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Criminal Law: Arson

Colleen is an attorney in the United States, and a solicitor on the roll in England and Wales.

This article will take a look at the legal history of the crime of arson.

This article will take a look at the legal history of the crime of arson.

The earliest English common law definition of arson was: "the malicious burning of the dwelling of another".

In accord with the eye-for an eye concept, a perpetrator of such a fire was often punished by being burned to death. As the following synopses of cases will show, the gallows might also be deployed as a means of exacting societal revenge for this harm to one or more of its members.

Before addressing these, it is worthwhile to note that in many U.S. jurisdictions today, arson is viewed as one of the major felonies. As such, if someone dies consequent to the fire, the death will fall under the felony murder rule. Accordingly, the same penalty range will be in order as those for first or second degree murder. Hence, in those states which retain the death penalty, an arsonist may be executed.

Early Arson Cases

Limited information is available regarding arson cases occurring in centuries passed. While the names of some perpetrators have been recorded, the vital facts and resulting sentences are sufficient for the following five examples.

Case of Ann Selby

In 1687, Ann Selby (hereinafter S., a 26-year-old maid) wished to leave domestic service in England in order to join a former porter who had recently left the household to live in Ireland. Perhaps having stolen the money she needed to finance her fare, S. dressed in clothes belonging to her mistress.

In hopes of leaving no trace, S. set fire to wooden barrels in the basement by means of turpentine. The mistress, awakened by the smell of smoke, was able to have the fire put out and S. apprehended before her escape had been completed.

The court sentenced S. to be hanged due to her “wickedness”.

Case of Adam Nash

During the years when England set up colonies in various parts of the globe, such settlements as Botany Bay in Australia became viewed as a humane and pragmatic alternative to sentences of death or long-term imprisonment at public expense.

This might have proved an avenue of relative freedom for Adam Nash (Hereinafter N.) had he conducted himself with more common sense and discretion. Instead, in 1729 having quarreled with his employer over wages, he threatened to burn down the employer’s home, voicing, in front of witnesses, his hope the employer would die inside it.

Although N. did not ignite a fire which damaged the home, he did set fire to outbuildings he knew to be part of the premises.

While there is ambiguity on this point, it seems a plaintiff had a choice as to whether or not to bring forward a claim. As N. was deemed responsible for these fires, he asked his former employer to forgive him. If he refused to do so, N. warned him he would almost certainly be sent to Australia for seven years.

If he returned, he stated, he would cause his adversary serious injury. This threat, doubtless reported to the court, resulted in N. being sentenced to death by hanging.

Case of Edward Lowe and William Jobbins

In 1790, two young men, Lowe, 23, and Jobbins, 19, planned a robbery which they intended to conceal via arson. They saturated rags in turpentine and then set a match to them. Before the blaze could spread, they stole the costliest items from the home of their primary victim.

At around the same time, they also set fire to houses nearby. Their crime was encompassed by what would now be called premeditation in that they set these fires late at night, when their victims would presumably be rendered defenceless by sleep.

Once these facts had been established in court, in summing up, the judge described the defendants’ crime as abhorrent in that:

“To set fire for the purpose of plunder and robbery is utterly heinous. In order to deter persons of the same intentions, you must prepare yourself to die and shall not receive salvation in the next world. You are both sentenced to death.”

Public hanging

Public hanging

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Case of Julian Black

In 1724, Julian Black was found guilty of having set fire to the home of a woman who employed him for domestic services.

Having stolen 30 sovereigns (coins of the time) from her, he feared the punishment he might receive when his theft was detected. Thus, he placed a lighted candle under his bed, then left it to burn, in hopes of its demolishing both the house and those inside it. Fortunately for them, the homeowners were awakened by the smell of smoke in time to escape death due to the conflagration. Still, the defendant was sentenced to death by hanging.

Case of John Mead

In 1791, Mead, a 16-year-old boy, was indicted and sentenced to death when a home in which he was living, burned down. The occupants, waking in time, were able to flee their home, suffering no physical harm.

The fire was sparked in the home-owner’s cellar via the use of tinder and straw. Evidence of guilt lay in the finding of matches and tinder in the boy’s bed. Still, this was viewed as a strong enough link to the crime to warrant a sentence of death by hanging.

