Fire and Police Departments Extinguish Pre-Halloween Arson Sprees

Oct. 29, 2005
On the night before Halloween in years past, hell raisers roamed the streets of Detroit and Camden, N.J., and lit up the shells of abandoned buildings like jack-o'-lanterns.

On the night before Halloween in years past, hell raisers roamed the streets of Detroit and Camden, N.J., and lit up the shells of abandoned buildings like jack-o'-lanterns.

Some firefighters on duty those nights -- "Devil's Night" in Detroit, "Mischief Night" in Camden -- recall a seemingly constant string of calls that had them racing to the next fire before they could catch their breath from putting out the last.

"We were spread pretty thin," Detroit Fire Department Sgt. Manuel Zabala said. "We'd put one out, and they'd send you to another."

The most eventful Devil's Night for Detroit firefighters was 1984, when a reported 810 fires burned throughout the city. In 1991 Camden firefighters saw 135 fires in eight hours.

But because of massive anti-arson efforts, Devil's and Mischief Nights have lost much of their menace.

"It doesn't exist anymore, I'm happy to say," Camden Fire Chief Joseph Marini said of Mischief Night.

Likewise, the number of Devil's Night arson fires has plummeted since the 1980s heyday. In fact, Detroit averages more daily fires during the rest of the year than on recent Devil's Nights, according to Zabala.

Since those fiery nights of years past, both Camden and Detroit have been organizing firefighters, law enforcement officers and citizen volunteers in an effort to stomp out crime associated with Devil's and Mischief Nights.

Detroit has recast Halloween Eve as Angel's Night, the name of its annual anti-arson campaign. During the weeks leading up to Halloween, city officials start recruiting thousands of volunteers to help patrol the streets for Angel's Night.

In the 1990s, Camden started emptying the streets of potential troublemakers, busing thousands of teenagers to Halloween events outside the city. Camden officials also organized what Marini called a "massive police and fire presence," which along with a stricter-than-usual curfew, has helped tame Mischief Night.

There are several theories behind the origin of Devil's and Mischief Nights.

Both nights are distant relatives of ancient pagan celebrations during which the peoples of present day Great Britain celebrated the end of their calendar year by lighting bonfires and warding off spirits of the recently deceased. As part of those celebrations, people dressed in spirit costumes and played mischievous pranks on the "living." These annual rituals survived Christianity and were brought by British immigrants to the United States.

Until the 1960s, Mischief Nights remained relatively harmless. Marini said that before Mischief Night, Camden teenagers celebrated "Soap Night" with impish pranks like ringing doorbells and running away, throwing water balloons at cars and smearing soap on windows.

Then, through the late 60s, "things started to deteriorate," Marini said.

The Camden Fire Department started getting numerous false alarms and calls for trash fires.

The seventies, Marini said, ushered in a period of significant "civil unrest" in Camden. The situation got dangerous for firefighters; people started throwing rocks and bottles at firefighters and their apparatus.

This period of dangerous, at times riotous behavior spilled over into Mischief Night, which evolved into a much more destructive annual event.

Detroit saw a similar evolution in its Halloween Eve. Revelers went from pulling relatively innocent pranks -- soaping windows and toilet-papering trees -- to drawing national attention with the destructive fury of Devil's Night. One Detroit firefighter said of Devil's Nights during the eighties: "Rome is burning."

In both Camden and Detroit, the sixties and seventies were a period of deterioration. The middle class started fleeing American cities for the suburbs, commonly known as "white flight," leaving cities economically and socially depressed.

It was under this backdrop that Devil's and Mischief Nights turned sour.

Since Detroit's significant Angel's Night campaigns and Camden's police and fire efforts, including the state's largest mutual aid contingencies, firefighters can rest easier the night before Halloween.

However, some warn that a sustained period of calm could lead to dangerous apathy.

"Keep your ears and eyes open this weekend," Zabala said. "This year may be a different story."


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