One pervasive feature upon the landscape of the paranormal is what is often referred to as "spontaneous human combustion." It typically involves victims who suddenly and inexplicably burst into flames, often burning down to cinders while oddly leaving their surroundings unburned. It is not uncommon at all to hear of cases of people burning to a crisp only to leave their chairs, furniture, and even paper or clothes around them completely untouched, very weird considering the immense temperatures needed to burn the human body, which is mostly composed of water, to that degree. Often there is evidence of the bodies having been burned from the inside rather than the outside, and all in all it is a very bizarre phenomenon that has had much speculation but few answers. While many possible natural occurrences have been proposed for spontaneous human combustion, could these cases be indicative of some little known forces, or even the power of psychokinesis, or literally the ability to start flames from nothing, totally subconsciously and out of the victims’s control?
A very curious sequence of accounts happened between the years of 1822 and 1827 and were compiled on the site AnomalyInfo, with a perplexing series of cases involving people with what can only be described as flaming hands. The first of these strange occurrences supposedly took place on September 5, 1822, in the area of Bordeaux, France, at a tiny village called Loignan. On this day the local village blacksmith, called Renateau, had apparently been walking along minding his own business when his right index finger suddenly was jolted by an abrubt, excruciating pain. Curious as to what was going on he raised his finger to his face to see that it was on fire. He frantically tried to put the unexplained flame on his finger out, burning a hole in his pants in the process, after which his pants caught fire to send him running about in a panic. As all of this was going on the fire spread from finger to finger, and when he clapped his hands together to put the fire out, his left hand burst into flames too.
The man ran all the way home, trailing fire and smoke in his wake, his hands still enveloped in flame, and when he got there he immediately shoved them underwater. This should have surely done the trick of putting the fires out, but his hands quickly reignited as soon as he pulled them out. It was purportedly not until an onlooker gave him holy water that they would finally putter out to leave him in peace. The case would be investigated by a Dr. Moulinnié, who would interview witnesses and examine the blisters that had been left behind on the victim’s hands, coming to the conclusion that, despite his initial skepticism, it seemed that the event was very believable, although he could not fathom why only holy water would have put the fires out. He would eventually surmise that the fire must have already been weakened considerably by the numerous efforts to put it out before the holy water had been applied, making it only seem that it was the only thing that could put them out. As to what had caused the mysterious flames to begin with or why they should appear on the victim's hands spontaneously he had no idea.
Just a few years later, in January of 1825, there would be a rather similar report from Hamburg, Germany. On January 25 of that year, a young seamstress checked into the Hamburg General Infirmary with a left hand covered in nasty blisters and plagued by a fiery pain that was shooting up the entirety of her arm. She told doctors that the problem had started a few days before, when she had been suddenly overwhelmed with what she took to be a severe fever as she was sitting there sewing. He body had apparently been burning up, and this heat had then started to curiously gravitate towards her left hand to focus on the index finger, along with a “violent sensation of burning” and exuding the incessant stench of sulphur. When she examined her hand she was met with the rather anomalous sight of her finger spewing forth a miniature plume of blue-white flame.
The seamstress had tried to plunge her finger into water and wrap wet towels around it, but no matter what she did it would not extinguish, always there with its eerie blue incandescence no matter what she did, and conversely the flame began to grow to engulf her whole hand, jumping to her clothes when she tried to brush off the flame against them. She would eventually try dousing the mystery flames with milk, and this had seemed to help somewhat, but the smell of sulphur would not go away. She had finally decided to go to the hospital, where she was now telling the whole strange tale to baffled doctors and nurses. Besides the blisters, other evidence to support the girl’s bizarre story was the strange fact that he left arm was undeniably exhibiting a dramatically higher temperature than the rest of her body for no discernible reason. The head doctor, a Dr. Ogston, was skeptical of the whole account, and chalked it up to the seamstress creating an amazing story to explain a simple burn, although why the left arm had that higher temperature and where the sulphur odor came from is anyone’s guess.
Following these curious events was the case of a 24-year-old man named Mr. Dessimont, in France, who on April 19, 1827 went to visit his brother and would experience some strange events while he was there. It started with the brother messing around with fire, burning a bit of sulphur over a candle flame for amusement, but it would explode into sparks that sprayed over his clothes, causing them to burst into flame. Dessimont was able to put out the flames and all seemed well, until that is his hands suddenly and without warning were enveloped by blue fire from nowhere a short while later. These flames were unable to be extinguished with water nor any other means they possessed, and indeed water seemed to make them even more ferocious. It got to the point where he ran over to a neighbor by the name of Dr. Richond-des-Brus, who recommended keeping the hands submerged in cold water until the fire died. This seemed to work, and Dessimont returned home a bit shaken, but mostly uninjured save a few minor burns. Unfortunately for him, his hands would soon once again be engulfed in the mysterious blue fire.
