Saturday, February 15, 2014

Arson: It ain't like it used to be....

Arson is considered by most, and particularly firefighters, to be a serious crime. Pennsylvania treats it as a first degree felony.  Federal sentencing guidelines call for as little as five years in prison.  States vary, but things were a bit different in the old days.   

Here in my area, just a generation ago, but long enough for the statute of limitations to expire, a local fire chief was reliably rumored to have taken a fire setter back behind the station and administered an “attitude adjustment” to the offender which was probably more painful than what the judge ultimately meted out.  If our current crop of politicians believe laws and punishment for arson are stringent today, they are not students of history.  The first such law in Pennsylvania was passed in 1700, and stated “Whosover shall be convicted of willfully firing another man’s house, warehouse, outhouse, barn, or stable, shall forfeit his or her own estate to the party suffering, and be imprisoned all their lives in the House of Correction at hard labor to the behoof of the said party suffering.”  Apparently life with hard labor wasn’t a sufficient punishment as in 1718, the penalty was increased to death, and in 1767, they took away the condemned’s access to a clergyman before execution.  
As tough as the old Pennsylvanians were, they had nothing on the Babylonians in the days of Hammurabi, around 2000 BC.  “If in a man’s house, a fire has been kindled, and a man who has come to extinguish the fire has lifted up his eyes to the property of the house, and has taken the property of the owner of the house, that man shall be thrown into that fire.”  In both Japan and early Edwardian England, the older Babylonian concepts were continued; the penalty for incendiarism being death by fire, a rather poetic form of justice. 
While societal norms and our jurisprudence have evolved over time, most can probably think of a few incidents where we wouldn’t have minded taking a fire setter on a Marty McFly time travel journey back to meet one the judges from these time periods.  So if anyone knows where to find an old DeLorean….

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