How Firebugs Burn Millions (Dec, 1930)

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How Firebugs Burn Millions

Criminal Torch Starts One Fourth of All Fires—This Costs You Money


STORES in a big town in western New York had closed for the day when a small delivery truck drew up at the curb of one of the main shopping streets. A few minutes later two men, one of whom carried a bundle, stopped in front of a furniture store just across the street, looked about as if to make sure they were unobserved, and went inside. After a little while, one of them came out, carefully locked the door, and walked away.

The instant he was out of sight, the driver of the truck leaped from his cab and dashed to the back of the store. Soon he returned, dragging by the arm the man who had carried the bundle—a well-dressed, middle-aged individual. The package now was held by the driver, a powerful fellow who, with his free hand, forced the other into the truck.

The few citizens who watched this strange scene, some weeks ago, wondered whether they were witnessing a burglary or a kidnapping. It was neither. It was a clever piece of detective work that ended the criminal career of one of the most dangerous professional firebugs ever caught in this country, and led to the round-up of an arson ring which, during the past four years, had defrauded insurance companies out of $4,000,000.

The truck driver was a disguised detective. His prisoner was a man who, for fifteen years, had done a thriving business setting fires for “fees” ranging from $300 to $1,100, depending on the amount of insurance carried by his “clients.” He had been the torch thrower in the $1,000,000-a-year arson racket.

For three months the detective had trailed his man. Now he had “the goods on him.” He had caught him in the act of setting fire to the furniture store with a contraption designed to provide an explosion and a sure fire—a candle swathed in celluloid. He had found $500 on him, his pay for the “job.”

BUT that was not all. From the cab of his truck, he had taken a motion picture of the firebug, the tools of his “trade” under his arm, entering the store with his latest “employer,” who thus was identified. The arrest of the owner of the place was a matter of a few hours. Both confessed and implicated about a score of others. The firebug was one of a group of three gangsters who had put arson on an organized business basis. He was the “touch-off” man. The other two were the “boss,” who financed the racket, and the “contact” man, whose job it was to “sell the idea” to prospective “customers.” Fourteen of the trio’s “clients” were arrested. Like the furniture man, they were citizens who, until then, had enjoyed the respect of their community—hotel keepers, real estate men, merchants.

It was the biggest arson catch in years. Day and night, the police of practically every city and town in this country, state and municipal fire marshals, and private detectives conduct a ceaseless hunt for the man who burns to defraud. Almost daily, reports of incendiary or suspicious fires are carried by the leading newspapers in all parts of the United States.

To learn the details of the arson situation, which virtually amounts to a national disease and, in some way, affects the lives of every man, woman, and child in the United States, I recently called upon officials of the National Board of Fire Underwriters in New York City, an organization formed by all of, the stock fire insurance companies for purposes of fire prevention and popular education.

For the last ten years, the Board has maintained a special arson department, whose task it is to suppress incendiarism and aid state and municipal authorities in the arrest and conviction of incendiaries.

Since last year, the department has been in charge of A. Bruce Bielaski, formerly chief of the Bureau of Investigation of the U. S. Department of Justice, who directs a staff of seventy-five experienced detectives.

IN ten years the arson department has investigated nearly 8,000 fires reported as fraudulent or suspicious. As a result, local authorities throughout the country arrested 3,001 individuals. Of these, 1,445 were convicted.

These, Bielaski emphasized, were merely the convictions. Evidence of arson is difficult to obtain and it is correspondingly difficult to secure convictions. In view of these facts, it is probable, according to Bielaski, that, in the past decade, there actually were ten times as many arson cases as there were convictions—15,000, or about five each day.

Although it is impossible to obtain accurate statistics, careful estimates place the cost of incendiarism at about twenty-five percent of America’s total fire loss. In the year 1928—the latest period for which figures are available—the national fire bill amounted to $464,607,102. This comes, roughly, to $880 every minute of the day and night, and of this $220 worth was laid in ashes by someone wielding the torch!

