On the Arson Trail

Scientific detection and new teeth in old laws are making "torch" fires very dangerous—for the firebug

LAWRENCE CRAIG December 1 1940

On the Arson Trail

Scientific detection and new teeth in old laws are making "torch" fires very dangerous—for the firebug

LAWRENCE CRAIG December 1 1940

BECAUSE a citizen possessing a sharp nose and an inquisitive disposition, who chanced to be passing the house at the right moment, smelled smoke, peered through windows and turned in an alarm, firemen were able to smother the flames before they had time to gain any great headway.

Ranging through the place with hand extinguishers, dousing the still smoldering embers, the fire department squad came across a neatly ordered line of paper cups filled with a highly-inflammable fluid, carefully arranged across the wooden floors and set beside the lath-and-plaster partitions. Strands of paper saturated with the fluid had been laid between the cups. The fire was set with deliberation and some cunning. The man who set it went to jail in due course; but had the alarm been delayed, even for as much as ten minutes, the building would have been gutted, the direct evidence destroyed, and the arsonist, whose motive was the collection of $12,000 insurance money, might very easily have gone free.

That happened last year in Ontario. It is presented as a typical instance of the sort of infernal conniving the men whose duty it is to protect us from fire hazards must constantly combat. Authorities say that 1939 was an average fire year in Canada. There were 45,755 fires reported in the nine provinces, and they caused an aggregate property loss of $24,632.509. Two hundred and sixty-three lives were lost because of them.

Of the 45,755 total, 7,299 fires had to be written into the records as “of unknown origin,’’ and these represented a property loss of $12,308,287, only a little less than half the full amount of loss. Fire marshals and insurance underwriters hold to the opinion that a large proportion of those “unknown origin” fires were set by arsonists and pyromaniacs—“firebugs” in the brisk idiom of the firefighters. A conservative estimate places the ratio of arson fires at fifteen per cent of the total. It may be more. Wilful property damage from this cause was calculated to have been around one million dollars in 1939; but this is a rock-bottom estimate, based upon the known arson cases where positive evidence was available and prosecutions instigated. It is reasonably certain that the actual figure was higher. Some incendiaries get away with it.

By the very nature of its design the crime of arson is difficult of detection. Too often the evidence is burned away in the blaze that constitutes the offense, and you may be sure that the criminal who sets fire to a building lays his plans with that end in view. In most fires, expert investigators are able to determine, from the place of origin, the course followed by the flames and other contributory circumstances, whether or not there is a likelihood that the fire was set.

But suspicion is not evidence, and the experts themselves admit ruefully that many crimes of arson go unpunished, because it is not possible to produce in court sufficient incontrovertible evidence of fact to assure conviction.

Generally speaking, arson, as a crime, gets little publicity. It is not an exciting affair from the point of view of the newspapers, but rather a sordid bit of shabby swindling, barren of romance. Criminologists, especially those who have studied the fire records, regard arson with greater resided than the police court reporters. The firebugs constantly menace property, and they are responsible each year for some loss of life.

An arsonist who has intended merely to burn up the plundered stock of a bankrupt business, may start a fire that destroys rows of buildings and traps courageous firemen beneath falling walls. His criminal act may cause much unnecessary suffering to innocent men and women, turning families into the street, reducing their homes and their belongings to ashes. It is a comparatively easy matter to set lire to a building, given sufficient evil intent; but no arsonist can know where the devastation will end that his hands begin.

Present Sabotage Precautions

NOW THAT we are at war, sabotage by arson may be expected, is in fact anticipated by the authorities. Extensive plans have been carefully prepared to combat it. Trained guards sworn in as special police stand watch over public properties, utilities and key industrial plants across the Dominion. We know from past bitter experience that the torch in its various guises is a much-admired weapon of German saboteurs. Thermite bombs fashioned to look like lead pencils have been known to set fire to ships. The devastating Black Tom explosion during the first war with Germany has been proved the work of German incendiaries, and American officials, among them Congressman Martin Dies, have expressed the belief that the more recent blast in the Hercules powder plant at Kenvil, New Jersey, was deliberately plotted by German agents. That disaster cost fifty or more lives.

