Monday, July 17, 2006

Fanning the Flames of Suspicion

July 17, 1907
Los Angeles

A serial arsonist has been at work in Hollywood, setting six fires in the last three weeks. The community’s small volunteer fire department has been overwhelmed by the crimes.

“The entire neighborhood rushed to the scene,” The Times said of one blaze in June. “The volunteer fire department hurried out their hose cart and laid a long line of hose, but the water pressure was not sufficient to send a stream that would reach the burning dwellings.”

“With hand extinguishers and pails of water, adjoining houses and stables were saturated and men were stationed at nearby residences putting out tiny fires that started from wind-driven embers.”

Although the neighborhood was on alert for suspicious behavior, fires and mysterious vandalism continued, The Times said: “Someone, many consider it an insane person, has been ransacking the homes near [a burned-out house on Harold Way], going from room to room, leaving burned matches here and there and carrying away anything which seemed convenient.

“Clothes have been cut to pieces on clotheslines and the burning of one barn at least has been traced to this terrifying unknown.”

A few days later, former Los Angeles Mayor J.R. Toberman, a Hollywood resident, received a letter threatening to burn down his house unless he paid $2,000 ($41,047.14 USD 2005).

On July 17, another home burned, and residents called a meeting on improving the firefighting in Hollywood. A reward of $1,000 was offered for information about the crimes and several residents said they would shoot the arsonist on sight. The Times noted: “The temper of the people is such that the capture of the incendiary might result in a lynching.”

Hollywood was divided into sections patrolled by members of the vigilance committee, but apparently the arsonist was never captured. Judging by the lack of further stories through the rest of 1907, the fires stopped as mysteriously as they began.

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