Distressing as such findings may be in terms of today’s perspective, they serve to accentuate the seriousness with which arson has been, and remains to a large degree viewed, with judicial gravity.

“The child’s sob in the silence curses deeper than the strong man in his wrath.”

— Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Modern Day Arson Cases

While the deliberate setting of fires has been impelled by any number of motives, cases of injuring a child in an attempt to avenge rejection by a former spouse or partner have been rare. Hence, in 1983, the U.S. was aghast at the news of a father having poured kerosene into a hotel room where his 6-year-old son David lay sleeping.

Arsonist Charles Rothenberg

By way of background, the marriage between Marie and defendant Charles Rothenberg (hereinafter C.) had been dogged since its beginning by C.’s infidelities accompanied by intermittent acts of violence. Marie claimed that, following David’s birth, C.’s attachment to him became so extreme as to force her to feel relegated to the role of housekeeper/nanny.

Still, following their divorce, Marie believed that, as long as she complied with the terms of the visitation agreement, C. would make no effort to abduct their son.

On the day of the fatal visit, David was eager to see his dad. A week of fun had been planned. C. told Marie he would be taking David to a resort in the Catskills renowned for its live entertainment. Still, when he came to pick up David, he seemed oddly anxious and agitated.

Due to her concern, Marie soon began phoning C.’s apartment, but received no answer. Then, recalling this vacation spot was closed during the winter months, she travelled to C.’s apartment, only to find it empty. Further enquiries unveiled the fact that a neighbour often heard David shouting and crying. When he said he wanted his mom, this neighbour heard C. silence him with harsh verbal commands.

By now, C. had taken David to a hotel near Disneyland where while David was asleep C. poured 3 gallons of kerosene around the room and set it alight. He then sped away in his car. Shortly thereafter, the cries of the boy alerted hotel security as to his danger.

The child was then transported by ambulance to a nearby hospital. C. returned to the parking lot of the hotel in time to witness the ambulance racing from the area. He emailed Marie that David had been in a serious accident, and that by the time she received the email, C. himself would have ended his own life.

Skin graft surgery

Skin graft surgery

When Marie reached the hospital, she was told by medical staff that, in all probability, David had less than 24 hours to live. Indeed, 90% of his skin had been burned to the point of needing replacement. When Marie Rothenberg first saw her son in the medical center, his body had swelled to three times its size. At only six, beneath the quilts and blankets, he appeared to be a teenager.

Meanwhile, C. was arrested in San Francisco. The charges brought against him were for attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon. This weapon took the form of kerosene ignited by the spark from a match.

In terms of motive, Marie Rothenberg has written she believes her former husband to have stated, via his act, that if he could not have full custody of their child, then neither could she.

In the most horrific sense, C. attempted to deploy a scorched earth policy in order to establish turf rights regarding a small, previously healthy boy, even if it meant killing him in order to establish his claim beyond overturning. The California courts sentenced him to a term of 13 years imprisonment.

From Greek Mythology. Medea, daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis was married to Jason. She murdered her two children, Mermeros and Pheres.

From Greek Mythology. Medea, daughter of King Aeetes of Colchis was married to Jason. She murdered her two children, Mermeros and Pheres.

Arsonist Debora Green: A Modern Medea?

In an ancient Greek tragedy, Medea, aware her husband is about to abandon her, murders their children by way of avenging herself upon him. We can only wonder whether the motives of the defendant in the following case were the same. In all likelihood, this may never be known; the defendant now serving a lengthy prison sentence continues to insist upon her absolute innocence.

U.S. v. Green, 1996

In 1979, Dr. Debora Green (hereinafter G.) married fellow physician Michael Farrar (hereinafter F).

According to Farrar, their union was based more upon shared intellectual pursuits than affection or passion. G. tended to react to day-to-day squabbles by harming herself and smashing household items.

Still, while always volatile, their marriage produced three children: Timothy in 1982, Kelly in 1988, and Kate in 1984.

From G.’s perspective, her anger sprang from believing F. was engaging in infidelities. Due to these various causes, separation ensued. F. left the family home and moved into his own apartment. Still, like many unions where children are involved, the couple made sporadic attempts to reconcile.

During a harmonious period, while on an outing, the family home suffered fire damage. Investigation revealed a short circuit in wiring. Though traces of an accelerant indicated a chemical might have been deployed, the evidence was insufficient to pursue a case of arson. While the fire damage was being repaired, G. and the children stayed at F.’s apartment.

