A 200-pound woman in Ottawa, Illinois, who was seated next to her sleeping husband, suddenly burst into flames so hot that they killed her companion and turned her body to ashes.
In St. Petersburg, Florida, a 67-year-old widow was sitting in an overstuffed recliner when she was engulfed by spontaneous fire, which reduced the woman and chair to ashes but left the room unharmed. A 30-year-old man who had committed suicide was severely burned while sitting in his car in Pontiac, Michigan, and his clothes wasn’t even scorched.
In countries all over the world and in cities throughout the United States, this baffling burning death has consumed human beings in a manner wholly incomprehensible. No one knows why it occurs or how often. In more than l00 recorded cases, no common denominator has been established for the victims.
Skeptical? I was, too, at first. This strange malady, the burning death, is certainly not listed in the Standard Nomenclature of Disease or in the World Health Organization’s classification of death causes. But I talked with doctors, firemen, special investigators who had had contact with its ghastly results; I talked with the relatives of its victims; I talked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Suddenly the idea of the burning death wasn’t ridiculous, it wasn’t a gag or a hoax or a pipe-dream. Instead, it was a serious threat made infinitely more terrifying by our very lack of knowledge about it, by our inability even to guess who might be susceptible to it. Only one thing is sure: there will be more victims-possibly you, possibly me.
Understandably, you don’t believe it yet. What follows may change your mind. Charles Dickens was familiar with the burning death and bumped off one of his characters in Bleak House with it, for which he received a storm of criticism. People tend to dis believe it merely because it sounds so strange, and even the authorities involved in such cases are inclined to doubt the evidence before them.
That’s the way it was with the case that occurred in Honolulu in December 1956. Mrs. Virginia Caget, 1 130 Maunakea Street, sensed something amiss in the next room where a 78-year-old cripple named Young Sik Kim lived. She dashed in to find him wrapped in blue flames too hot to approach. When the firemen got there 15 minutes later, the victim and his overstuffed chair were ashes.
All that remained were Kim’s undamaged feet, still resting on his wheelchair where he’d propped them. The flammable curtains and some clothing hanging nearby were unharmed, yet the radiant heat from a fire capable of doing such destruction to the man must have been enormous. Investigating officials could give no answer. Similar cases have been noted throughout America since the days of the colonists, but the first to be reported in considerable detail concerned the fate of Patrick Rooney and his wife, in Ottawa, Illinois.
On the evening of December 27, 1885, the Rooneys and their hired hand, John Larson, were drinking freely at the kitchen table from a jug of Christmas spirits. About mid night Larson decided he had had enough and staggered upstairs to bed, but his employers were still at the jug. When Larson came down in the morning to do his chores, his lantern revealed a grisly scene. The kitchen reeked of a nauseating odor, and thick, oily soot coated everything. Pat Rooney lay dead on the floor beside the table. Hefty 200-pound Mrs. Rooney was nowhere in sight.
Summoned by Larson, the police investigated and found the ugly soot had even drifted upstairs, outlining the hired hand’s head on the pillow as he slept. In the kitchen they found a three by-four-foot hole through the floor, and on the bore ground a couple of feet below, all that remained of the big woman – a burned piece of skull, two charred vertebrae, a few foot bones, a pile of ashes. No other part of the floor was burned, and although a corner of the tablecloth hung over the hole, it was only slightly browned.
Unable to pin the rap on Larson, the authorities finally ruled that Mrs. Rooney had died of burns of unknown origin and that Pat Rooney had suffocated from the fumes. But no one attempted to explain the minimal damage to the house, despite the fact that a fire hot enough to incinerate Mrs. Rooney would have had to reach a temperature of 3,000 to 5,000° F.
An even more remarkable lack of damage was found when the burning death touched its fiery fingers to Mrs. Thomas Cochrane of Falkirk, England. Her ashed remains were found in an overstuffed chair surrounded by pillows, none damaged beyond a light scorching. And near Dover, New Jersey, a hotel owner named Tom Murphy discovered his housekeeper, Lillian Green, lying on the carpet at the foot of the stairs, horribly charred. Only a small singed outline on the cotton carpet indicated where the body had burned.