AS incendiary fires are set where they will do most harm, usually with the aid of an inflammable liquid such as gasoline, kerosene, or alcohol, they burn more thoroughly and rapidly than an accidental blaze. Hence, National Board officials calculate that one arson fire costs more than a dozen accidental tires. For the same reason, they say, arson is responsible for more than fifty percent of the lives of firemen lost in all fires.

Money is mostly but not always the root of the arson evil. Broadly speaking, Biel-aski told me, incendiaries fall into four groups. First, there is the man who fires his house, shop, or barn under financial stress. Then there is the incendiary for profit. The third group comprises those who set fires from hatred, revenge, racial or religious prejudice, business rivalry, or to cover up another crime, such as murder or robbery.

FINALLY, there is the pyromaniac, who suffers from a form of insanity the chief symptom of which is an uncontrollable urge to set and see fires.

Poverty and despair cause the periodic waves of arson that sweep whole sections of the country in times of business depression. Let the mills or mines in an industrial district, for instance, be shut down for many weeks, and one day an epidemic of fires may break out among the homes of the idle workers.

Probably the most fiendish case of arson for profit on record is that of a man, now serving twenty-five years in an eastern jail, who not long ago fired his house not to collect fire insurance, but to burn alive a man resembling him and thus defraud a life insurance company. To do this, he conceived a plot which, for horror and cunning, surpassed the most imaginative crime fiction.

He took out $100,000 worth of life and accident insurance, making an accomplice the beneficiary. A month later, he visited a municipal lodging house. There he picked out an old derelict whose stature was similar to his own and hired him as janitor for his house in the country. He took the tramp there in his car, plied him with liquor and ordered him to bed.

THEN he called on some of his neighbors, giving them the impression he was spending the night alone in his house. On his return, he changed his clothes, placing the suit in which his friends had just seen him in the room of the “janitor,” whom he chloroformed. He then set fire to the place.

But the old man was saved from death by the poor quality of the booze he had been given. Violently ill, he awoke, pulled the chloroform-soaked rag from his face, and crawled out of bed. Finding the house ablaze, he tried to escape by the door. It was locked. Screaming at the top of his voice, he jumped from the window of his second-story room, breaking his leg. His “employer” placed him in the care of neighbors who took him to a hospital, and remained behind to help in the work of putting out the blaze.

THE crime never would have been discovered had it not been for the fact that the culprit, in the unexpected excitement, forgot to put back in the garage his car, which he had left in the road at some distance from the house to make a quick get-away. It was a cold night in the heart of winter. Although the man was a highly respected citizen, this circumstance aroused the suspicions of National Board operatives investigating the case.

They questioned the old man, who told them that, on awakening, he had detected a smell of chloroform in the room. A search of the ashes yielded bits of the soaked rag. From the lodging house superintendent they learned that his visitor had given a fictitious name and address.

Further investigation revealed that there was $12,000 worth of fire insurance on the house which, however, was so heavily mortgaged that little of it could have been collected by the owner. Then the recent $100,000 life insurance policy was turned up. The suspect’s arrest and conviction followed.

HATRED, revenge, prejudice, and rivalry play smaller parts in incendiarism than mercenary motives; yet these passions cause thousands of dollars’ worth of property to go up in flames each year. Every now and then the torch is applied in race riots and the burning down of churches.

But it is not only the infuriated mob that carries the torch. Vengeance-mad individuals swing it, too. A clear case of arson for revenge, for example, occurred in an Atlantic seaboard town the other day, when, in the absence of the chief of police, his $25,000 home was blown to fragments by rum runners whom he had driven out of town.

They literally drenched the place with gasoline, then set a time fuse. But the device was defective and ignited too soon. The firebugs barely escaped the terrific explosion, in which doors, windows, chunks of wall, and pieces of furniture were hurled hundreds of feet. Their own car was blown to bits. Even the license plates were burned. Only the letter representing the county still was visible. With this slender clue, detectives caught the criminals.