Our wartime criminal fire investigation forces are an extension and an elaboration of the machinery set up in peace years to circumvent and punish the arsonist. The Federal Department of Insurance appoints a Dominion Fire Commissioner—W. L. Clairmont is the present incumbent. Two national organizations, the Association of Canadian Fire Marshals and the Dominion Fire Prevention Association, work with Commissioner Clairmont’s office. Each province has its own fire marshal, a man trained in arson detection and its basic principles. Under his direction are the field investigators, police officers—also specially trained—who travel about their respective territories probing into every suspicious fire, collecting available evidence, learning the often ingenious devices by which fires are set, gathering and recording information, submitting written reports to their chiefs. After the fire marshal has studied the reports of his investigators, he forwards them to the local Crown Attorney who must decide whether or not the evidence is sufficiently powerful to warrant court action.

These constitute the official forces warring directly against arson. They are the shock troops. Supporting and supplementing their activities are a number of co-operating agencies; the Fire Underwriters Investigation Bureau, the chiefs of municipal and township fire departments and their men, and every police department in the Dominion, including the R.C.M.P. Cases of arson continue, may increase because of the special circumstances of war, but the machinery now functioning, first for foiling incendiarism before it can achieve its ends, or to convict and punish it, is more extensive and vastly more efficient than it has been at any previous period of our history.

Because of their industrial character and denser population, the provinces of Quebec and Ontario suffer most heavily from fires of unknown origin, and lead in arson prosecutions and convictions. Throughout Canada, in 1939, one hundred and seven incendiarists were caught, convicted and imprisoned; but more than twice that number of arson charges fell through for lack of sufficient evidence. Of the provinces, Ontario had the best record of convictions, gaining verdicts of guilty in forty-nine cases out of sixty brought to trial. Quebec was able to convict twenty-eight in seventy-four cases, Nova Scotia twelve of twenty-six, and British Columbia ten of thirty-eight. New Brunswick, Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan each gained two arson convictions. Fortunate Prince Edward Island had no torch prosecutions to record.

Arson cases fall into two broad classifications. Fires are set deliberately, either by cunning criminals or by unfortunate fanatics who are not quite right in the head. The first group is by far the larger, but pyromania exists as an actual manifestation of an unbalanced mind, and is recognized as such by psychiatrists and fire marshals. Disastrous fires have been started for revenge, for sheer excitement, and by misguided individuals in the grip of religious delusions. Some cases are on record of thieves who have attempted to burn the homes they have robbed, in order to destroy the evidence of their crime.

Most arson cases, though, have fraud as their motive. To an ignorant mind it seems like an easy trick to start a fire in a store or other business premises closed for the night, await developments and collect insurance later. It is likely that Canada would suffer fewer torch fires if the fact were more generally understood that arson is by no means as simple as it looks. And it is getting more difficult every year as the numbers and experience of trained fire investigators increase and the artful stratagems of the arsonists are examined, card-indexed and so anticipated. Incendiary fires often duplicate one another. Most of the artifices used by people who set fires with intent to cheat insurance companies are known. Any one of a score of seemingly slim leads may start the fire marshal on the trail of the culprit. It is almost impossible today for the arsonist to use any substance or liquid to accelerate a fire without traces of its presence being discovered.

In the case of the man who laid that trail of paper cups, the motive was clear enough. His house that he had attempted to burn was an oversized brick residence built in the spacious Victorian era in a small Ontario city. It had steadily depreciated in value as a residential property because it was outdated and the community had built up a business section around it through the years. Taxes on it were heavy. It was assessed at $15,000, and it could not have been sold for a third of that amount; but it was insured for $12,000. The owner had suffered business reverses. A few hours before the fire broke out he had discharged the man and wife who had served him for years as housekeepers. The clinching bit of evidence was the fact that the owner had purchased a quantity of a highly inflammable liquid at a local store. What did he want with so large a supply of this liquid? What actually had he done with it, if he had not poured it into those paper cups?

Many Systems Tried

TWO MEN. one of them a deaf-mute, were convicted of arson after a fire in Pembroke, Ontario, a year or so ago. Fire Marshal W. J. Scott, a lawyer who finds hunting down incendiaries a more fascinating occupation than routine bar practice, regards this case as the most interesting of his experience, and the longest. The house was owned by the deaf-mute. Huge holes had been bored and cut through the walls upstairs and down, obviously with the object of providing ample draft. New blinds had been nailed across the windows, top and bottom, to prevent the red glow of the flames from showing outside until the fire had fully established itself.