F. became concerned regarding G.’s growing use of alcohol and medications for her bipolar disorder, and had become apprehensive regarding G.’s ability to look after their children. Still when the family home had been repaired, F. remained at his apartment and G. returned, with their children, to the home.

(The major reason for F.’s continuing to live in his apartment was his well-founded belief that G. was trying to slowly poison him with ricin, a toxin derived from castor beans. Indeed, her attempt to kill him would constitute a part of her later charges and sentencing.

The Night of the Fire

On the evening of October 23, 1995, according to F., he and G. engaged in a series of phone conversations. F. warned G. of his having alerted social services as to his belief in her alcohol abuse, and his clinically based conclusion as to her efforts to poison him.

Several hours later, F. was phoned by a neighbour to tell him the family home was ablaze; he rushed to the area. While G. and her younger daughter Kate had escaped the fire, 13-year-old Tim and 6-year-old Kelly remained in the house.

Tim had alerted G. via the household intercom, that he thought there might be a fire. G. assuring him she had phoned the fire department, urged the two children to wait inside the home for the professional rescuers. Sadly, by the time the fire fighters were able to reach the home, the damage was such as to prevent their saving these children.

Suspicion Arises

During the following days, police investigations were made as to the source of the fire. Chemical analysis of the various areas of the home showed a trail of accelerant leading from G.’s bedroom door. For this reason, on October 28, G. was arrested and charged with the attempted murder of her husband, the first degree murders of two of her children, and aggravated arson.

At her trial, she eventually took an Alford claim. This means that, while maintaining one’s innocence, a defendant accepts the fact that forensic evidence is such as to justify a conviction of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

Her sentence of 40 years each for the attempted murder of her husband and the actual killing of two of their children remains in force. These prison terms are consecutive, meaning that, unless a future appeal proves successful, G. will remain incarcerated for 80 years, a period nearly certain to exceed her life span.

The philpott Children: Duwayne 13, John 9, Jack 7, Jayden 5, Jade 10, Jesse 6.

The philpott Children: Duwayne 13, John 9, Jack 7, Jayden 5, Jade 10, Jesse 6.

Arsonists Michael and Mairead Philpott

The UK public felt overwhelmed by a case decided in 2013, of arson caused by parents and resulting in the deaths of 6 children. These children ranged in age from 5 to 13. While 5 of them died consequent to smoke inhalation, one of them survived long enough to be brought to a hospital. Still, his harm was so severe as to result in his death 3 days later.

In factual terms, the fire started in the early hours of May 11 2012. Perpetrator Michael Philpott, 56, (hereinafter P.), his wife Mairead Philpott, 32, and their friend, Paul Mosley, were responsible. The flames were ignited while the children were sleeping upstairs, while P. and his wife remained on the lower floor. P. set a lighted match to petrol he had poured through the letterbox.

Mosley was involved to the extent of removing and disposing of the canisters which P. had emptied. After what he believed to be an accurate interval, P. and his wife did their utmost to bring the children out of the house before they were harmed. Tragically, the time allowed was inadequate, the children dying in the above-mentioned ways.

Michael Philpott: An Expert Exploiter

At age 56, P had fathered 17 children, the last six by his third wife, Mairead. She, at 16, had married the much older P., believing him to be her salvation from an abysmal home situation. In her vulnerability, Mairead viewed P. as a refuge from strife.

(Perhaps, in hindsight, she realizes few home environments could have proved as menacing as the one she was entering into.)

P. had, in his early life, been imprisoned for stabbing a partner, Kim Hill, 13 times due to her decision to leave him. Though in all probability P. withheld this information from prospective partners or brides, he would later use this fact to bludgeon them into accepting his tyranny.

Indeed, so deep was Mairead’s vulnerability that she accepted P.’s paramour, Lisa Willis and her four children, to live in their home and continue her relationship with P. Both Lisa and Mairead worked outside the home, presenting their wages to the unemployed P. as to a master or sovereign. (P. had managed to live most of his adult life beneath the shelter of the benefits system, in one form or another.)

In time, Willis and her children found the confidence to leave this domestic fiasco. At this point, P. became intent on revenge. A fury akin to that which fueled his early attack on Kim Hill seems to have become focused on Willis.

