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Infernal Machines

may not be legally possessed (except by law enforcement) in Massachusetts, reports Eric Muller (Is That Legal?). Here's the statute (paragraph break added):

Whoever, other than a police or other law enforcement officer acting in the discharge of his official duties, has in his possession or under his control an infernal machine or a similar instrument, contrivance or device shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than ten years or in jail for not more than two and one half years, or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars, or by both such fine and imprisonment, and the said machine, instrument, contrivance or device shall be forfeited to the commonwealth.

The term "infernal machine", as used in this section, shall include any device for endangering life or doing unusual damage to property, or both, by fire or, explosion, whether or not contrived to ignite or explode automatically and whether or not disguised so as to appear harmless....

New Hampshire has much the same statute; Ohio requires that "Each sheriff or chief of police shall furnish the bureau of criminal identification and investigation with descriptions, fingerprints, photographs, and measurements of ... Persons who are in possession of infernal machines or other contrivances in whole or in part and reasonably believed by the sheriff or chief of police to be intended to be used for unlawful purposes." (Illinois and Oklahoma had similar statutes until 1961 and 1994, respectively.)

The Oxford English Dictionary, by the way, mentions the term with much the same definitions, with several quotes going back to 1769. My search through Gale's Eighteenth Century Collections Online reveals a 1726 reference ("The bombardment of Dieppe[:] The English made use of an infernal machine without any success, as at St. Malo.").

Melancton Smith:
I don't know, but I must find one of those at my nearest gun show.

"Infernal Machine" just sounds too cool not to have one.
4.21.2009 2:18pm
Azatoth:
My grandfather described computers as "infernal machines" until his dying day.
4.21.2009 2:20pm
Matthew K:
Funny though it sounds, MA can take it seriously

Silly kids.
4.21.2009 2:27pm
one of many:
It seems silly to ban infernal machines when, as any moviegoer knows, an infernal machine can be improvised from a lighter and a can of hairspray.
4.21.2009 2:28pm
DG:
Anyone read Charles Stross' Atrocity Archives? Infernal Devices could mean several interesting things.
4.21.2009 2:38pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Is a match an infernal machine?
4.21.2009 2:42pm
ChrisIowa (mail):
I did a quick search in newspaperarchive.com in the time period of 1890 to 1900, first in MA since the law referred to was in MA. I found a reference to an incident where an infernal machine was used in Chicago. So I searched in Illinois newspapers for infernal machine and found a number of references.

It seems the term was in use at the time, basically to refer to a bomb. However my quick investigation found an article that referred to "bombs and infernal machines". It seems to refer to a type of bomb, perhaps with a clockwork or some other mechanism, but I also found some articles that referred to an "infernal machine" with just a fuse, which sounds like just a simple bomb to me.
4.21.2009 2:51pm
Daniel San:
Neal Stephenson uses the term, I believe in The System of the World.
4.21.2009 2:54pm
jviss (mail):
I live in Massachusetts. I recall a case about 15 years ago about a bunch of high school kids driving around Shrewsbury, MA, shooting a potato gun, a.k.a., spudzooka, out the car window. They were stopped by the police (duh!) and charged with, among other things possession of an infernal machine. At a hearing the boys' attorney made the argument that the spudzooka was not an infernal machine; that, "if the potato was a weapon of mass destruction, Ireland would be a superpower." The judge agreed, and those charges were dropped.
4.21.2009 3:08pm
K:
Archaic language to be sure. But actually not a bad sort of law to have on the books. When descriptions are too specific some undesirable, or extremely undesirable, exceptions will escape.

As long as a jury will decide if the machine was "infernal", and agrees that the police did have a reasonable belief, this law doesn't bother me.

If the government intends to oppress then statutes with detailed technical descriptions of illegal devices won't hinder them much.

However, I would allow wide discretion in sentencing. And the MA law does.
4.21.2009 3:09pm
one of many:
While bombs can be infernal machines, certainly flamethrowers also qualify. Any device which creates infernal conditions would be an infernal machine. I suspect the machine part has to be included to exclude foundries which create infernal conditions.
4.21.2009 3:11pm
JerryT a Non-Lawyer:
The idea of "Infernal Machines" goes back even further than the 18th century.

During the 1580s in the wars between England, Spain, and what would become the Netherlands fire ships loaded with clockwork explosives were used to great effect.

http://www.fmft.net/archives/000142.html
4.21.2009 3:22pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):

Any device which creates infernal conditions would be an infernal machine.


