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The Return of An Unwanted Old Flame

I was distressed to see the recent reports that Detroit is yet again steeling itself for a potential rash of "Devil's Night" arsons in the weeks leading up to Halloween.

If you haven't heard, Detroit earned a national reputation back in the 1980s when a once-harmless tradition of making mischief on the night before Halloween, known as "Devil's Night" in these parts, turned into an excuse for arsonists to set fires throughout the city. Where Devil's Night once meant kids pulling silly pranks like tossing eggs at a neighbor's window, it quickly became synonymous with citywide conflagrations that swallowed up hundreds of homes, storefronts and other properties.

And in one of the few truly successful PR efforts that Detroit has enjoyed, city leaders mobilized community groups to take to the streets in patrols in an effort to keep the firebugs at bay. Rebranded as "Angels' Night" by our more hopeful spin doctors, the revamped "holiday" soon earned us praise from coast to coast for reducing the number of suspected pre-Halloween arsons from a peak of 810 in 1984 to only 94 last year.

But now the pyromaniacs may be back in force this year, and we're rightfully worried. But I also think we have an opportunity to go after the arsonists and, in many cases, the other criminals who pay them to torch our city.

As teenagers, my friends and I always knew that Devil's Nights fires weren't completely the result of adolescent carryings-on or pyromania run wild. In our neighborhoods, Devil's Night was also a handy cover for property owners who no longer wanted to remain vested in our communities and figured they'd burn their way out (and into a fat insurance settlement). Devil's Night was when you paid some drug addict to torch that home you'd moved out of but weren't able to sell. It was when you dumped that party store that could no longer move enough beer, wine and Now & Laters to pay the mortgage. It was when you paid back rivals, got rid of cars and did a whole lot of other dirt that you could blame on the mysterious "Devil's Night arsonists."

In a city and state now burdened with so many foreclosed and abandoned properties, it makes all the sense in the world, to me anyway, that the Devil's Night fires would start burning anew. Others are having the same scary visions of a return to that tragic past:

"With the foreclosure issue and the abandoned homes, it becomes a temptation to some people," said Luther Keith, executive director of Arise Detroit!, a coalition of community groups. "We know we have mischief makers. They don't care about lighting the house that could destroy someone else's property, or hurt or kill someone."

But this ain't 1984. We live in an age where everything seems to get caught on tape, and I sincerely hope that the phalanxes of volunteer city patrols will come armed with recording devices that will allow them to catch more of these crooks in the act, so that we can make an example of them.

And let's not stop at the crackhead with the matchbook, either — because as anyone who knows about the evil that really stokes many of these Devil's Night fires can attest, there are equally bad, if not worse, offenders hiding behind all that smoke and soot.

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  • 1

    I wouldn't worry too much, we haven't had a "bad" Devil's Night in a long time. The news people start talking about it a couple weeks ahead of time, like it's the old days, but it's not. The night usually passes with less fires than the week before. I'm surprised though that the firestarters haven't mobilized on a different night, just to throw the watchers off.

  • 2

    My mom, who still lives in the area, told me that the fires dropped off significantly when Coleman Young retired and that the word on the street was that the whole "Devil's Night" thing began as a scam among his cronies to collect on insurance for crummy properties. It may have become a "learned behavior" over time and with so many empty properties, it may be an issue again, but I never believed for a minute that it has its origins in"bad kids" in the city of Detroit.

  • 3

    Strangely, it seems nice that someone remembers what Devil's Night used to be prior to the arson era.

  • 4

    My mom (font of lore and wisdom) grew up in Saginaw, where her dad worked at Saginaw Steering Gear (and was a very early union organizer) and her mom was the bookkeeper for a Chevy dealership. She says they had a sort of "Devil's Night" when she was a kid (1950s) -- but it was the night AFTER Halloween, when kids would play pranks and mild vandalisms on people who didn't give out candy on Halloween. There is a sort of perverse logic to that which is entirely lacking in a night of destruction BEFORE Halloween.

  • 5

    Thank you, anounceofaction! Good link to a clear summary of the history of the night. Much appreciated.

  • 6

    [...] thing called Devil's Night that put us before the news lens for all the wrong reasons. (Read Darrell's post for more on this. We're not obsessed with the topic; it's just high on the mind of most residents [...]

  • 7

    So -- how did you all make out on this issue this year?

  • 8


    The Return of An Unwanted Old Flame - The Detroit Blog -

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