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Pyromania is the urge to set and watch fires. It’s not about setting fires for material gain or to try to hurt anyone. Instead, the pyromaniac is simply fascinated by fires, and feels compelled to light and watch them.

During the fall semester of 1958, Jamestown College was plagued by a series of unexplained fires in Kroeze Hall, the girls’ dormitory. Law enforcement officials conducted an intensive investigation. More than one hundred students were questioned, and twenty took lie detector tests. Most of them passed, but there were questions about one girl. The police interrogated her at length, producing a confession. She said she used matches to start the fires -- two in closets and one on a bedspread.

On this date in 1858, the president of the college announced that the perpetrator was in custody. State deputy fire marshal Vance Arneson declined to reveal the name of the girl, and said he would not press charges. D.W. Butts, the Stutsman County state’s attorney, said a decision would be made at a later date on whether or not he would file criminal charges. The girl was admitted to the State Hospital at Jamestown where she underwent psychiatric tests. Butts said no criminal charges would be filed if she needed psychiatric help.

The series of fires caused a great deal of fear on the campus. All three were all set in occupied dorm rooms. It was reported that although the girl felt compelled to set fires, she showed no signs of wanting to harm anyone. In fact, she had urged other students to keep their rooms locked and to take precautions against the arsonist. This tactic wasn’t entirely successful as the third fire was set in a room that had been locked.

The damage estimate was $11,000. In spite of this, there was a great deal of sympathy for the offender. The college declined to press charges, announcing there was no intention to sue for damages. States attorney Butts said that criminal charges were highly unlikely.

Students of the college had been terrorized, but they apparently held no ill will towards their classmate. They were just glad the fires were over and the girl would get the help she needed.

Dakota Datebook written by Carole Butcher


Fargo Forum and Daily Republican. “Girl Student Admits Setting College Fires.” 24 October, 1958.