At that trial every question and answer had to be translated into sign language for the benefit of the accused man, by a teacher of the deaf, engaged as an interpreter. The fire marshal was able to prove that the owner himself had purchased the blinds and had nailed them into position. But the owner was able to prove that he had not been inside the house for a full twelve hours before the fire was discovered. The holes had been bored by an auger of unusual size and type. No such auger could be found. The owner denied that he had ever possessed one.

After the hearing had been going on for a week, the Pembroke paper published details of the evidence relating to the auger holes. A local machinist got in touch with the police and reported the loss of an auger similar to the one described. He suspected that it had been stolen, and he thought he knew who the thief was. Following up this clue, Fire Chief Bob Dey visited the suspect and invited him to go along to fire headquarters. Nothing was said directly about the trial, but on the way to the chief’s office, Dey remarked gravely: “This is a heck of a mess you’ve got yourself into.” At once the badly scared incendiary blurted out: “Well, he paid me to set the lire for him.” A subsequent search turned up the missing auger, hidden behind the staircase in the guilty man’s rooming house. After that a full confession and conviction of both men followed inevitably.

An auger played a leading role in the conviction of an Alberta arsonist last year, but in different fashion. In this case the tool was found on the premises. Wood fragments remained in its coils, and chemical analysis proved conclusively that the wood had come from panels decorating the walls of the burned premises. Why, the fire investigators wanted to know, should a man bore a lot of disfiguring holes in his handsome panelling? Further examination showed that the holes had been stuffed with wads of oil-soaked paper. Here was evidence of deliberate intent. The motive, the common one—insurance fraud.

A fire that started in the attic of a farmhouse near Chatham, Ontario, was extinguished by men of the Chatham fire brigade before it had spread very far. But when the insurance adjuster came to inspect the damage, he found a much greater area of destruction than the firemen had reported. Under examination the owner confessed that after the original fire had been stopped he had set a second blaze—at the suggestion of a man he had called in to act as adjuster on his behalf. Both were convicted on a charge of attempting to defraud.

There was a case in New Brunswick where two men were suspected of setting fire to their home after having insured a lot of broken-down furniture for several times its value. They had a plausible story. It was winter, and they said they had built a big fire in their hot-air furnace. The fire in the house, they claimed, had started from overheated metal in one of the registers, and superficial appearances seemed to support their explanation. But chemical analysis of the metal in the register proved definitely that at no time in its existence had that metal been hot enough to start any sort of a fire.

A little further probing brought other significant facts to light. The pair had not possessed sufficient coal for a fire as large as the one they claimed to have built, and they had recently moved from an apartment equipped with a sprinkler system, to the burned premises, where there were no sprinklers. Again little bits of circumstantial evidence woven together produced a complete pattern sufficient for a conviction and a prison sentence.

Fires deliberately started from motives of vengeance are frequently reported to fire marshals, and sometimes the excuses given for such drastic action are so flimsy as to border on absurdity. In one case a clerk employed in a store was denied a promotion he thought due him, and brooded over his fancied wrong until he had worked himself up to the point where he set fire to his employer’s premises. There was no sense in this. If he had burned the store down he would have been out of a job anyway. As it happened the blaze was extinguished before it had done much damage. The trail of evidence leading to the culprit was clear and certain. His sentence was two years in prison.

In Alberta, unrequited love figured as the motive in one arson case. A young man who had been jilted earned time in jail when he set fire to his sweetheart’s home, although just how he figured incendiarism would advance his suit does not appear on the record.

Another brokenhearted lover was convicted of arson in a small Eastern Ontario community—because he kept a diary. His successful rival had built a neat little home for the girl he was to marry, and the scorned one had done an equally neat job of burning the house to the ground. The revenge motive was obvious enough, but direct evidence was scarce until the investigators discovered in the diary a number of pointed references to the fire, among them one expressing surprise and resentment that the destruction of the home had not prevented the subsequent publication of the banns of marriage. The phrasing was sufficiently strong to be incriminating and a conviction was obtained.

