Find of the Month

November 2021 - Pacific Coast Fire Bug

poster with information about Robert Bruce Driscoll

A 1935 file in the Fire Department Central Files tells the story of Robert Bruce Driscoll, a.k.a. the Pacific Coast Fire Bug. He confessed to setting 140 fires in Seattle over a four-year period, many in boxcars and industrial plants. There were periods where fires were discovered on a nightly basis, and the Fire Department assigned a special squad to patrol the most-targeted districts. Driscoll was eventually caught setting fire to a church by a neighbor who was alerted by his barking dog.

Driscoll admitted setting this fire and numerous others, visiting the scenes with investigators and explaining where and how they were set. He claimed he always worked alone and said that "if it had not been for that dog you would not have me yet." He signed a confession for the church fire, saying, "I done this because of my destitute circumstances and because I was sore at the world in general."

The file includes various notes left by Driscoll airing grievances and warning of more fires. Some complaints were of a general nature ("Long as I have to live in breadline hearing negroes and aliens insult our flag and white people personally I continue fires"; "To business men everywhere - so long as I am blackballed for not being in last war I will continue many big fires in industrial plants"). Others were directed specifically against people who had offended him ("Dismiss that negro janitor at central library within 30 days or I start wrecking trains... No excuses!!"; "If that ticket puncher at breadline has a job 24 hours from now I burn you out"; "Long as Bruce B. at window 8 at 84 Union St has a public job I will cause fires!!!") One note concluded with "Get wise or get fire or worse." He often signed his notes "Firebug."

After his arrest, Seattle's fire chief sent letters to other west coast officials notifying them of his capture and the likelihood that he was behind fires in other areas. A response from the fire chief in Tillamook, Oregon, said that Driscoll had served in the volunteer fire department in that town for several years in the late 1910s but "was not a very enthusiastic fireman." He had left town after attacking his wife, who later divorced him. An employer from his Tillamook days described him as "on the borderline between genius and insanity." A biographical summary noted that even while living in shacktowns he continued studying subjects such as science and radio technology and spent many hours in public libraries.

From prison in Walla Walla, where he was serving a 5-10 year sentence, Driscoll wrote a letter to the Fire Department in which he said, "For a jail-house, it ain't so bad here… Since my head is clearing a little, I realize a man should live like rest [sic] of decent society or he is a mental subnormal character. I should have retaliated lawfully, if at all. Crime is a sick mind or boy's work, or plain wrong."