This August, a garage in Old Monroe, Missouri burst into flames. There had been more than a dozen similar fires over the past year, a suspiciously high number for a town with a population of 265. When police reviewed security footage, they spotted a white Chevrolet Lumina parked outside the building minutes before it caught fire. They traced the car back to local volunteer firefighter Dustin Grigsby, the 19-year-old son of a fire district captain. Grigsby told police that he set the fires because he “needed a release.”
Every year, something like 100 firefighters are arrested for arson-related crimes. In one year, 1994, South Carolina alone charged 47 firefighter-arsonists, besting their 1993 record of 33 arrests. “It happens more than you think,” former federal agent Daniel Hebert told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Really, it goes on way more than anyone knows. We don’t know about most of them.”
One of the earliest recorded cases of firefighter arson took place in Shelford, an English village a few miles south of Cambridge. In 1828, a Shelford farmer’s haystack caught fire; then, six months later, Mr. Stacey’s haulm-stack burst into flames. Spectators lined up along Trumpington Road to watch local laborers work the hand-operated pump; water was brought in buckets from a nearby pond. In those days, fire trucks were owned and operated by insurance companies, which had a strong incentive to put the fire out and thus minimize insurance payouts. The fires were “the diabolical act of an incendiary,” the local paper guessed.
Over the next several years, barns, straw stacks, gig-houses, cart sheds, stables, and storerooms in Shelford caught on fire. In 1833, police finally arrested 33-year-old John Stallan, a part-time firefighter, who immediately tried to pin the fires on his wife. (According to a local historian, Mrs. Stallan was four feet tall and “rather deformed.”) During his trial, Stallan at first claimed that he was no more guilty of the crimes than “our blessed Saviour who perished for the wickedness of man” but later confessed to setting 11 fires. He was hanged for his crimes.