Jealousy of another sort, supported by envy, was responsible for the burning of a block of farm buildings in Nova Scotia. The farm was part of an estate bequeathed to a favorite nephew by a wealthy uncle. The legatee had a brother, and the brother, who had hoped to inherit the property himself, set fire to the farm. This, too, was an open-and-shut case, resulting in a speedy conviction.

An Ontario farmhand drew the stiff sentence of five years in penitentiary for setting fire to a hay-filled barn. The offense was the more malicious because he also cut the telephone wires and emptied the hand fire extinguishers with which the place was equipped. The building and its contents burned to the ground for a loss of $3,000. The reason? The farmhand claimed that the owner of the barn owed him six dollars back wages. Receiving sentence, the firebug commented: “I figure we’re even now.” For the sake of a six-dollar debt he was willing to do five years in prison.

Religious Firebugs

YET ANOTHER type of arson, falling within the pyromania class, showed itself a little over a year ago in the town of Bedford, Nova Scotia, a suburban community outside Halifax. An epidemic of torch fires broke out. The railway station, a church, and a number of other public buildings were set alight. Investigators traced this series of fires to not one, but two, pyromaniacs. convicted both and sent them to prison. There appeared to be no special malice behind these crimes. The fires were started for the simple reason that the men got a kick out of watching buildings burn, and in seeing the firemen turn out to fight the flames.

Such cases are not altogether uncommon, but they usually exhibit themselves in larger communities. Every big city fire department knows of the existence within its territory of one or more of these disordered mentalities. Once they are identified it is not a difficult matter to control their activities.

Pyromania growing from fanatical religious beliefs is, unhappily, a frequent occurrence among the Doukhobor colonies. British Columbia’s fire record is considerably expanded each year because of outbreaks from this cause. Among other prejudices, the Doukhobors resent attempts to educate their children in public schools, also they dislike all creeds save their own.

Manifestations of these aberrations seem to come and go in waves. The year 1932 was an especially bad one. Over that twelve month period 302 churches, schools and public halls were burned in British Columbia, and 600 Doukhobors were arrested on charges of incendiarism. Last year was about average, with a dozen churches, schools and halls going up in smoke. At that the Pacific Coast province’s fire loss reached the formidable sum of $1,705,610.

Demonstrations of religious hysteria leading to arson occur individually in other parts of the Dominion. In the years immediately prior to 1930, the city of Toronto suffered heavily from the depredations of just such a pyromaniac. Church fires, especially in Anglican churches, were reported far too frequently to be written off as due to normal causes. Fire Marshal Scott says that the man responsible for those outbreaks appeared to be of average intelligence except for his obsession against the Church of England. At times he showed himself in clerical garb, masquerading as an Anglican clergyman. Investigators trailed him, caught him red-handed at one fire, and obtained a conviction and a sentence of five years in Kingston penitentiary.

This was in 1930. For some years before the arrest, church fires in the Toronto district had averaged losses of $50,000 annually. The guilty man’s presence had been noticed by witnesses in the vicinity of eleven of the biggest outbreaks. While he was in the penitentiary, losses in church fires dropped away to a normal of around $10,000 per year; but the man was released on parole in June, 1933, and a year later the figures were up again to the $50,000 mark. The paroled prisoner was reported as suffering from acute heart ailment, so ill that he was barely able to leave his bed. Investigators on the fire marshal's staff found reason to believe that his heart trouble was faked. He was seen on the streets at frequent intervals, walking briskly.

Enquiry at Scotland Yard showed that the suspected man had a record in England. When he was twenty-two years old, in 1908, he was convicted on charges of breaking, entering and desecrating a place of worship. He served a nine-month sentence at hard labor, and upon his release emigrated to Canada. For a large part of his residence here he has been, in one way or another, a public charge.

Early this year another church fire occurred, plainly the work of an incendiary. On the morning following the fire the pastor of the burned church received an anonymous letter designed to throw suspicion on an innocent person. The letter was traced to the paroled man. Handwriting experts testified that he had written the note. He denied the charge flatly. Confronted with Scotland Yard’s record of his conviction in England, he denied that too. There was not sufficient direct evidence to connect him with the church fire being investigated, but he convicted himself of perjury and was sentenced to Guelph Reformatory on that count. Since then Toronto church fires have been few.