The burning death has been termed SHC or PC. SHC stands for Spontaneous Human Combustion, a condition in which all cells of the body suddenly begin burning simultaneously through on inexplicable self-combustibility; PC means Preternatural Combustibility, in which the cells reach the critical stage of ignition but need a spark from an outside source before they will burst into flame.
When I checked with Dr. Alfred Soffer, department head of The Journal of the American Medical Association, I learned that the AMA does not officially recognize SHC/ PC, and that the two phenomena are not mentioned in various AMA pub locations or in the organization’s bible, Index Medicus. Nonetheless, certain AMA members of high repute, such as Dr. Wilton Marion Krogman and Dr. Lester Adelson, both renowned pathologists, have personally encountered the effects of SHC/ PC and, though mystified by it, do not deny its existence.
While the AMA may not recognize SHC/ PC, Northwestern University’s Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology and Police Science is interested. In its March-April, 1952, issue was published an l7-page scientific paper entitled “Spontaneous Hu ma n Combustion and Preternatural Combustibility,” written by Dr. Adelson, who is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard and chief deputy coroner for Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) , Ohio.
Through the years, particularly in the more recent cases, investigating authori ties have ascribed SHC/ PC deaths mainly to such readily understandable causes as burns resulting from falling asleep while smoking, electrocution, tumbling in to a fireplace, and even being deliberately set afire by another person, apparently because these reasons for death are acceptable within the knowledge of the average man, whatever the evidence and SHC/ PC is not.
In many of the instances I checked out, the authorities showed a marked reluctance to talk, and in some there was outright refusal. However, in the significant case of Billy Peterson of Pontiac, Michigan, the investigators were perfectly open in their answers. On December 13, 1959, Peterson, 30, left his mother at his uncle’s house where they’d been visiting and drove home alone. At 7:45 p.m., less than an hour later, a passing motorist saw smoke escaping from the car parked in the Peterson garage and put in an alarm. Fire Lieutenant Richard Luxon and his crew arrived and found the right front seat smoldering where the exhaust pipe had
been bent to lead into the closed car. Peterson sat in the left front seat a couple of feet from the smoldering upholstery.
Luxon radioed from his engine for a rescue truck, and Peterson was taken to Pontiac General Hospital, where Dr. Donald McCandless pronounced him dead. An autopsy established that Peter son had died of carbon-monoxide poisoning. This fitted right in line with the police findings of apparent suicide. Despondent because of an illness that had kept him from working for months, Billy Peterson had finally given up.
But McCandless and his aides at Pontiac General couldn’t reconcile the suicide ruling with the res t of their findings. Billy’s back, arms and legs were covered with third-degree burns. Yet unsinged hairs stuck up through the charred flesh. His nose and mouth were badly seared, almost as if he’d exhaled living fire, yet eyebrows and head hair were unharmed.
Pontiac Fire Chief .James White told me the front-seat fire ($75 damage) had not touched Peterson. The chief’s only analysis was that perhaps Peterson had been burned after death through a “cooking action” from adjacent heat.
“I would not quarrel with the theory concerning Spontaneous Human Combustion” he admitted when he talked with me recently. “I have never had any knowledge of this, but certainly would not care to say it was impossible.”
Dr. John Marra, medical director at Pontiac General, was more conservative. He chose words carefully when he told me, “A conclusion was reached as to the appearance of the burns on Mr. Peterson’s body. It was determined that these were caused by intensive heat in his car which resulted from the exhaust pipe’s being connected to the front seat, causing a fire in the upholstery. His blue jeans became so heated that superficial burns of the skin resulted.”
The fact remains that although he was fully dressed when he burned, Peterson’s clothing-including even his underwear was in no way damaged. Like the hairs of his body, the material seemed immune to the heat that had charred his flesh. Officials finally closed the case as simply “Death by Suicide.” Still, at the time, Detroit newspapers said police and doctors were baffled and quoted the doctors as saying: “It’s the strangest thing we’ve ever seen!”
They weren’t the first doctors to say it. On September 20, 1938, at Chelmsford, England, a woman in the midst of a crowded dance floor burst into intense blue flames seemingly generated from her body. She crumpled silently to the floor, and neither her escort nor other would-be rescuers could extinguish the blaze. In minutes she was ashes, unrecognizable as a human being. Coroner Leslie Beccles made a thorough investigation, then threw up his hands. “In all my experience,” he said, “I’ve never come across any case as mysterious as this.”
