Tricks of Firebugs EXPOSED BY POLICE EXPERTS (Jul, 1933)

I particularly like the story about the cops allowing arsonists to set fire to a building full of innocent people just so they could “catch them in the act”.

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By Robert E. Martin

ITS engine throttled down, a black touring car swung noiselessly into the driveway of an unoccupied house on Long Island, thirty miles from New York City. Two men hastily entered the building carrying bundles and cans. It was three o’clock in the morning. The owner was hundreds of miles away on his vacation.

Twenty minutes later, neighbors tumbled from their beds at the sound of a terrific explosion. Through its shattered windows, they saw the vacant house lighted up by a plume of yellow flame flaring half across the basement from a broken gas pipe. Two dark figures were picking themselves up from the front yard outside one of the windows. They scrambled into the touring car, backed swiftly into the street, and raced away.

In less than ten minutes, Sergeant Albert V. Pitt, head of the Bureau of Public Safety and arson expert of the Nassau County Police, was on the spot. The gas had been turned off and the danger of fire was over. Inside he found gasoline-soaked rags stuffed in every corner of a downstairs room. The furniture was saturated. In fact, the firebugs had done their work too well.

They had spent so much time soaking the rugs with gasoline that the fumes had formed an explosive mixture in the room. The instant the match was struck, a blast hurled the men through a window, twisted the house on its foundation, and cracked off a gas pipe near the basement floor. The escaping gas caught fire, flaring like a blowtorch. But it was so low in the basement, it did not set fire to the house above. The giant puff of the explosion, which shattered the windows, also blew out the fire in the gasoline-soaked room. Strangely enough, too much gasoline had saved the house from flames! It also preserved intact all the evidence of the plot to burn the house.

Imprinted in the dirt of the driveway, Pitt found the tiremarks of the arson car. They showed the front wheels had tires of different treads. Making plaster casts of the marks, he checked up on every touring car in town. Only two machines had treads that matched the imprints. One belonged to a taxi driver who proved he knew nothing of the plot. The owner of the second car was found in bed, burned and bruised. He confessed, implicating his companion and the owner of the house. Pressed for cash to prevent foreclosure on his store, the owner had hired the men to burn down his insured house while he was out of town. All three men were given prison terms.

Arson, today, is at an all-time peak in the United States. America is the home of the incendiary. More fires of a suspicious nature occur here than in any other country in the world. Day and night, the firebug and the pyromaniac take nearly $300 a minute from the pockets of American home owners. Gangs, thriving on present business conditions, are burning buildings for stated fees. Their work raises the rate which everyone has to pay for fire protection.

An expert told me recently that more damage is done by one incendiary fire than by a dozen ordinary ones. In arson, everything is planned to help the fire make headway. More than half of all the firemen who lose their lives, die in flames started by the incendiary torch. A large proportion of the 10,000 people who perish annually in burning buildings owe their deaths to fiendish firebugs who burn for profit, thrill, or revenge. Fighting arson is a national problem, now complicated by the ingenious tricks and the elaborate mechanisms used.

Only a few days ago, a gang was trapped in the act of setting up a fire machine, an involved device of coils and containers, in an eastern hotel room. The arrests followed a week of day-and-night watching from a nearby church steeple after Chief Fire Marshal Thomas P. Brophy, famous firebug hunter of the New York City department, had received a tip from the underworld that the torch gang intended to fire the building.

One of the queerest cases Brophy has had in recent years was an incendiary fire in a school for deaf mutes. He had to question each of the 250 persons in the building. The questions were asked by the superintendent of the school in sign language and each child wrote the answers on the blackboard for Brophy to read.

A fire of mysterious origin recently gutted a $40,000 home on Long Island late at night. At the time, the owner was away on a business trip and his family was in Europe. The house was heavily insured. No one was seen near the place on the day of the fire.

By a brilliant bit of detective work, Sergeant Pitt uncovered evidence of an almost perfect plot to burn the building and cheat the law. When he examined the ruins, he noticed something curious. Clinging to the remains of the telephone, was a short piece of wire with a bit of melted copper at the end. Pitt called the local telephone exchange. He learned that a long distance call had been put through to the house on the night of the fire, some ten or fifteen minutes before the flames were noticed.