The authorities charged with the responsibility for carrying on ceaseless war against arson demand of their investigators a high intelligence quotient. Chemists and engineers, as well as criminologists, are contributing their skilled knowledge and expert training to the campaign. Arson sleuths have to understand business procedure, be familiar with building codes and insurance practice, as well as the law. Many of them are college graduates.

Improved Laws Today

FIRE marshals will tell you that while they are still not completely satisfied with the criminal code’s decrees dealing with incendiarism, the attitude of the law toward this stepchild crime is more realistic now than in days gone by. Thirty years ago the legal definition of arson as a felony was limited to the “malicious and wilful burning of the house of another.” A man could burn down his own house and the police could do little about it, unless the burned house was in a town, or located so close to others that its burning created a danger to them. In that case the offense was considered a misdemeanor.

Further, to establish the crime of arson it was necessary that the whole or some part of the house should have been actually damaged by fire. The old law said, in effect, that it was perfectly all right for a chap to play games with matches and coal oil on his own premises, as long as he did not, in fact, burn them up. Many potential incendiaries went unpunished because their sinister intentions were aborted by chance. Again, the penalty following conviction of arson was so severe that it often stultified prosecution. As recently as 1935 the sentence decreed was life imprisonment, and many a jury, entirely satisfied that a prisoner was guilty of arson as charged, showed reluctance to render that verdict because they felt the possible punishment was too severe. Fire Marshal Scott led the fight for a more reasonable interpretation of the law, and three years ago the maximum penalty was fixed at fifteen years imprisonment.

As matters now stand, everyone is guilty of the indictable offense of arson, and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fifteen years, who wilfully sets fire to any building or structure, whether such building or structure is completed or not, or to any stack of vegetable produce, or of mineral or vegetable fuel, or to any mine or well of oil or other combustible substance, or to any ship or vessel whether completed or not, or to any timber or materials placed in any shipyard for repairing or fitting out any ship, or to any of His Majesty’s stores or munitions of war.

And everyone, the law says, is guilty of the indictable offense of arson and liable to five years imprisonment who wilfully, and for any fraudulent purpose, sets fire to any chattel having a greater value than twenty-five dollars.

Additionally, under the War Measures Act, if deliberate sabotage can be proved the crime comes under the heading of treason, and the minimum penalty is internment; the maximum, death.

Armed with this potent weapon the fire marshals and their forces are waging a preventive war on sabotage that has, to date, been notably successful. During the first twelve months of this war fifteen suspected cases of attempted sabotage by fire were reported and investigated—nine of them in Ontario. But of those fifteen, only two were shown to have been the work of saboteurs, and in both those cases prompt action by the protection squads held the damage to a negligible minimum. No sabotage was proved in Ontario.

Fire insurance companies are issuing ix)licies covering sabotage under a ‘‘malicious damage to property” clause, have been doing so since the war started. Some of the policies are sufficiently comprehensive to cover not only the acts of enemy agents, but wilful damage by any person. Municipalities and public utilities have been heavy buyers of this type of protection; but over the first twelve months of hostilities not a single claim has been reported under the ‘‘malicious damage” clause.

A successful legal attack on incendiarism must cover four main objectives; proof of the fire itself, proof of incendiary origin, proof of a motive, and positive proof of guilt. Proof of the fire itself is a simple matter. In larger cities the time of the alarm is automatically recorded, and firemen, with spectators, supply any other detail necessary. Fires in smaller communities lacking automatic recording machinery can usually easily be substantiated by firemen and other observers.

Establishing that any given fire was definitely of incendiary origin is more difficult, but close study of the history of arson and reports of trained observers are making it possible in an increasing number of cases. Mechanized equipment, facilities for swifter reporting of outbreaks, and similar modern improvements in the weapons used to fight fires, combine to bring the firemen to the scene of any blaze much more rapidly than before. Sometimes, as in the case of the ingenious trickster of the paper cups, they are on the spot before the fire has a chance to burn up the evidence; but even in cases where there appears to be a total lack of such visual proof, experts are able to see incriminatory indications where they exist.