So "boom boxes" and cars with 300 watt speakers are infernal machines? I like this statute!

But seriously, doesn't this definition include things like hunting rifles?
4.21.2009 3:29pm
Tom952 (mail):
So if an ordinary citizen, other than a police or other law enforcement officer acting in the discharge of his official duties, ignited a witch and sent her running into a barn which then caught fire as a result, I suppose they would be be in trouble.
4.21.2009 3:32pm
Crunchy Frog:
one of many: I prefer WD-40 instead of hairspray - greater range and accuracy. Works great against black widow spiderwebs.
4.21.2009 3:35pm
zippypinhead:
As a practical matter, an "infernal machine" is basically the same as a "destructive device" defined by Federal law. 18 U.S.C. §921(a)(4)(A) and 26 U.S.C. §5845(f)(1)
any explosive, incendiary, or poison gas -
(A) bomb,
(B) grenade,
(C) rocket...,
(D) missile...,
(E) mine, or
(F) similar device
Although, admittedly, being charged with possession of an "infernal machine" would sound waaaaaaay kewler among a certain subset of teenage males than being charged with the hum-drum Federal offense.
4.21.2009 3:47pm
ChrisIowa (mail):
Crunchy Frog

Works great against black widow spiderwebs.

You prefer your spiders toasted?
4.21.2009 3:48pm
The Unbeliever:
When I saw the lead in--"Infernal Machines
may not be legally possessed"--I assumed the Biblical definition of "infernal", and wondered why Massachusetts thought they could outlaw demonic possession of my computer.

Do the courts even have jurisdiction over denizens of Hell, the underworld, and assorted nether planes? How would they enforce it? Do the police have exorcists on call? (And if so, could they send a unit over to help me figure out this damned Illegal Operation that keeps popping up?)

But hey, after dealing with Windows for the last 15 years, you can't blame them for trying...
4.21.2009 4:13pm
DennisN (mail):
@ one of many:


I suspect the machine part has to be included to exclude foundries which create infernal conditions.


Well, the furnace or the mechanism for transporting and pouring the metal would qualify as a machine, but no part of a foundry is designed "for endangering life or doing unusual damage to property," although they certainly can unintentionally do so.
4.21.2009 4:13pm
David Hecht (mail):
When I was growing up in Belgium, the Tintin comics used the term ("machine infernale") to describe a large and complex time bomb: the sort of thing one sees in thriller movies.

I believe the term is still in common use in French.
4.21.2009 4:13pm
one of many:

So "boom boxes" and cars with 300 watt speakers are infernal machines? I like this statute!

But seriously, doesn't this definition include things like hunting rifles?

outside of Dante, 'infernal' refers to large amounts of fire and is applicable to the "fire and brimstone" nature of infernal regions instead of the noisiness. fire in mass quantities is the operative concept behind infernal machines not incidental noise, which is probably why firecrackers are not infernal devices.


As for WD-40 I wonder if they have the changed to formula to something less flammable, the recent times I have used it it has not be as apt to ignite (see So You Set Your Engine Onfire). Movies have taught me that when the spy is caught without a weapon they are in the bathroom not the workshop and when the monsters catch the hero it is more likely to be in the house than in the garage - so unless I develop the habit of storing WD-40 in my bathroom, hairspray is a more likely choice.
4.21.2009 4:29pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):

outside of Dante, 'infernal' refers to large amounts of fire and is applicable to the "fire and brimstone" nature of infernal regions instead of the noisiness. fire in mass quantities is the operative concept behind infernal machines not incidental noise, which is probably why firecrackers are not infernal devices.


In most contexts that's true, but the statute in question contains its own definition, which is the one I was referring to.
4.21.2009 4:38pm
ChrisIowa (mail):
one of many

fire in mass quantities is the operative concept behind infernal machines not incidental noise, which is probably why firecrackers are not infernal devices.

In the quick search I conducted, dynamite was a common ingredient in what was being called "infernal devices." Which indicates that the flame wasn't important to the definition in the 1890's.

Since dynamite is an ingredient in firecrackers, maybe they would be infernal devices. I did not see that use, however.
4.21.2009 4:45pm
Anderson (mail):
I was thinking of one of those websites with women and infernal machines. HBO's Real Sex [sic] even had a spot on those.
4.21.2009 4:53pm
jviss (mail):

Since dynamite is an ingredient in firecrackers, maybe they would be infernal devices. I did not see that use, however.


