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The earliest scientific writings on arson were generated during the late eighteenth century by a group of German psychiatric theorists, who concluded that the crime was characteristic of physically and mentally retarded females from rural areas who were undergoing the stresses of puberty. These theorists classified arson under the rubric of ‘‘instinctive monomania’’ that, according to prevailing legal codes, defined arsonists as insane and not accountable for their actions. During the decades that followed, the terms ‘‘monomanie incendiaire’’ and ‘‘pyromania’’ appeared in the literature, which described arson as an impulsive act and a distinct mental disorder. From the 1820s through the 1930s, arson was studied in relation to psychiatry, psychology, and law. The prevailing issue concerned the medicolegal understanding of the term ‘‘irresistible impulse’’: was incendiarism generally impulsive behavior resulting from some form of mental aberration, and was a person legally responsible if motivated to commit a crime only by some irresistible impulse?
Later in the twentieth century, those studying arson began to examine other areas and motivations, and it was quickly learned that the phenomenon was not restricted to mentally ill or defective persons but could be found among otherwise ‘‘normal’’ individuals as well, whose actions emerged from a wide range of personal motives.
Since the 1950s, studies of arsonists have generally focused on arrested, institutionalized, and paroled individuals. Six separate behavioral categories seem consistently to emerge. The works of the Columbia University psychiatrists Nolan Lewis and Helen Yarnell and numerous social and behavioral researchers have found that the offenders commit arson for purposes of revenge, vandalism, or crime concealment. Some seek to collect insurance; others set fires in search of excitement, or are impelled by an irresistible impulse (pyromaniacs).
Revenge arsonists, the most prevalent type, are persons who, as the result of arguments or feelings of jealousy or hatred, seek revenge by fire. The victims are typically family members and relatives, employers, or lovers. Even though victims are usually associates of the arsonist, hate groups tend to start fires in places of worship and religious dwellings in which the arsonist does not typically know the victim. In retaliation for real or imaginary wrongs, revenge arsonists set ablaze their victims’ property or the premises in which they reside. These arsonists appear to be the most potentially dangerous of all the types. They set occupied dwellings afire with little thought as to the safety of those within, thinking only of the revenge they must have on their specific victims. Furthermore, they are often intoxicated at the time of the offense. No elaborate incendiary devices are employed, typically only matches and gasoline. Although their crimes are premeditated, they take few steps to conceal their identities and are thus easily detected by alert investigators.
Vandalism arsonists include teenagers who willfully destroy property solely for purposes of fun and sport, although at times revenge motives may be partially present. As opposed to other arsonists, who work alone, vandalism arsonists usually have at least one accomplice. In terms of arrest, it is important to note that half of all persons arrested for arson are white males under the age of eighteen. They tend to set their fires at night in churches, school buildings, and vacant structures.
Crime-concealment arsonists set fire to premises where they have committed other offenses. The crime is usually burglary but sometimes murder, and the arson is an attempt to cover the traces of the criminal or obliterate the proof that another crime has taken place. Such fires are usually set at night in unoccupied dwellings or places of business.
Insurance-claim arsonists include insolvent property owners, smallbusiness operators, and other individuals who, because of extreme financial pressure, incinerate their own property to collect the insurance on what has been destroyed. As a rule they do not set fire to occupied dwellings, and their offenses generally take place in the daytime.
Excitement arsonists set buildings ablaze for the thrill connected with fires. Some like setting or watching fires, while others enjoy viewing the operations of the firefighters and fire equipment. (Occasionally a volunteer firefighter is found among them.) Their offenses take place at night, they rarely set ablaze anything but inhabited buildings, and they are usually intoxicated at the time of the offense.
Pyromaniacs are pathological firesetters. They seem to have no practical reasons for setting the fires and receive no material profit from them. Their only motive seems to be some sort of sensual satisfaction, and the classic ‘‘irresistible impulse’’ is often a factor. The behavior of pyromaniacs was best described during the early 1950s by Lewis and Yarnell in their well-known study Pathological Firesetting:
The reasons for the fires are unknown; the act is so little their own that they feel no responsibility for the crime. . . . These offenders are able to give a classical description of the irresistible impulse. They describe the mounting tension; the restlessness; the urge for motion; the conversion symptoms such as headaches, palpitations, ringing in the ears, and the gradual merging of their identity into a state of unreality; then the fires are set. . . . Once they have started the fires, thrown the neighborhood into confusion, and are assured the fire engines are working, the tension subsides, and they can go home and drop into a peaceful sleep. The majority of pyromaniacs, incidentally, start fires in their own neighborhood. With some the impulse asserts itself episodically with extended periods of ‘‘normality’’ intervening; with others, it controls them night after night; in either instance they almost always have to set a fire when the impulse appears. Such offenders will continue, each fire being a facsimile of the first, until a more powerful force, usually embodied in the ‘‘arm of the law,’’ steps in and commands them to stop. (p. 87)
These are the mysterious ‘‘firebugs’’ who terrorize neighborhoods by going on solitary firesetting sprees, often nocturnal, during which they touch off trash fires in one building after another without regard to property or life. Many suffer from low-level mental deficiencies, are persons who derive sexual satisfaction from watching fires, or are chronic alcoholics, and they encompass the full range of ages.