How fast did the fire burn? Most torches are so eager to do a thorough job that they cannot resist the temptation to help the destructive flames along. Coal oil and gasoline are common inflammables used for this purpose. But experienced firemen know pretty well what the normal progress of any fire should be in its spread through the various types of building material, and whenever a blaze covers ground with unusual rapidity their suspicions are aroused.

Investigators Thorough

ANOTHER dead giveaway is the ease, or the lack of it, with which the firemen are able to move around the burning building. Furniture or store fixtures so arranged as to impede their progress is a sure sign of dirty work. So is the conspicuous absence of such furniture or equipment as would ordinarily be found on the premises. When the fire marshals know that stock or furnishings have been removed from a burned store or house before a fire, they begin at once to ask a

lot of very snarky questions around about.

Where was the owner, or the insurance beneficiary, when the fire broke out? Incendiaries who set fires for profit seem to possess implicit faith in the invincibility of an alibi; but it doesn’t always work out that way. Investigators want to know where the suspect was, and when he went there, and why. That’s only the beginning. They search out the soundness of his reasons for being where he was. They ask how long it is since he had been there before, and had he told anyone where he was going before he went, and how long before he went did he tell them, and a number of other irritating queries. More than one successful arson investigation has got off its mark at the point where the plotter suddenly made up his mind to visit relatives he had not previously bothered about for months.

How’s business been lately? How much stock was on hand, and how much was it insured for? If a burned-out storekeeper has been carrying $5,000 insurance on a stock worth $1,500, he’s in for a sweating, even though he may be innocent. Investigators visit around among the neighbors, talking politics and hockey—and the fire. In one case the suspect’s remark to two of his customers: “I’ll have to get out of this business some way,” helped to haul him into court.

Under persistent probing the demeanor of the suspect is watched closely. Fire marshals have found that only about one fire in fifty is set with criminal intent. On cross-examination the amateurs slip up. They contradict themselves, say the wrong thing. Fire investigators, knowing all about insurance policies and building values, give the suspect’s business affairs a thorough overhauling. Often they dig up small but damning details tucked away in what had been imagined to be complete concealment, just because they have been trained to know beforehand exactly what to look for, and where.

Chemical analysis is coming to play a more important part in the business of arson investigation every year. Benge Atlee’s fictional detective, Kent Power, has his counterparts in real life. Prominent among them is L. Joslyn Rogers, Provincial Analyst for Ontario, and an associate professor in chemistry at the University of Toronto, in whose laboratories the evidence to convict many arson suspects has been tracked down during the past few years.

Business conditions have a direct effect upon the fire record. There is a greater temptation to put over an insurance fraud in depression times, but over and beyond that incentive, property owners are more liable to neglect minor repairs when money is scarce, and such neglect often leads to outbreaks of fire. In Canada, incendiary fires have fallen off fifty per cent since the war began.

The path of the incendiary becomes more thickly strewn with pitfalls each year, but we are still a long way from the drastic measures taken by the Cuban Government to combat arson. The annual fire loss in Havana a few years ago ran as high as $2.75 per capita, an enormous figure, taking into account the fact that while there are many fine business buildings and residences in Havana, most of the fires occur among the native houses which are little more than huts.

In some Canadian provinces the per capita loss today is higher than that, but the average value of a Canadian residence is much greater than that of a Cuban house. Last year Nova Scotia’s per capita loss from fire was $2.99, highest in the Dominion. Quebec reported losses amounting to $2.91 per capita. Saskatchewan had the best record, 76 cents per capita. The other provincial per capita losses ran: New Brunswick, $2.69; British Columbia, $2.20; Ontario, $2.11; Alberta, $1.46; Prince Edward Island, $1.44 and Manitoba, $1.10.

Looking at their $2.75 figure, the Cuban Government took steps. Under the Continued on page 32

On the Arson Trail

— Continued from page 24—Starts on page 20 —

present Cuban law, if a fire breaks out in your home or your business premises, you are at once arrested and clapped into jail. You stay in jail until the investigation is over, and your innocence established. Somebody is considered guilty of arson, or criminal negligence, every time there is a fire in Cuba.

We are not going to do anything so drastic as that in Canada, but we need every precaution we have and perhaps, too, a stiffening of public opinion, not only against arson, but against carelessness, a much greater fire hazard.

There’s still plenty of room for improvement.