The Arson Years title comes from Volume XXXVIII of the Rochester History journal, and its excellent article of the same name. What follows is a brief summary that should hopefully interest you in reading the entire article:
At the dawn of the 20th century, Rochester faced an epidemic that quite literally threatened to reduce our city to ashes. It came in the form of structure fires fueled by oil soaked rags and lucrative insurance payouts. Following a series high profile fires, a trend emerged. "Some degenerate has set a pace and other degenerates are following it instinctively," commented the Evening Times in regards to the plague of arson that had descended upon our city:
Adjusting for inflation, the figure from 1909 would be $18,045,769.23 as of August 2013. How much of that figure can be accounted for as being the result of arson? It is hard to say, however, a glance at the Democrat & Chronicle helps illuminate what was then the accepted public mentality: "many persons have for half of their lifetimes cherished the idea that the old building would one day give them a spectacle which would loom up as the starting point for the calculations of future generations..."
A police dragnet spread out across the city. Their controversial methods to rid the city of arsonists seemed at times to be more of an excuse to rid the city of undesirables and vagrants than anything else. Though some of the culprits may have been lurking in dark alleyways, the majority of them roamed public streets unsuspected in broad daylight. The trend may have been set by the vengful disgruntled and lustful pyromaniacs, but in the end it was the ordinary citizen that made the situation epidemic: the owners of failing businesses, housewives left unattended, and anyone smart enough to see an insurance claim as a paycheck.
It was a beautiful thing. However, the insurance industry then decided to punish Rochester for this trend with a steep rate increase. Following this, sadly, the mysterious fires ceased and life returned to normal. So it goes.
and now you know.