That was precisely the feeling experienced by the authorities the preceding July 30 at England’s Norfolk •Broads, when a woman paddling about in a small boat with her husband and children was engulfed by flame and quickly reduced to a mound of ugly ash. The terrified family was unhurt, and the wooden boat undamaged.
Although medical men who have had no experience with SHC/ PC and have never heard of it before are understandably doubtful of its existence, the doctors who have encountered it and recognized it as extraordinary, frankly admit that it is beyond the present perimeter of human knowledge. Among this group is Dr. Wilton Krogman, an out standing authority on the nature and cause of disease. Dr. Krogman is a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He is widely respected for his definitive research on the effects of fire on flesh and bone.
Dr. Krogman has burned bones still encased in human flesh, bones stripped of flesh but not dried out, and dried bones. He has burned cadavers in all sorts of fires with combustibles ranging from hickory and oak (which reputedly make the hottest natural fire) through gasoline, oil, coal and acetylene. He’s employed all sorts of burning devices, from outdoor fires to electric furnaces and scientifically
constructed pressurized gas crematoriums. For all these conditions he has observed and recorded how flesh and bone behave during burning and how they look when they cool off. He gave this answer to my question of how hot a fire must be to destroy totally a human body:
“First and foremost, it takes terrific heat to completely consume a human body, both flesh and skeleton. I’ve watched a body in a crematorium burn at 2 000° F. for over eight hours, burning under the best possible conditions of both heat and combustion, with everything controlled .
Yet at the end of that time there was scarcely a bone that was not still present and completely recognizable as a human bone. It was calcined (reduced to its original matrix), but it was not ash or powder. Only at over 3,000 ° F. have I seen a bone fuse so that it ran and became volatile. These,” he added emphatically, “are very great heats that would affect anything flammable within a considerable radius of the blaze.”
Is it any wonder, therefore, that cases like that of Joan and Mary Hart leave legal and medical authorities baffled? The sisters resided at Whitley Bay, Blythe, England. On March 31, 1908, Joan Hart found her invalid sister liter ally burning as she sat in a parlor rocking chair. Quickly Joan scooped up a throw rug and smothered the flame. At this point Mary was burned badly, but probably not fatally. With some effort, Joan carried Mary upstairs, lay her on a bed with clean sheets, and ran for help.
Apparently Mary started burning again almost as soon as her sister left, because when Joan returned with help, the invalid was reduced to ashes except for the head and several fingers. Yet, in credibly, the sheets were not even scorched, and the room was in no way damaged except by that coating of greasy soot noticeable in practically every case of SHC/ PC. The Northumberland coroner listed the case as the most extraordinary he’d ever investigated.
Until 1951 “extraordinary” seems to have been the key word whenever the burning death turned up. The cause of death listed was usually a conventional one, but medical and police investigators who were not completely satisfied some times added that one-word description. For most victims of the burning death today this is still the kind of decision reached. But in 1951 the first step toward a study of this mysterious malady was made.
It was a very complete step. It was taken in a case of the burning death, and it consisted of the most thorough and competent investigation that any such death has ever had. It brought in not only local authorities, but Dr. Krogman and the FBI as well.
Known as “the case of the cinder woman,” it threw the city of St. Peters burg, Florida, into a state of terror that lasted many weeks, and that still causes nightmares. It burned itself into the front pages of Florida’s papers on July 2, 1951. Mrs. P. M. Carpenter, owner of a four apartment building at 1200 Cherry Street, Northeast, had spent a pleasant hour or so the evening before in the one-
They forced the door and found a macabre scene. Although both windows were open, the room was intolerably hot. In front of one open window was a pile of ashes-the remains of the big armchair, the end table . . . and Mrs. Reeser.
Firemen arrived at 8:07 a.m., followed by the police. It was instantly apparent that this was no ordinary accident. Only the severely heat-eroded coil springs were left of the chair. There was no trace of the end table. Of the widow, all that remained were a few small pieces of charred backbone, a skull which, strangely, had shrunk uniformly to the size of an orange, and her wholly untouched left foot still wearing its slipper.