I don't think so. Dynamite is a nitroglycerin-based explosive; firecrackers use gunpowder (sulfur, charcoal, potassium nitrate).
4.21.2009 5:11pm
Syd Henderson (mail):
(Illinois and Oklahoma had similar statutes until 1961 and 1994, respectively.)

Wait, I'm in Oklahoma. Does that mean I can possess an infernal machine? Cool, I can finally begin my plans for world domination.
4.21.2009 5:15pm
Kirk:
One important question that hasn't been asked yet: what possible legitimate use does a law enforcement officer have for such things? They seem pretty dangerous even in the hands of the police.
4.21.2009 5:16pm
DennisN (mail):
I think one reason would be the general Law enforcement weapons exception. It's usually just an unthought addendum. I suppose cops might have a use for flamethrowers, but I'd like to hear what it is.
4.21.2009 5:33pm
JNHeath (mail):
Jefferson Davis, on his capture, was reputedly in possession of an "infernal machine" in the form of a Devisme rifle:

"French percussion half-stocked big game rifle designed to fire explosive projectiles and reputed to have been taken from Confederate President Jefferson Davis at the time of his capture; possibly the "infernal machine" mentioned at that time."

The rifle is at Springfield Armory Museum; a photo and description can be found by seaching the site for "jefferson davis AND devisme"

JNH
4.21.2009 5:38pm
John Burgess (mail) (www):
Kirk @ 5:15

See MOVE, Philadelphia.
4.21.2009 5:43pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
John Burgess,

I would hardly call that legitimate, even if they had calculated their yeild a mite better.
4.21.2009 6:28pm
anon!:
Possessed infernal machines?

Someone's a bit too excited about the new Terminator movie.
4.21.2009 6:39pm
zippypinhead:
(Illinois and Oklahoma had similar statutes until 1961 and 1994, respectively.)

Wait, I'm in Oklahoma. Does that mean I can possess an infernal machine? Cool, I can finally begin my plans for world domination.
Funny, but wasn't that Timothy McVeigh's plan in Oklahoma City in 1995? I'd love to ask him if he was relying on the previous year's repeal of the state statute, but I don't think he's available to take questions nowadays...
4.21.2009 7:39pm
traveler496:
Oh, brother. So in MA, any device for doing unusual damage to property (say, by efficiently gouging a 7 cm wide, 12 mm deep crescent-shaped indentation into it if it is no harder than mahogany wood, else branding it with 3 nested octahedra) is considered an infernal device and its possession puts one at risk of imprisonment for up to ten years. Is that right?
4.21.2009 8:37pm
Kirk:
Soronel, John linked to the same article I did (presumably without reading my link, or even mousing over it to see what it linked to.) I don't think his intent (supporting or disagreeing) was clear, so I'll leave it to him to clarify.
4.21.2009 8:37pm
traveler496:
Er, change "octahedra" to "octagons" in my last posting (w/o this rewording even I might concede that such a device is infernal:-)
4.21.2009 8:41pm
teqjack (mail):

any device for endangering life


Add a word:

any device meant for endangering life


and it makes a bit more sense to we laymen, and is almost certainly closer to the intent of the authors.

But without that word, a lot of people in the legal profession[s] and adjuncts are potentially kept in employment arguing whether a plumber with a blowtorch in his toolkit is guilty of having an infernal weapon.
4.21.2009 8:57pm
t-boy (mail):
This law seems vague and has no exceptions for lawful commercial use of explosives for demolition. I guess it all depends on what the definition of unusual damage is.
4.21.2009 10:35pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Ok, a couple thoughts.

First,this is really funny wording.

Secondly the law enforcement exception makes a lot of sense. If you confiscate a missile from someone, you are now in possession of it, so for chain of evidence reasons, the law enforcement official must be able to possess it.

Third, "Infernal" is a really bad word here. It comes from a Latin word Infernus, simply meaning "that which is below." The legal definition is thus too closely connected to Judeo-Christian religious thought for my thinking. We Norse Pagans believe the infernal/chthonian realm to be icy and cold. Hence "infernal machines" might involve snow-ball launching catapults?
4.21.2009 10:48pm
yclipse (mail):
This usage strikes me as being very similar to "the great and abominable crime against nature" prohibited under the criminal codes of many states.

