Arson in review. From profit to pathology

Psychiatr Clin North Am. 1992 Sep;15(3):623-45.


Arson is a crime committed by thousands of people throughout our nation for nearly every reason, justification or excuse known to mankind ... Arson is one of the easiest crimes to commit but the hardest to prevent or prove ... Arson is a crime which involves little skill, as the weapon used is legally carried and too readily available ... Unlike many other covert criminal activities, the impact of increased major arsons has a direct visible effect on the lives of the average citizen. Insurance premiums are raised, property is destroyed, people are killed or maimed, and the quality of life in the area affected by arson is diminished considerably. These statements, taken from US Senate hearings on arson in the late 1970s, are as true and as troubling today as they were over a decade ago. Many who set fires need mental health services of some kind, a fact alluded to even in popular literature. Dick Francis, a well-known author of British mysteries, writes, "There are people in this world who cause trouble because it makes them feel important. They're ineffectual, eh? in their lives. So they burn things ..." But nobody wants these arsonists in their midst. Psychiatric facilities do not want them so they end up in prison: Yet another case has been reported of a mentally disordered person being sent to prison because there is no other institution willing to receive her ... a severely mentally disordered woman aged 22 [was sentenced] to life imprisonment for arson ... in default of other appropriate facilities ... to protect the public. And general hospital emergency rooms cannot find anyplace to send them: "The hardest patients to sell are the repeaters with bad reputations, the firesetters and those who are potentially violent." Any arson episode is an act the magnitude of which the perpetrator cannot predict accurately. Once set, the fire is no longer responsive to the desires or dictates of the firesetter. To address the problem of arson in our times, arson investigators for law enforcement agencies and for insurance companies, fire chiefs, and mental health professionals must develop a joint commitment to public education, cooperative plans for prevention and intervention, and a shared research agenda.(ABSTRACT TRUNCATED AT 400 WORDS)

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Crime
  • Female
  • Firesetting Behavior / etiology
  • Firesetting Behavior / psychology*
  • Firesetting Behavior / therapy
  • Humans
  • Juvenile Delinquency
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / complications
  • Mental Disorders / genetics
  • Mental Disorders / psychology*