At his brother’s home he continued to put his hands underwater to little effect, with the water reaching nearly boiling temperatures as he did so, after which it would be changed to reach unbearably hot temperatures once again. The fires would eventually go out, only to reignite again and start the whole process over again. In the morning the doctor would arrive to examine the mystery once more, finding Dessimont’s hands to be badly blistered and almost totally lacking the top layer of skin, leaving them with a sickly grey color. The flames seemed to gradually subside after that, although there were recurring sharp burning pains and his fingernails would fall off one by one. Dr. Richond-des-Brus entertained several possibilities for the weird phenomenon, but could come to no rational conclusion as to why these hands should continually ignite and stay lit even with frequent and generous dousing of water, all while leaving relatively light injuries, all things considered. It remains a mystery.
There have been numerous other cases along these lines in later years as well. In 1878 there was a 12-year-old girl named Ann Kidner, who apparently started fires wherever she went. In 1882, there was the case of an A.W. Underwood, in the town of Paw Paw, Michigan, in the United States, who apparently could cause objects to erupt into flames simply by breathing on them. These abilities were studied by a Dr. L. C. Woodman, who could find no explanation for it all, and who would say of the frightening phenomenon:
He will take anybody’s handkerchief and hold it to his mouth rub it vigorously with his hands while breathing on it and immediately it bursts into flames and burns until consumed. He will strip and rinse out his mouth thoroughly, wash his hands and submit to the most rigid examination to preclude the possibility of any humbug, and then by his breath blown upon any paper or cloth envelop it in flame. He will, while out gunning and without matches desirous of a fire lie down after collecting dry leaves and by breathing on them start the fire.
This would apparently inevitably happen in front of many witnesses, no matter how much the man’s mouth was washed out or cleansed with a variety of agents. In October of 1886 a young boy named Willie Brough lived in Madison County, California, where he was apparently able to cause fires just by looking at objects, something he seemed to have some form of control over. Then in 1890 there was the case of a 14-year-old orphan girl named Jennie Bramwell, who lived with her adopted family in a rural area near Toronto, Canada. Jennie would purportedly go into a sort of trance, after which she would cause fires to break out around her out of nowhere, which were difficult to put out, and sometimes her own clothes would crackle with flames as well, although they left her strangely unburned. Things got so bad that she was returned to the orphanage by her parents out of fear. In later years it has been suspected that she had started the fires herself, but the mystery has never been solved.
Just a few years later, in 1895, we have an account from Brooklyn, New York, where a man named Adam Colwell lived with his wife and adopted daughter, Rhoda. In January of that year fires started to spring up out of nowhere, and police called to the scene and even the fire marshal are said to have witnessed these blazes start from nothing, always in the presence of the girl. No sign of trickery could be found, and one police Captain Rhoades said there could be “no other cause than a supernatural agency.” In this case the girl would finally admit to having started the fires herself, although this still does not explain how they could mysteriously burst into existence under the careful eye of law enforcement and fire authorities without explanation.
In the 1900s we have the 1927 case of a car mechanic named Charles Dawes in Memphis, Tennessee, whose breath could allegedly cause fires, even objects that were considered to be normally inflammable. In as recently as 1982 there was an Italian boy named Benedetto Supino, who could purportedly cause books and other objects to catch fire in his hands, an ability that was apparently witnessed by many others, none of whom could discern how he was doing it. One report says of this frightening ability:
On another occasion, a small plastic object held in his uncle’s hands began to burn as Benedetto stared at it. Just about everywhere he went, furniture, paper, books and other items would start to smolder or burn. Some witnesses even claimed to see his hands glow at these moments. Fuse boxes ignited, newspapers burst into flames and non-specific 'small objects' would smoke and burn.
There is no way to really no how much truth any of these cases has, but if they are real at all then they do seem to hint at perhaps some latent ability within the human mind to actually conjure up these fires from nothing and cast them about. Is there any merit to this at all, and could the ability of these people to control or generate fires have a possible link to the long discussed phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion? Or are these able to be explained away, perhaps misreported or misrepresented, and there is a more mundane explanation for it all? Perhaps someday we will know, but in the meantime the stories of people burning mysteriously and of psychic fire starters continue on.