Many pyromaniacs bring arrest upon themselves by making certain that the identity of the firebug will be easily found, by being conspicuously present watching all of the fires, by repeatedly contacting police or fire officials as to the whereabouts of fires or with information about the ‘‘identity’’ of local arsonists, or by going directly to the police and asking to be protected from their own ‘‘criminal desires.’’ Once they are arrested the irresistible impulse ceases, and for some it never returns. The sprees of pyromaniacs last from a few days to a few months or even years, but discovery and arrest tend to put an end to each particular episode.
Clearly, pathological firesetters are not a homogeneous group. Using Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual stages, oral-stage and phallic-stage firesetters appear to meet the American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-IV criteria for pyromania. Oral-stage firesetters experience feelings of happiness or well-being from watching a safe fire, but have a fear of fires that are out of control. They may also exhibit other non-firesetting, oralstage behaviors, such as nail-biting, hoarding food, and vomiting when under stress to name but a few. The major indicator of phallic-stage firesetting is sexual arousal from watching fires.
These six types are those that are most familiar to criminal justice authorities, but there are other, less common, varieties. Lewis and Yarnell have identified a number of distinct arsonist types, including the ‘‘would-be hero’’ arsonists, who are motivated primarily by vanity. These individuals are described as ‘‘little’’ men with grandiose social ambitions whose natural capacities doom them to insignificance. They are basically exhibitionists who set significantly large fires, but instead of playing the role of hero by saving lives or helping to extinguish the flames, they turn in the alarms and identify themselves as those who discovered the fires. Lewis and Yarnell have also identified various categories of vagrant arsonists of all ages. These are basically wanderers who start brushfires or incinerate vacant buildings, railroad property, bridges, and farm property for the vicarious pleasure they derive from such destruction.
The arsonist-for-hire is an individual who is paid for the service of burning down property. This type of arsonist usually works alone. The arsonist-for-hire may be hired to destroy an office building, an automobile, or in rare cases, a person. Individuals who hire arsonists include mob figures, business owners, and average people seeking insurance money or revenge.
Arson for Profit
Although the insurance-claim firesetter represents a longstanding type with economic motives for arson, since the early 1970s newer and more pervasive forms of arson for profit have become evident. A common pattern involves the purchase of property in decaying inner-city neighborhoods at a low price, followed by several changes of ownership in order to double or triple its paper value. Insurance is obtained, promises of rehabilitation are made, and fire then breaks out. An alternative pattern is manifested by owner-set fires in large inner-city apartment buildings, the rental profits from which have diminished over the years owing to decaying neighborhoods and economic recession. The annual taxes on such properties often exceed the rental income, reducing the market value to near zero. Incineration then becomes the only economically viable method of disposing of the building. Arson-for-profit is typically planned well ahead and the insured usually has a solid alibi far away from the crime scene. Another type of arsonist, often referred to as a ‘‘fire stripper,’’ burns buildings and then scavenges them for plumbing, wiring, and fixtures exposed in the gutted structure.
Little is known about those involved in arson for profit, for few are arrested and convicted. Federal Bureau of Investigation data from the 1970s through the close of the 1990s reflect considerable consistency regarding those arrested for arson: the vast majority are white males under the age of twenty-five. But studies of imprisoned and paroled arsonists fail to detect many arson entrepreneurs, or ‘‘professional torches.’’
Fire insurance companies, however, have provided at least some insight into the dynamics of arson for profit and ‘‘arsonists for hire.’’ Socalled fire brokers, to give an example, specialize in locating failing businesses or decaying properties for persons who intend ultimately to ‘‘sell’’ them to an insurance company. Such brokers make arrangements for the legitimate sale of the targeted property, the inflated insurance, the fire, and the insurance settlement. Their fees range from 10 percent to 20 percent of the insurance value. These brokers generally work in conjunction with ‘‘arson co-ops,’’ or rings that specialize in sophisticated methods of property incineration.
