1928 4

William Kenneth "Willie" Fisher (July 25, 1910 – ?) was a "firebug" responsible for setting numerous fires around the Bay in 1920s. The exact number of fires he set and resulting losses aren't known, but the newspapers of the time referred to him as the "million dollar firebug." At one point he claimed 69 fires and more than $3,000,000 in losses, though also confessed to some fires he hadn't set.

Willie was born July 25, 1910 in Oakland to Ethel Sarah Dunham (Fisher) (1876 – 1949) and William Henry Fisher (1870 – 1941). He attended Garfield Elementary, which burned in 1924.

His tendencies towards pyromania seem to have first come to the attention of the authorities in 1924, when he was 14 years old. As a minor, his name isn't mentioned in a 1924 article, but the description matches later references. Even then his love of fire, firefighters, and fire equipment was evident. His mother said "he is crazy about fires." But his parents noted that several times he had confessed to things that weren't true, and it was shown he couldn't have set some of the recent fires he was confessing to. The article also notes he had "the mentality of a child of only 6 years."

I heard some men say, 'somebody ought to burn that shack down,' and I thought I'd do it. It was easy and I liked to see the fire trucks answering the alarm. 1

Regardless of whether he set all the fires he claimed, 1924 was a bad year for fires in Oakland, with losses almost double the previous year. 2 Fisher was sent to Sonoma State Home for the "feeble-minded" at Glen Ellen, but was kept indoors and did not thrive there. He lost 30 pounds, and was sent home to recuperate. 3

He was sent back to Glen Ellen, but escaped; he set more fires and was caught. This left authorities with the question of what to do with him, since he was likely to escape the home again. Finally after a fire at 165 - 13th Street, it was decided to try him for arson, as the authorities learned that he was now 18. He was charged specifically with the fire that partially destroyed the California Wall Bed Company, and although he confessed to it, the jury acquitted him, apparently being unwilling to send him to San Quentin. This again left the authorities with the question of what to do with him. The home in Sonoma said they were not willing to take him back. 4,5,6,7,8

Within a few weeks, Willie was arrested again, this time for trying to set fire to the Park Hotel in Alameda. After another trial in 1929, the judge reluctantly sentenced him to 1 to 25 years in San Quentin, acknowledging it was not the right place for him, but that there was no better option available. If the state approved and built a new "house of corrections," the judge agreed that he could be moved to that. The first thing Willie did after being booked at San Quentin was to ask for a job on the prison fire department. He was flatly refused. 9,10 Willie asked for parole several times and was turned down, 11 but was eventually released from prison on parole in 1935.

In 1939, Willie was in trouble again. This time it was for cutting pictures of fires and fire engines out of books at the San Francisco Public Library. 12 He moved to Stockton, and dropped out of newspaper mentions for a time. (In the 1950 census, a William K. Fisher of the right age and born in California was serving time at the Bridgewater State Farm in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, that may have been him.)

But in 1953, Willie was apparently back in town. Herb Caen wrote about him, stating that an East Bay manufacturer of fire-fighting devices wanted to give a job, and Life magazine wanted to give him $1,000 for the rights to tell his story. An Oakland Tribune article in December 1953 wrote somewhat lightheartedly about Willie's "career" and life since then. He had purchased several pieces of old fire equipment, and held several fire-related jobs over the years, but was currently unemployed. 13,14 Willie then dropped out of sight again.

Willie was back in the paper in 1959. He confessed to police in Denver that he had burned the Piedmont Avenue School and a ship in Stockton in 1938. The statute of limitations for arson where no one was killed was only 3 years, so he wasn't prosecuted. 15,16 No further record of Willie has been found yet, and it is unlikely he ever got the type of help he needed.


As noted above, Willie was developmentally delayed, and confessed to some fires which he couldn't have set. That plus lack of forensic evidence makes it all but impossible to determine which fires Willie Fisher set. Below are some of the fires he confessed to or were attributed to him.

  • Garfield School (1924,p2)
  • Hunt-Hatch Warehouse
  • Boulevard Mill and Lumber Company
  • Bates and Borland Quarry fire (June 1927? October 1927?)
  • Juanita Hotel
  • Key Route Inn (1928, not the final 1930 fire)
  • California Wall Bed (1928)
  • Park Hotel (Alameda, 1928)
  • Rafael Hotel (San Rafael, 1928)
  • Bagley's boat house (foot of 19th Avenue, 1928)
  • Hunter Lumber Company (1928)
  • Kulchar Cabinet Works (1928)
  • American Can Company
  • Fairmont School (El Cerrito)
  • fruit packing plant (Niles)
  • 2 warehouses (San Jose)
  • Bunting Iron Works (Berkeley)
  • Payne Manufacturing (Berkeley)
  • Piedmont Avenue School (1938)
  • ship Captain Webber (Stockton, 1938)

1953 14 1959

Links and References

  1. Boy Firebug's Yarns Doubted Oakland Tribune November 8, 1924
  2. Firebug Blamed For Big Jump in 1924 Fire Losses Oakland Tribune January 13, 1925
  3. Mother Love Will Save 'Firebug' Son Oakland Post-Enquirer July 29, 1925
  4. Boy Arsonist In Confession Oakland Tribune August 8, 1928
  5. Firebug Wants Fire Chief Job Oakland Tribune August 11, 1928
  6. Boy Firebug Must Face Arson Trial Oakland Tribune September 12, 1928
  7. 18-Year-Old Boy On Trial As Firebug Oakland Tribune December 14, 1928
  8. Boy Acquitted of Arson Is Now Problem Oakland Tribune December 18, 1928
  9. Boy Arsonist Is Sentenced To 25 Years in San Quentin Oakland Tribune February 6, 1929
  10. Firebug Asks Fireman's Job In San Quentin Oakland Tribune February 8, 1929
  11. Hotel Firebug Denied Parole Oakland Tribune April 24, 1934
  12. Fire Enthusiast In Dutch Again For Cutting Up Oakland Tribune October 8, 1939
  13. Herb Caen - Baghdad-by-the-Bay San Francisco Examiner July 28, 1953
  14. Famed Willie Fisher Is Home to Watch and Chat Oakland Tribune December 17, 1953
  15. Confession May Solve '38 School Fire Oakland Tribune December 1, 1959
  16. Firebug Tells How He Set School Blaze Oakland Tribune December 7, 1959