The owner had attached a wire, ending in a small blasting cap, so it would ignite a container of gasoline when the telephone rang. Then, after midnight, he had called up his own unoccupied house from Chicago, thus touching off the fire which practically destroyed the building. The fact that he was a thousand miles away at the time of the fire, he thought, would completely eliminate him from suspicion.

In another instance, an electrical contractor rigged up a similar wire and blasting cap and attached it to his doorbell. Then he sent himself a telegram from a distant city, timing it so it would arrive in the early morning hours. When the messenger pushed the button, the lire started inside. However, it was not noticed until twenty minutes later when the flames were making rapid headway.

A third application of a wire and a blasting cap to the work of the firebug recently endangered the lives of forty people living in apartments above a block of stores in a western city.

An electric clock, of the type that automatically turns electric signs on and off, was attached to wires in a trash-filled basement. The cold-blooded plotter set it to switch on the current at 1:30 a.m., igniting strips of celluloid and a can of gasoline. In addition, he left an electric fan running to drive the flames through the cellar, hastening their work of destruction.

All these carefully-planned and fiendish preparations were upset by an aching tooth. At 1:30 a.m., when the clock closed the switch, a man living overhead was walking the floor with a swollen jaw. He smelled smoke as soon as the fire started. His quick alarm brought the fire department in time to check the flames before they left the basement.

Not infrequently, some strange unforeseen circumstance, like that throbbing molar, will trip up an arson plot and result in extinguishing the fire in time to preserve evidence against a plotter.

One of the most curious instances of the kind occurred a few years ago in New York City. A baby, sleeping in its crib, was awakened soon after midnight by drops of hot water falling on its face from the ceiling. The cries of the child aroused the family of seven persons just in time for them to escape from the burning building and sound the alarm. A pyro-maniac had set fire to the empty apartment above. The flames had melted a water pipe and this water, seeping through the floor at the exact spot above the infant’s head, had acted as the alarm that saved their lives!

The mental disease that makes a pyro-maniac set fires is still a mystery to psychology. In a number of cases, these dangerous unfortunates have been made sane and happy by being allowed to stoke prison furnaces. This satisfied their abnormal craving to be near leaping flames.

Imagine a fire department made up of pyromaniacs! That was almost the situation in one case solved by Sergeant Pitt. In a Long Island town, where the local fire department had won first prize in a competition among volunteer organizations, mysterious blazes began to appear in rapid succession. In less than a year, the town had more than a hundred fires. Arson was suspected, but definite clues were lacking.

One night, a man troubled with insomnia looked out the window and saw a sedan with two men in it drive past out of a dead-end road. A few minutes later, in the direction from which the car had come, flames shot up from an empty house. The man had seen the car and its occupants clearly enough in the moonlight to give a rough description of them.

The description fitted two members of the local fire department, one an ex-captain, the other a deputy-chief.

Working fifty-three hours without sleep, Pitt obtained confessions from more than thirty members of the fire department. Twenty-three indictments resulted, with fourteen defendants pleading guilty. In some cases, they admitted taking gasoline from the gire engine to start fires. Frequently, they said, the motor of the engine would be running and the firemen would be in their places waiting for the alarm when it came in!

Pitt, one of the ace firebug fighters of the country, trapped one gang recently which had left a million-dollar trail of incendiary fires from Toronto, Can., to Long Island, N. Y. Last year, he obtained convictions for more than forty firebugs, in one instance pinning a $10,000 crime to a man through observing that a knot in an unburned fuse had been tied by a left-handed person.

Because an incendiary fire usually destroys the evidence of the crime, catching a torch wielder is one of the most difficult jobs a detective has to perform. The ruins are combed for the minutest clues. How tiny bits of evidence may put a sleuth on the trail of the criminal is illustrated in two recent examples.

IN A city in the Middle West, a man planned to burn his house for the insurance in a manner that would leave not the slightest clue behind. Near the foot of the cellar stairs, he placed a burning candle. At the top of the stairs, he filled a heavy cardboard hatbox with gasoline. The box extended over the edge of the top step so, when the fluid softened the pasteboard, the bottom would fall out on that side and the gasoline would rush down the stairs to be touched off by the flame of the candle. The time required for the pasteboard to soften gave him an opportunity to reach a place of safety.

