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Pyromaniac — magistrate sentenced Dodds to 15 years in prison and asked for an investigation into his sanity
Oct 07, 2016

by Bruce Cherney (part 3 of 3)

The Manitoba Free Press on March 27, 1913, described James Dodds as stoutly-built and clean-shaven. At the time of his arrest, he was wearing a dark overcoat and a dark-coloured soft, felt hat.

“His general bearing would indicate good moral character, and as he said to one of the officers, he had never done anything else very bad and had never uttered an oath in his life.

Dodds was native of Scotland, who had been in Canada for 5 1/2 years, first living in Welland, Ontario, and arriving in Winnipeg 2 1/2 years before his arrest.

The court heard that Dodds was a “wild” lad in Scotland, who his parents found difficult to control (Free Press, March 31, 1913). Still, he was a popular playmate.

“But whenever there was any exciting or risky adventures he was Johnny-on-the-spot. Several times he almost lost his  life on the lakes, while out boating, or on the rivers, or while climbing mountains or trees. The way he got away from his many mad escapades, only the worse for a few scratches, seemed miraculous to the populace in the neighbourhood.”

Dodds learned to be a sign painter in Scotland and eventually plied the same trade in Canada. But before he embarked on his sign-painting career in the city, he worked for the Vulcan Iron Works, the Ruddy-Koester Company and the Alaska Bedding Company.

While in Winnipeg, John Little, of the Doherty Piano Company, said he took an interest in Dodds, as they both came from the same community in the Old Country.

Mr. Derrett, of the Irvine-Derrett paint shop on Fort Street, said Dodds was a talented sign painter who would tackle the toughest jobs singlehandedly, tasks other painters wouldn’t undertake without a helper.

Dodds painted the sign on the Keewayden Building alone, which was considered “the most difficult and dangerous job of its kind in the city. He did it in one day and got $30 for it.”

Dodds, then 23-years-old, appeared before Winnipeg Police Magistrate John Hugh Macdonald and immediately plead guilty to 10 charges of arson and manslaughter for those who perished in the Radford-Wright Building (776 Main St.) fire.

While in the court, Dodds told the magistrate he had kept a notebook detailing the fires he had started, but had destroyed the book shortly before his arrest in fear that it would be used as evidence against him if he were caught.

When passing a sentence of 15 years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary, Magistrate Macdonald said: “You, yourself, have confessed to having set over 200 fires (Dodds later took another tally and came up with a figure of about 98), and have pleaded guilty to 10 charges laid against you in this court. There is no doubt but that you are a very bad citizen, for you are quite ready to set fire to a church convent, or vacant houses or buildings belonging to people who could not stand the loss as you were to set fire to those who had plenty of means. You are a menace to the community, and in any case you are a dangerous man to have out. The only thing I can do under the circumstances is to put you where you will not be able to give vent to your passion.

“There is no question but that you are a monomaniac. You seem to have an unconquerable desire to see fires and to set them.”

After sentencing Dodds, the magistrate said he would be asking the “prosecuting attorney to confer with the (Manitoba) attorney-general’s department as regards (to) an investigation of your sanity.”

According to the May 23, 1913, Manitoba Free Press, medical authorities at Stony Mountain came to the conclusion that Dodds, the “firebug,” was indeed a pyromaniac, deserving to be sent to the Brandon Asylum. He was then taken to Winnipeg where he was examined by doctors Coulter and Rogers of the provincial jail, who confirmed the conclusion of the peniteniary’s medical staff. The provincial attorney-general’s office then ordered Dodds be transferred to Brandon Asylum.

A pryomaniac is defined as an individual who repeatedly fails to resist the impulse to deliberately set fires, in order to relieve tension or for instant gratification. The term is from the Greek word pyro (fire). Pyromania is distinct from arson, which is the deliberate setting of fires for personal, monetary or political gain. Pyromaniacs start fires to induce euphoria, and often fixate on institutions of fire control like fire stations and firefighters (Dodds always stuck around to watch as firefighters battled the blazes he started). Pyromania is a type of impulse control disorder, along with kleptomania, intermittent explosive disorder and others (Wikipedia). It’s a mental disorder that can be fully attributed to Dodds, as was determined by Manitoba doctors who examined the young man following his sentencing.

Dodds wouldn’t be long in Brandon, as the October 22, 1913, Tribune reported that the attorney-general’s department had arranged for the arsonist to be deported to Torrance Lodge, Midlothian, Scotland, and placed in the care of his brother, John Dodds.

It appears that the authorities wanted to be rid of Dodds so that he wouldn’t eventually be deemed cured of pyromania and released back into Manitoba society. In effect, they washed their hands of Dodds to facilitate getting him out of the country and making the pyromaniac someone else’s problem.