1902 Encyclopedia > Arson


ARSON has been defined as the malicious and wilful burning of the house of another, and is at common law an offence of the degree of felony. Some part of the house must be actually burnt; a bare intention or attempt will not constitute the offence, but the burning of any part, however trifling, is sufficient. The burning must be mali-cious and wilfuL If a man by wilfully setting fire to his own house burn the house of his neighbour also, it will be felony. The word house, in the definition of the offence at common law, extends not only to dwelling-houses, " but to all out-houses which are parcel thereof, though not adjoining thereto." Barns, with corn and hay in them, though distant from a house, are within the definition.

The different varieties of the offence are specified in the statute 24 and 25 Vict. c. 97 (Malicious Injuries to Property Act). The following crimes are thereby made felonies:—(1.) Setting fire to churches or other places of divine worship; (2.) Setting fire to a dwelling-house, any person being therein; (3.) Setting fire to a house, out-house, manufactory, farm-building, etc., with intent to impose and defraud any person ; (4.) Setting fire to build-ings appertaining to any railway, port, dock, or harbour; or, (5.) Setting fire to any public building. In these cases the Act provides that the person convicted shall be liable, at the discretion of the court, to be kept in penal servitude for life, or for any term not less than three years (now five years by the 27 and 28 Vict. c. 47), or to be imprisoned for any time not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour, and with or without solitary confinement, and, if a male under sixteen years of age, with or without whipping. Setting fire to other buildings, and setting fire to goods in buildings in such circumstances that, if the same were thereby set on fire, the offence would be felony, are subject to the punishments last enumerated, with this exception, that the period of penal servitude is limited to fourteen years. The attempt to set fire to any building, or any matter or thing (as in last offence), is to be punished in the same way. So also is the crime of setting fire to crops of hay, grass, com, etc, but setting fire to stacks of the same, or any cultivated vegetable produce, or to peat, coal, etc., is regarded as a more serious offence, and the penal servitude last two offences penal servitude is limited to seven years. Setting fire to mines is visited with the full measure of penalty, and in the case of the attempt, the penal servitude is limited to fourteen years. Setting fire, or attempting to set fire to ships is punishable by the full penalties already enumerated. Setting fire to her Majesty's vessels of war is a felony punishable by death.

In Scotland the offence, equivalent to arson in England, is known by the more expressive name of wilful fire-raising. The later statutes cited above do not apply to Scotland, where the crime is punishable capitally by old consuetudi-nary law. The public prosecutor has the privilege, as in other such cases, of declining to demand capital punish-ment, and invariably does so.

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