The fire started as he had planned. But it ate its way so rapidly upward, it burned a bracing beam and permitted a wall to fall, burying the bottom steps before they burned. When the arson sleuth examined the cellar, he found the melted paraffin from the candle on a lower step. With this chance clue putting him on the trail, he traced the movements of the man and obtained his confession.

A few month ago, Sergeant Pitt turned over a brick in the basement of a home gutted by a suspicious fire. Under it, he saw the remains of a small pack of matches, the heads burned off and the stub of a cigarette wedged in among them. A fine line of ashes ran to either side. The ashes represented a fuse that had been strung through the matches before the cigarette was inserted among them. Then the cigarette had been lighted, burning slowly and giving the firebug time to escape before it touched off the matches which, in turn, lighted the fuse that carried the fire to tinder placed at strategic points about the house. The chance falling of a brick had preserved this evidence, exposing the plot.

MOST incendiary fires are started by means of time devices that give the crook time to get away and establish an alibi by being somewhere else when the fire starts.

In one case, a handful of matches was fastened around a lighted cigar by means of a rubber band. When the tobacco burned down to the match-heads, the flame touched off a pile of papers sprinkled with gasoline. In another instance, a stick of chemical was placed at the bottom of a large tin can filled with water. A pin-hole in the bottom of the container permitted the water to drip gradually away. Two days later, when the last of the water had run from the can, the reaction between the oxygen in the air and the chemical caused the latter to burst into flame and ignite a jar of gasoline.

Candles, which burn at the rate of an inch an hour, are sometimes placed in huge boxes of excelsior so when the candle burns low, flame will reach the tinder at a certain hour of the night. In several incendiary fires, a fuse was threaded through a hole near the bottom of a candle to carry the fire to piles of tinder when the candle burned down after an elapse of several hours.

The most elaborate set-up of this kind was prepared by an eastern firebug. A quickmatch fuse, the fastest burning kind, was inserted in a candle and then run from one to another of forty-two waxed-paper containers. Each held a quart of gasoline. This string of containers extended through every room from the cellar to the garret. In addition, the owner pried up floorboards and stuffed gasoline-soaked rags beneath. He inserted a penknife between the laths in the wall and poured in gasoline. And, after the fire, a detective found that an overcoat, discovered beneath eighteen inches of water in the basement, still retained nearly half a pint of gasoline.

Just as the first container burst into flame, a neighbor drove, into his yard. He had been delayed by tire trouble in returning from a late show. He saw the fire and telephoned in an alarm. In less than five minutes, the fire engines were at the door pouring water into the interior of the dwelling. Under this deluge, the flames died out leaving a score of the containers intact. Through their mute testimony, the plotter was convicted and sentenced to prison.

Sometimes a detective, trailing firebugs, has to let them actually start a fire in order to obtain the evidence necessary to put them behind the bars. In such cases, all the preparations are made beforehand for split-second work in extinguishing the flames.

A classic example is the manner in which Brophy wiped out an arson ring in. Brooklyn some years ago. To catch the firebugs red-handed, he let them start a fire in a building where nine innocent persons were sleeping. But, he had all his preparations ready. Chemical extinguishers and 300 feet of inch-and-a-half fire hose were secreted in a peddler’s wagon under its load of onions, potatoes, cabbage, string beans, and cauliflower. Street cleaners in the neighborhood were crack firefighters in disguise and other members of the fire department were hidden away in nearby buildings.

Brophy was watching a window on the upper floor where he knew the gang was at work. There was a puff of smoke. A moment later, two firebugs dashed out of the front door of the building. Brophy, with a right to the jaw, knocked one out while a fireman nailed the other in a flying tackle.

VEGETABLES poured into the street as the hose and extinguishers were dragged from the wagon. A feverish few minutes followed. But when they were over, the blaze was out, the residents of the house were safe, and the prisoners were on their way to jail and, later, to fifteen years in Sing Sing.

The motives for arson, outside of the urge that drives on the unbalanced pyromaniac, I was told, are fraud, revenge, and an effort to cover up a murder or other crime by destroying the evidence. Fires for fraud far outnumber the others.

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