The heat necessary for such damage had to be incredible, yet the room was little affected. The ceiling, draperies and walls, from a point exactly four feet above the floor, were coated with smelly, oily soot. Below this four-foot mark there was none. The wall paint adjacent to the chair was faintly browned, but the carpet where the chair had rested was not even burned through.
A wall mirror 10 feet away had cracked, probably from heat. On a dressing table 12 feet away, two pink wax candles had puddled, but their wicks lay undamaged in the holders. Plastic wall outlets above the four-foot mark were melted, but the fuses were not blown and the current was on. The base board electrical outlets were undamaged. An electric clock plugged into one of the fused fixtures had stopped at precisely 4:20-less than three hours before-but the same clock ran perfectly when plugged into one of the baseboard out lets.
Newspapers nearby at a table and draperies and linens on the daybed close at hand were all flammable – room apartment of her favorite tenant, Mrs. Mary Hardy Reeser, a rather stout, kindly, 67-year-old widow. Mrs. Reeser had chatted amiably about her beloved Pennsylvania Dutch background with her physician son, his wife, and Mrs. Carpenter. She told her son she had taken a couple of seconal tablets a t 8 p.m., as usual, and would probably take two more before going to bed. When the trio left at 9 p.m., she was seated in her armchair facing one of the two open windows, a small wooden end table beside her. She was wearing a rayon nightgown, a cotton housecoat and a pair of comfortable black satin slippers. She was smoking a cigarette.
The next morning, shortly before 8, a Western Union boy knocked at Mrs. Carpenter’s door. “Got a telegram here for Mrs. Mary Reeser,” he told her. “I knocked on her door but don’t get any answer. You take it?”
Mrs. Carpenter said she’d deliver the message, but she was concerned. It wasn’t like Mary Reeser, a light sleeper, to miss the sound of a knock. Mrs. Carpenter went to the woman’s door and tapped lightly, then harder when there was no answer. Alarmed, she reached to open the door, but jerked her hand back in pain. The brass doorknob was so hot it burned her. She screamed, and two painters working nearby rushed to her aid.
aged. And though the painters and Mrs. Carpenter had felt a wave of heat when they opened the door, no one had noted smoke or burning odor and there were no embers or flames in the ashes.
Faced with a complete mystery, Police Chief J. R. Reichert quickly asked for FBI assistance. Scrapings from the carpet, metal from the chair, and the ashes and mortal remains of Mrs. Reeser were sent to the FBI laboratory for microanalysis. The first report back clarified nothing, but it contained a blockbuster: Mrs. Reeser had weighed 175 pounds, yet all that remained of her after the fire-including the shriveled head, the whole foot, the bits of spine and a minute section of tissue tentatively identified as liver-weighed less than 10 pounds!
By this time, more than a week after the widow’s death, the St. Petersburg cops were referring
to the “cinder woman” case as “weird, fantastic and un believable,” and even the normally conservative FBI ventured that it was “un usual and improbable.” The newspapers and the radio demanded action of Reichert, but he was already seeking what competent help he could get. Edward Davies, a top-notch arson specialist of the National Board of Underwriters, came in on the case. Hard to fool and quick to detect evidence of deliberate burning, he was stumped. “I can only say,” he admitted glumly, “the victim died from fire, with no idea of what caused it.”
Then came a lucky break. Dr. Krog man was visiting his family just across Tampa Bay at Bradenton, and his presence became known. Told of the pathologist’s reputation, Reichert promptly asked for his help. Dr. Krogman agreed to look in on the case.
The doctor quickly checked the findings of the other authorities who had been consulted and began eliminating possibilities. Had lightning struck her? No. No storms, no lightning, no thunder the night of July 1. Having swallowed sedatives, could she have fallen asleep in her chair, dropped her cigarette, ignited the nightgown and chair and burned? Hardly likely, since such a fire couldn’t possibly have caused the heat-over 3,000 °F – necessary to consume her.
Even if an ordinary fire had reached that temperature, the room- or the whole building – would have been heavily damaged. Anyway, though the windows were open, no one saw smoke or smelled any burning odor. Was Mrs. Reeser burned elsewhere and then placed in the room? Residue in the room and other evidence ruled this concept out. Could an electrical induction n current have gone through her from faulty wiring? Virtually impossible without blowing a fuse. And no short circuit could have caused such massive destruction.
