such offenders. But here the law stands menacing as a fortress, and wavering virtue surveys the situation and halts.

For it is not the old question of beating the corporations — though that from a moral standpoint is serious enough—it is one of the most repugnant crimes on the statute books. Besides robbing the insurance company, the incendiary’s act increases the cost of his premium to the man who insures in good faith and lives up to his contract; it destroys a portion of the nation’s capital that can never be replaced; and, worst of all, threatens not only the property but the lives of others. A congested district in the heart of a great city, a high wind, an early morning hour—who can foresee the horrors that may result from the flame which, at first crawling feebly up a lace curtain, hardly lights up the face, scared and white, yet tense and eager, of the wretch who has applied the match?

And still it is under just such conditions that these fires are often set. It is a peculiarity of this form of crime that the perpetrator can choose his own time and method. He is on his own premises—I am not referring to conflagrations started by burglars, or for revenge — behind locked doors. There is no one to question his presence there. The officers of the law often can reach the ordinary criminal. For the time being he may make his escape, but sometimes there are witnesses to his misdeed. The face of the burglar as he turns to spring through the open window, may flash for an instant in the moonlight, and terrified eyes watching, may in that single flash retain an image that later will lead to the malefactor’s apprehension.

Or blood on his garments, a fouled pistol barrel or a handkerchief inadvertently dropped may betray the murderer. But if he is shrewd and cunning, and if he does not lose his nerve later, the incendiary may accomplish his full purpose. Let suspicion be directed where it may, a mere fire is not a crime. The annual losses to fire insurance companies in this country aggregate one hundred and twenty-five millions of dollars. If his tracks are properly covered, the incendiary can boldly claim his share of this indemnity.

Merchants and manufacturers who become incendiaries hardly develop into such in a single day. The process is a gradual one, and yet when they cease to start at thought of the deed, they set about it with the deliberation and forethought they are accustomed to exercise in their business.

The case of a Chicago merchant may be cited as typical of the motive that impels men to incendiarism. It also presents many curious and unique details. The merchant in question, a dealer in furniture, had for five years done business on the North Side. At the time of the crime he was sixty-two years of age, held in good repute and resided with his daughter, a girl of twenty-four, in a flat above the store. Though he seemed to be prospering, in reality he was in desperate financial straits, and hard pushed by his creditors. In the months of December, 1906, and January, 1907, he took out insurance in twenty-nine separate companies. His stock was worth $20,000. The insurance risks aggregated $31,000. On Friday, January 25, the most importunate of the creditors threatened, unless his claim of $7,500 was promptly met, to bring legal action for recovery. On the day following, Saturday, the merchant placed his twenty-nine policies in a safe deposit vault in one of Chicago’s downtown banks.

Sunday afternoon the daughter had two girl friends to tea. In the words of one of these visitors, giving testimony later, “We were just sitting down ,to tea when Martha—the daughter—left the company for about ten minutes. When she returned I was surprised to see her hands covered with soot and she appeared excited. About five minutes later some men at the door cried ‘Fire!’ and kicked in the glass. I ran down stairs. When I got there the fire was already out. Before I could return to tell Martha of this she had disappeared.” The father had also gone. The police have been unable to bring either of these persons to trial.

Investigation by the fire insurance department revealed a most astounding condition of affairs. Never, apparently, had a more desperate or futile attempt been made to fire a building. Preparations for a conflagration were most elaborate. The way in which the stock of furniture was arranged must have been the work of hours.

These are some of the things the fire attorney discovered: Blankets soaked in oil stretched on frames and set in the windows so that the interior of the store was screened from the view of passers by.

Baby carriages and small tables piled in the aisles of the store and oil saturated.

Bundles of rugs turned up at the corners in order that the flames might creep in between.

Rolls of carpets and curtains carefully wound about the banisters that the flames might climb to the stories above.

Candle ends strewn about. Bundles of excelsior stuffed everywhere. On the second floor oil saturated blankets spread over the household furniture.

“It is one of the most astonishing jobs I have ever seen,” reported the fire attorney.

This intense activity on the part of this unfortunate merchant and his daughter is pitiable. The fierce, frantic efforts of the two to make certain their purpose would be accomplished, indicate how great was their fear of discovery. They most clearly recognized that failure would be doubly fatal. Yet, in their fevered anxiety they overreached themselves, and in a bungling, haphazard way, laid a train of evidence most damning.

Another instance of an attempt at incendiarism, fortunately defeated by the vigilance of the police, shows how cunningly and skillfully the incendiarist sometimes plans his work. At three o’clock on an October morning of last year, an officer patrolling a manufacturing district on Chicago’s West Side heard the report of an explosion. The next moment two men burst from the shadow of a factory building and dashed down the street in opposite directions. The policeman pursued one of them, and presently the fugitive collapsed through sheer terror and exhaustion. He confessed that he and his son had fired the factory, which was his, to collect the insurance. A number of ordinary drinking glasses filled with kerosene had been placed in a row and connected by a train. As the flames reached each successive glass it was calculated that there would be a series of explosions, and that the flames thus scattered about would most effectively fire the place.

Inasmuch as it is evident that there is money to be made in incendiarism, it would be strange if we did not find men organized with this end in view. In New York, some time ago, a fire insurance adjuster presented some startling facts. He stated that men are organized in gangs —companies or syndicates. In spite of the fact that their operations are thoroughly understood, it is found almost impossible to convict these men. These organizations, which are very complete, sometimes consist of a dozen men, occasionally even including a lawyer.

This adjuster, in describing the method of operating, said: “The first thing is to get a store. Then they stock it with goods and apply for insurance. After they get all they can they move in more goods. This is usually done on Saturday evening, not too late at night, but between seven and eight o’clock. The goods are unpacked and spread out on the counter shelves. The next day, Sunday, there is a fire.

“Why are the goods taken to the store at night? Because they are second hand or damaged. The adjuster cannot tell, after the fire, whether the goods were damaged by the fire or not. Then they —members of the syndicate—produce books, invoices and receipts to show the amount of stock they had.

“This is the way .the gang works: One man will rent a store. He may also apply for insurance, ordinarily through a broker, or he may get a friend to do it.

Then another of the conspirators will help him out by sending a receipted bill of sale for goods. In clothing stores the goods are nearly always second-hand and of the cheapest kind. I met with one case where one of the firebugs, who, I know, belongs to one of the gangs, put in a bill for a lot of cloaks. On examining the cloaks that were saved from the fire I discovered that all of them were unfinished. Many of them did not have the sleeves in. These cloaks had been purchased at a fire sale of damaged goods, from a cloak factory that had been burned out.”

The problem, as previously stated, is one in psychology. Some method of reaching the professional fire-bug may eventually be arrived at, but how can we foresee that the apparently honest merchant of today may secretly become a criminal on the morrow?

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