As Chief Justice Burger informed us in Bowers v. Hardwick,

Blackstone described "the infamous crime against nature" as an offense of "deeper malignity" than rape, a heinous act "the very mention of which is a disgrace to human nature," and "a crime not fit to be named." 4 W. Blackstone, Commentaries *215.
4.21.2009 10:58pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Yeah, it's the term used in Massachusetts. It also refers to model rocket engines which is the story I thought this entry was going to refer to.

During Reed's layover at Logan International Airport on Sunday morning, federal baggage screeners going through his military-style backpack found the handgun, a fully loaded gun magazine, a grenade fuse and detonator, model-rocket engines containing explosive mixtures, matches, and a disposable lighter. The bag had been checked without incident at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas. His baggage also contained several boxes of 9mm and 7.62mm ammunition.

Reed was arrested on charges of possessing an infernal machine and attempting to put an explosive device on an aircraft.
...
Reed declared the firearm in Las Vegas, as required. Investigators initially reported that he did not declare the gun, which was secured in a locked box, but later determined he had after locating the paperwork, she said.
4.22.2009 7:03am
JoelP:

Archaic language to be sure. But actually not a bad sort of law to have on the books. When descriptions are too specific some undesirable, or extremely undesirable, exceptions will escape.


Better to have some exceptions escape on a technicality than to allow imprisonment on a technicality.
They should at least adopt Ohio's clause: "reasonably believed by the sheriff or chief of police to be intended to be used for unlawful purposes"
4.22.2009 9:25am
DennisN (mail):

a grenade fuse and detonator, model-rocket engines containing explosive mixtures,


Depending on what kind of grenade the fuze is intended for, it may include a blasting cap, a high explosive device and quite dangerous. A smoke grenade fuze is relatively harmless.

Model rocket engines, up to a certain weight, are mailable. We used to buy them in three-packs through the mail. Hardly infernal machines.
4.22.2009 10:45am
K:
JoelP: You carefully omitted parts of my comment.

I clearly said the jury and judge was to decide. And I didn't say the law shouldn't be changed or couldn't be improved.

And you omitted this too.

"If the government intends to oppress then statutes with detailed technical descriptions of illegal devices won't hinder them much."

I have no objections to requiring police to have reasonable belief.

But if we are to discuss technicalities this clause:

"reasonably believed by the sheriff or chief of police to be intended to be used for unlawful purposes"

technically prevents any police action if the Sheriff or Chief can not be reached at that moment.
4.22.2009 2:51pm
ReaderY:
Perfectly straightforward English. An infernal machine is simply incendiary device, it creates an inferno, a large-scale blaze. Perfectly straightforward technical term, much like the use of the term "b&tch" as an ordinary word in dog-breeding. The only association with Hell is literary. It's a bit like calling a person "committed": the word actually has several meanings other than "insane".
4.22.2009 9:33pm
JoelP:
K: I omitted your appeals to "common sense" that the prosecutors will ignore, and that the judges will instruct the juries to ignore. I live in a state where underage designated drivers are prosecuted because they are transporting people who contain alcohol.

One should not put overbroad laws on the books, and simply hope that judges will prevent them from being read literally. Too many prosecutors and judges simply take laws at face value, without stopping to consider what wrong is actually being committed.

As to

technically prevents any police action if the Sheriff or Chief can not be reached at that moment.

Either you are being silly, or you live outside the US.
4.22.2009 9:58pm
K:
JoelP: So when I argue there is a flaw in the exact words that you provided I am being silly or living abroad?

And when I trust that juries and judges might act reasonably your argument is that it won't happen? And prosecutors will ignore their discretionary powers?

Yet somehow with all those bad actors in the drama you expect the words of a statute can contain such precision as to produce the correct verdict.

When you say overbroad laws should not be put on the books you offer a truism. That is like being against evil. Your objection may be to broad laws. But that isn't what you wrote.

I might be both silly and live outside the US. But you faith in precise words didn't quite cover that possibllity. And others.
4.22.2009 11:26pm
JoelP:
I have no "faith in precise words". They offer one safeguard, but safeguards are required at each and every level. Judges and juries may or may not act reasonably; laws should be narrowly focused because some judges, juries, and prosecutors do not. In addition, a trial is a huge burden on the defendant; being charged but acquitted is still awful. It would be better to wake up the sheriff* every time you want to charge someone with possession of an infernal device than to try (even if he is acquitted) one kid with a firecracker for possessing an infernal device.

*however, the sheriff would simply write down a list of items that she believes are infernal devices, thus avoiding being woken up at 2 AM.
4.23.2009 8:05am

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