P.’s motives for the arson seem to have been an amalgamation of vengeance against Willis whom he planned to blame and frame for the arson and then claim custody of her four children, and his zeal to crawl through any crevice he could in the benefits system. Losing his home due to fire, with six children needing to be rehoused, would result in a significant leap up the housing hierarchy in terms of governmental support.

A disturbingly dangerous man with no moral compass.

— Trial Judge

As the trial judge would later state, by this point, P. had lost any sense he might once have possessed as to loyalty, tenderness or the most basic sense of integrity. Thus, he was sentenced to life imprisonment; ineligible to seek parole until 15 years has been served. Mairead and Mosley, judged equally guilty, each received sentences of 17 years, half of which will need to be served before any opportunity to request early release becomes feasible.

Arsonist Damion Sheldon

Arsonist Damion Sheldon

Affection Gone Awry: When Passion Turns to Murder

On December 1, 2012, the 42nd birthday of Damion Sheldon, (hereinafter S.), he phoned his former lover to say he was planning to take his own life. If he hoped this plea for sympathy would induce her to resume their relationship, he was mistaken.

Having ended their nine-month involvement, 32-year-old Louise Pilkington (hereinafter P.) remained firm. S. then text P.: “Thanks, love, you have destroyed me.” He then did all in his power to destroy her, not caring whether or not her young daughter and baby were killed as well.

Waiting until after midnight, he went to her home and poured petrol into her letterbox. Awakened by her dog, P. rushed to her door and opened it. S. then stepped inside, covered P. with petrol, and then ignited it. As she began to burn, S. set a match to the petrol on the floor, thus setting the home ablaze. Having accomplished his goal, P. sauntered away into the darkness.

P.’s nine-year-old daughter, showing amazing quickness and acumen, urged her mother to roll on the ground, whilst she ripped away her burning clothing. Screaming that her baby was in the upstairs bedroom neighbours attempted but failed to fight through the flames.

When the firemen arrived they used a sledgehammer in order to break into the back of the house. By this time, the baby had died. Two firefighters carried the baby out of the burning home. Once outside, after five minutes of CPR, they were able to revive the baby. Fortunately, no brain injury was sustained due to the brief stoppage of oxygen.

The Trial of a Predator

When placed on trial, S. claimed his actions to have been due to the large amount of alcohol he had ingested beforehand. This excuse met with no credence. After a week- long trial, the jury took less than four hours to confer before returning a guilty verdict of arson and attempted murder.

The judge, reflecting societal disgust and revulsion for such acts, told P. he was looking at a long stretch of time behind bars. The sentence of 19 years was comprised of 15 years for attempted murder and 4 years for arson.

And What of His Victims?

Although 16 percent of the skin on her head and body were burned, P. has made a fairly rapid recovery. Still, the scars of that night are bound to leave residue both upon her and her daughter for some years to come. One can only wish them resilience.


Cases abound in which fires are set in order to obtain the proceeds of fire insurance. Indeed, it is a given fact, wherever financial gain is available, some human minds will manoeuvre a means of possessing it. As such cases are based on mercenary motives, we have chosen to focus here upon the human component.

The above-mentioned cases have shown that motivations for harming or killing by fire can spring from various causes, some of them multiple.

To some extent, as with other aspects of law, definitions of arson have changed through the centuries, often differing between countries and jurisdictions within the same nation.

By way of example, Scotland no longer recognizes arson, in itself, as a crime. Instead, Scottish law specifies the presence of intent, or type of damage, such as willful fire setting, vandalism and others. In the U.S., some jurisdictions divide arson into first, second and third degrees, depending upon various surrounding facts and circumstances.

Still, whatever its terminology, the basic principles are the same throughout the English-speaking world.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Colleen Swan


Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on November 18, 2013:

Wonder how different life would be if the punishment for arson remained as harsh as it began? Thank you for the history. Voted Up!

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 17, 2013:

What terrible things people do to one another. I found the case details and photos interesting and your explanations along the way helpful.

Ann Carr from SW England on November 17, 2013:

A very interesting hub, full of detail and background stories. How fascinating the human mind is and what terrible things it can concoct! I remember clearly the Philpott case; no-one could believe that a human could be so callous where the lives of children are concerned.

Great piece, well written.

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