Comparatively easy to catch but hard to deal with from a legal standpoint is the pyromaniac. More or less insane, the “firebug” usually is pathetically childish and betrays himself by his tactics. Almost invariably, for example, he will remain at the scene of the fire he has set, or return if he has left, for his only reason for setting the blaze is to watch it. Thus investigators look for him, at a suspicious fire, among the throng of spectators. In this way, they have caught hundreds of pyromaniacs.

BESIDES, almost all firebugs have their own peculiar method. Some months ago, for instance, midwestern and Pennsylvania hotel keepers were alarmed by a series of fires that always started in laundry closets. National Board detectives observed that these blazes invariably occurred just after a certain traveling salesman had checked out of the hotel. About two dozen of such fires were traced to this man, an out-and-out pyromaniac.

An epidemic of tenement fires in New York City not long ago originated in baby carriages left in lower hallways. A dozen of these blazes were set by one man. Another dangerous pyromaniac had a predilection for filling fireless cookers with gasoline!

At present, the law does not differentiate between the pyromaniac and the fraud arsonist or the incendiary who. though sane, burns for some other reason. When an insane firebug is caught, he goes to jail. Experts, however, predict that some day when science has succeeded in penetrating the mysteries of this strange mental disease, special kinds of segregation and treatment will be devised for these dangerous unfortunates. That this is possible is indicated by the case of a firebug who has been restored to mental health by being assigned to stoke the prison furnace.

Thus far, scientific investigation has shed little light on pyromania. Psychologists believe that the firebug is a weak man who, by starting fires, convinces himself that he is not altogether without strength and importance. He sets a blaze. The house, the street, perhaps the whole town, are thrown into an uproar. The firebug, revelling in the excitement, savs to himself: “Look what I did!”

One curious fact psychologists have discovered is that an amazing number of volunteer firemen really are sufferers from a mild form of pyromania. This is borne out by the experiences of National Board investigators and the police. In the words of Bielaski, it often happens that, when a small town gets a new piece of fire apparatus, a blaze follows almost immediately.

TO obtain as many arrests and convictions of firebugs as possible, the National Board, in the last three years, has been instrumental in the formation of special arson squads in 530 cities and towns in this country. The task of these squads, consisting of experienced members of the fire and police departments, is to ferret out evidence of arson in all suspicious fires.

In the past, such evidence often was destroyed by the firemen themselves, whose only ambition naturally is to extinguish a blaze quickly. Five investigators of the Board are continually engaged in teaching local firemen and policemen the fine points of this work.

Some months ago a college, devoted exclusively to the teaching of arson detection, was established in Los Angeles, Calif. All firemen are compelled to take the courses.

In New York City, Fire Marshal Thomas B. Brophy has reduced the business of catching firebugs to a science. The Bureau of Fire Investigation has a card index system containing the names of every person who ever has had a fire in New York. In another are registered the names of every known incendiary. A third lists every person who ever has been suspected of arson. A fourth contains the names and last known addresses of pyromaniacs.

A copy of this list is carried at all times by every member of Brophy’s staff. When a suspicious fire is reported, it often happens that, by reference to this index, the Fire Marshal or one of his assistants discovers that a known firebug lives in the vicinity. An investigator goes to his home and checks his movements. Frequently, he makes an arrest before the fire has been put out.

LAST year, in New York City, 125 fires were reported as incendiary and 230 as suspicious. Arrests for arson totaled fifty-seven, an increase of twenty-six over the previous year. Twenty-nine incendiaries were put in jail.

In the past, the work of the National Board has been hampered seriously by the fact that the arson laws in the various states are conflicting and often ineffectual. Since 1920, the Board has succeeded in having twenty-seven states adopt a “model arson law.”

While vigorous prosecution and uniform laws are indispensable in the fight on arson, popular education, in the opinion of Board officials, is the strongest weapon. Arson, they say, cannot be stamped out until the American people change their mental attitude towards it.

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