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Better than the Ponies

The most startling revelation of the fire prevention program was brought about through the work of the “arson squad” (3, 21, 27, 31, 32, 33 & 34). Fire Marshal Stevens appointed Fire Captains W. A. Groce and Fred W. Roberts and Lieutenant E. J. Treese to this work. These men attended every Portland fire, often arriving upon the scene before the companies. As soon as possible they began inspection and continued until the cause of the fire was established beyond any reasonable doubt. Their untiring and vigilant efforts and the able and willing assistance of District Attorney Walter H. Evans and his deputies, uncovered two arson rings operating in Portland.

About twenty persons were involved in one ring. It had operated profitably up and down the Pacific coast -- but chiefly in Portland -- since 1910. The arsonists had developed their profession to a science. They built houses or remodeled them so they would burn easily and quickly. Metal parts of furniture planted in rooms were to be found later in the ashes. Building sites were chosen with reference to their distance from hydrants and fire stations, combustibles were artfully arranged to give the right “flash” and alibis were prepared in advance. Profits were large and the sporting chance a great attraction. As one of the accused said: “The insurance companies bet me a $1,000 against $14 that I can’t burn a house and gives me three years to do it. It’s a better game than “the ponies.” However, the combined efforts of the arson squad and District Attorney Evans shattered the game in eight months time. Thirty-five arrests resulted in twenty-four convictions. Considering that arson is one of the most difficult criminal cases to prove this record is remarkable.

The Mysterious Mr. Dobler

From the beginning of the fire prevention campaign Fire Marshal Stevens had maintained that fire insurance was issued too freely in Portland and the arsonists seemed to bear out his contention. He had repeatedly urged agents to cooperate with the Fire Prevention Bureau in this matter as a means of making arson less attractive, and argued that the fire risk in Portland was increased by over-insurance and negligible inspections before policies were granted. As a test of cooperation in this matter, in January, 1916, members of the fire department began to take out fire insurance policies. The “furnishings” of a house, which investigation would have revealed empty save for a fireman’s helmet, a tin cup and a grand jury summons, were insured for amounts ranging from $400 to $600. Policies amounting to $20,000 were secured on another house with like “furnishings.” Policies were obtained on the “contents” of a building which six months before had been burned by arsonists, in a fire which had attracted considerable attention at the time. Insurance was written on a non-existent house at an address that would have led an investigator to a vacant lot. Although the building had been unoccupied for weeks, the fittings of a saloon, in the center of the business district, were insured. Although every fire insurance agent in Portland was visited, only a few actually investigated the risks or turned down applications. For the most part the firemen used their own names when applying for policies. A few used fictitious names. Fire Captain Groce obtained close to twenty policies for a mythical Charles Dobler. It was the mythical Mr. Dobler, himself,


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