Soon Krogman was left with only the far-out idea of the vaguely reported SHC/ PC, or burning death. Fantastic? Yes. Unbelievable? Definitely. Without precedent? Not quite – Krogman had been digging into those 100 cases previously recorded. How many more burning deaths there had really been, un traceable because they had been written off as caused by accidental fire, no one could know.
Eventually, even Krogman admitted defeat. He told Chief Reichert, “I have posed the problem to myself again and again of why Mrs. Reeser could have been so thoroughly destroyed, even to the bones, and yet leave nearby objects materially unaffected. I always end up rejecting it in theory but facing it in apparent fact.”
He was unable to understand how the widow’s body could have burned so completely without someone’s detecting smoke or, especially, “. . . the acrid, evil smelling odor of burning human flesh.” Another major point he was unable to comprehend was the shrinking of the head. “In my experience,” Dr. Krogman asserted, “the head is not left complete in ordinary burning cases. Certainly it does not shrivel or symmetrically reduce to a much smaller size. In presence of heat sufficient to destroy soft tissues, the skull would literally explode in many pieces. I have experimented on this, using cadaver heads, and have never known an exception to this rule.
“Never,” he concluded, “have I seen a skull so shrunken or a body so completely consumed by heat. This is contrary to normal experience and I regard it as the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. As I review it, the short hairs on my neck bristle with vague fear. Where I living in the Middle Ages, I’d mutter something like ‘black magic!’ ”
At last the investigation in the cinder woman case came to an end. The FBI issued a final report which, not surprisingly, came to few concrete conclusions. It told Chief Reichert: “There is no evidence that any kind of inflammable fluids, volatile liquids, chemicals or other accelerants had been used to set the widow’s body ablaze.”
The chief issued a 500-word public statement on August 8 which labeled the death as “. . . accidental, due to becoming drowsy or falling asleep while smoking and igniting her chair and clothing.” No mention was made of Krogman’s assertion that this would have been impossible. In the absence of any acceptable explanation, however, it was for the chief the only possible report to make.
There have been a number of instances of SHC/ PC since the Reeser case. On March I, J 953, Waymon wood, 50, of Greenville, South Carolina, was found crisped black in the front seat of his closed car parked on the side of Bypass Route 291. There was little left of Wood or the front seat. The heat had made the windshield bubble and sag inward, yet the half-tank of gas in the car was unaffected.
In April, a mouth later, when a Mary land highway patrol investigated an accident eight miles south of Hanover, the officers found the body of Bernard Hess of Baltimore in his overturned car. Hess, the coroner concluded, had died almost instantly of a fractured skull and internal injuries. But that wasn’t all. Though the victim was fully dressed, two thirds of his body had suffered second and third degree burns, without searing his clothes. State patrolmen said he resembled a man who had been trapped in a burning car. But there was no trace of fire in the wrecked car.
It was between the Reeser case and these that Dr. Lester Adelson’s piece had appeared in the Northwestern Uni¬versity’s journal on crime and police work. Since this was the only definitive work written about SHC/ PC, I went to sec Dr. Adelson in Cleveland. We spent considerable time talking about the burning death and about the ferocious fire that was its core. Not only the phenomenon, hut the intensity of the fire had greatly impressed Dr. Adelson.
“In all my years of pathological work,” he told me in rapid fire manner, “I have never seen a fire, other than in a crematorium that could so reduce a human body to ash, bones included. We had a fire here in a Cleveland plant where they manufacture materials for thermite welding. The fire was so hot that it melted the concrete floor. Now you just think . . . this was li k e a volcano! And yet we had recognizable humans. They were badly charred, but you still knew these were human beings.”
The Cleveland pathologist seemed to be in the unusual position of wanting to believe in SHC/ PC, yet painfully aware of the gulf presently separating the apparent fact from the scientifically acceptable. “I think if we knew enough about these cases,” he said, “we could find a reasonable explanation, but right now they’re simply too much of a medical curiosity.”
He told me that many theories have been advanced to explain the mysterious burnings. “In every case so far,” he said, “all the theories have broken down when put to the test. For instance, it was believed that if a person was an alcoholic, this was apt to happen to him when, over a period of long years of drinking, the tissues become so impregnated with alcohol they became volatile.”