There is also evidence that organized crime is involved in the arson business, offering property owners package deals that begin with the fire and end with complete arrangements for settlement. Insurance investigators also believe that many fires result from extortion by underworld loan sharks, who arrange for incendiary fires and insurance settlements in order to force their principals to pay outstanding debts.
Arson and Collective Violence
The great Albany fire of 1793 has been documented as an illustration of how arson, combined with rioting, has been a mechanism for venting the grievances and frustrations of servitude and oppression. Similar phenomena were the innercity riots of the 1960s, the prison uprisings during the 1970s and 1980s, and the rebellion in 1992 following the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers charged with the videotaped beating of Rodney King. Studies of this behavior have shown that the fires associated with mob violence are not necessarily the work of arsonists but that they simply go hand in hand with the accompanying property destruction and looting. The persons participating in such incidents have rarely been arrested for arson and therefore have remained unstudied, but analyses of the spatial distribution of fires during riots suggest that these fires occur more often in neighborhoods where the median income is at or below the poverty line and where the participants have the least to lose in terms of personal property that could be destroyed by fire.
Statistical and Economic Issues
Since 1970 arson has been referred to as the fastest-growing major crime, and in 1979 the F.B.I. began including it as an ‘‘index crime’’ in its Uniform Crime Reports. Arson is the second leading cause of residential fire deaths. It is responsible for twenty-five percent of all fires in the United States. It is also an extremely violent crime that claims many lives each year. It is estimated that one in four fires is intentionally set and that no less than one thousand deaths and three thousand injuries each year result from arson. The number of arson fires annually is believed to exceed one-half million, with almost half involving buildings and other structures, 30 percent involving vehicles, and the balance directed at outdoor targets ranging from forests to city trash cans. The direct costs of arson in the United States approach $2 billion annually, but estimates suggest that the indirect costs—lost tax revenue and wages, unemployment insurance payments, relocation costs, and other economic ripple effects—are five to ten times higher.
The amount of information dealing with arson and arsonists is severely limited, owing to numerous difficulties in collecting comprehensive and reliable data. First, arson does not always appear to be a crime at the time of occurrence. Many fires are classified as suspicious, but subsequent investigations cannot always document whether a crime did indeed occur. Second, most police agencies are not adequately trained and equipped in the areas of fire science and investigation. Third, the legislative authority to investigate suspicious fires is typically in the hands of state and local fire marshals or municipal fire service companies, with the communication of arson data to law enforcement agencies only on a voluntary basis. Fourth, a significant proportion of firefighters in the United States serve as unpaid volunteers and this results in substandard investigation into the causes of fires. Fifth, rates and trends in arson are generally drawn from arrest statistics, and the unreliability of such data as measures of the incidence and prevalence of crime has been well documented. Sixth, and most important, arson is a low-risk crime, thus yielding few samples of offenders for scientific study. The offense is difficult to prove unless there is a confession or an unimpeachable witness—both unlikely, given the nature of the crime and the criminal. Furthermore, many prosecutors avoid filing formal charges unless the evidence is strong, because the conviction rates for arson are low; and most insurance companies are reluctant to question claims, because they fear civil suits for punitive damages if they turn down a legitimate claim.
- American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation. Crime in the United States, 1998. Uniform Crime Reports. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, 1999.
- Gerlach, Don ‘‘Black Arson in Albany, New York, November 1973.’’ Journal of Black Studies 7, no. 3 (March 1977): 301–311.
- Hamling, J. E. ‘‘A Psychodynamic Classification System for Pathological Firesetters with Strategies for Each Subgroup.’’ World Wide Web document, 1995. http://www.ozemail.com.au/ üjsjp/fireset.htm.
- Hurley, W., and MONOHAN, T. M. ‘‘Arson: The Criminal and the Crime.’’ British Journal of Criminology 9, (1) (1969): 4–21.
- Inciardi, James ‘‘The Adult Firesetter: A Typology.’’ Criminology 8 (2) (1970): 145–155.
- Lewis, Nolan C., and Yarnell, H. Pathological Firesetting (Pyromania). New York: Nervous and Mental Disease Monographs, 1951.
- Pettiway, Leon ‘‘Urban Spatial Structure and Incidence of Arson: Differences between Ghetto and Nonghetto Environments.’’ Justice Quarterly 5, (1) (1988): 113–129.