He shook his head. “Hell, they took a rat and immersed it in pure alcohol for over a year so the fluid saturated the tissues thoroughly. Then they set it afire. Know what happened? It burned fast until the outer skin was charred and then the fire went out. Inside the tissues were nice and pink, undamaged.”
Equally debunked, Adelson said, was the theory that fat people were more susceptible to SHC/ PC, under the belief that the fatty layers beneath the skin would aid combustion. Geographical location seems to make no difference and although most of the burning death cases have involved older people, that’s not always true. In the spring of 1959, for example, 4-month-old Rickey Pruitt of Rockford, Illinois, burst into fire and burned to death in his crib. Neither crib nor bed clothing upon which he was lying was scorched.
A peculiar factor about the malady is that it appears to anesthetize as it burns. Only rarely have victims cried out, and then only when they actually saw the flames, so that the cry was one more of fear than of pain. SHC/ PC usually originates in the trunk of the body, particularly the back, and mostly the victim is unaware he is burning. He quickly becomes unconscious and is consumed without outcry.
A recorded case in point occurred in 1788, when a young English chambermaid began burning vigorously across her back as she swept a kitchen floor, wholly unaware of what was happening. Only when her master entered the room and shouted did she turn her head, see the flames and scream. She died despite his efforts to extinguish the flame. In most instances it seems that the conflagration originates within the body of the attacked person. Victims have been found with their entire internal mechanism unbelievably burned, while the outer flesh was hardly damaged.
In those relatively rare cases where SHC/ PC burns just the skin, the victim often appears to have been doused with some volatile fluid and set afire. A snap investigation would label any such death murder, suicide or accident. A thorough inquiry, however, would almost certainly determine whether the fire had been caused by an extern al agent. Where bodies have been deliberately or accidentally burned, the volatiles concerned are generally detectable without much difficulty through microanalysis of tissues. In burning-death cases, obviously such evidence is absent.
It was absent when SHC/ PC apparently struck at the Laguna Home of the Aged in San Francisco on January 31, 1959. Sylvester Ellis, an orderly, gave a glass of milk to one of the older patients named Jack Larber. After Larber finished drinking it, Ellis left the room to take the glass back to the kitchen. Five minutes later he glanced into Larber’s room as he passed and found the old man wrapped in blue flames. The patient died and left authorities with a puzzle, because Larber neither smoked nor carried matches. A fire official volunteered the theory that someone had drenched the aged gentleman with lighter fluid and set him ablaze, but investigation dis proved this. The case remains open.
Another case where volatiles were suspected at first and later discounted occurred April 28, 1956, in Benecia , California. Harold Hall, 59, and his landlord, Sam Massenzi, were chatting in front of 114 East F Street, where both lived. Hall said he believed he’d go to the movies, and went inside to change clothes. Then he didn’t come out after half an hour, Massenzi went in to check.
Hall lay on the kitch en floor, his chest, arms and face charred, but although he was still alive, he was unable to explain what had happened. Medical help arrived shortly, and an incision was made in his throat to aid his breathing . It was not long before he died. As later determined by an autopsy, his lungs had been severely burned. Fire Chief Thomas Geifels investigated thoroughly and declared flatly that the fire had not been caused by gas, lighter fluid or anything else he could understand. This case, too, has never been officially closed.
There aren’t many positives about the burning death. It doesn’t hold still long enough and strike frequently enough for any substantial research to have been done on it. Furthermore, few doctors are willing to undergo the mocking skepticism that might result from colleagues if they took this patently unscientific malady seriously and made efforts to probe into it.
How many “careless smoking” fatalities are really attributable to the burning death? How can human tissue, made up of over 90 percent water, become so critically combustible it bursts into spontaneous fire (SHC) or is touched off by an outside spark (PC) ? How can a fire of such intensity start inside the human body? How can this heat-which must surely top 3,000 ° F. in order to do the damage i t causes in so short a time-be so selective that it burns only living tissue and harms but slightly, or not at all, those flammable objects actually touching the victim or nearby? These and dozens of other questions can be answered only by attributing an impossible set of characteristics to the phenomenon of fire as we know it.
This baffling burning death is a danger ous malady that is with us today as it has been for centuries. There have been many victims in the past and there will be more in the future. \Tho is next? No one knows for certain. That’s what makes your hackles rise.
It could be you.