Among all of the amazing supposed psychic powers out there, one of the truly most spectacular, and indeed among the rarest, is what is known as "pyrokinesis," or the ability to create and manipulate fire purely with the power of the mind. The exact term was originally coined by the author Stephen King in his 1980 novel Firestarter, which is the story of a girl with such abilities and was made into a film of the same name, and it is King who can perhaps be credited with popularizing the notion. The power of pyrokinesis has gone on to become a mainstay of fiction and superhero movies in particular, but the phenomenon actually goes pretty far back into history. Here we will look at a selection of accounts of bizarre individuals who supposedly had the power to control fire.
Many reports of supposed pyrotechnic abilities go way back, and there are quite a few reports from the 19th century of this purportedly happening. One case mentioned in Charles Fort’s Wild Talents is that of a 10-year-old girl by the name of Elizabeth Barnes, who was accused of setting the mother of a John Wright on fire merely by looking at her. So sure was Wright that Elizabeth was responsible that he took her to court over the issue. Wright would claim that on many occasions the girl, who was a servant at his home, had caused fires to break out in the vicinity of his mother, apparently directed at her, and had many times caused her clothes to spark and smoke, but on this occasion her dress had burst into fire, seriously injuring her. The judge would deem Elizabeth as guilty for the crime, although how she was causing these fires was unexplained.
There is also the case of a 12-year-old servant girl by the name of Ann Kidner, who in 1878 lived on the farm of a Mr. John Shattock in the town of Bridgewater. On several occasions haystacks and other objects were seen to ignite when she passed by them, and there was also the matter of moving objects when she was around as well. The girl would be arrested on suspicion of tossing lit matches, but no evidence could be found that she had willfully started the fires, and it seems that there is the possibility that she was somehow unconsciously starting them with her mind. In 1886 we have the similar case of Willie Brough, of Turlock, California, who was expelled from his school due to his purported ability to set things on fire “with a glance.” This behavior apparently continued until his parents became convinced that he was possessed by the Devil and they kicked him out of their house. According to the original accounts, Willie seemed to be just as terrified of the fires that broke out around him as everyone else, and it seems quite similar to the Kidner case.
In 1882, there was the famous 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 allegedly 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. It is now thought that he must have done this all with a trick, such as using pieces of phosphorous to help ignite the cloth, but it is not known for sure and he remains one of the more famous and earlier examples of a supposed real-life Firestarter. In 1891 there is the case of 14-year-old Jennie Bramwell, who lived on a farm with her adopted family in the town of Thorah, near Toronto, Canada. One day she apparently fell very ill, going into a trance of some sort. When she awoke, she allegedly pointed to the ceiling to say “look at that!” and when everyone did, they saw that it was covered in a sheet of flames. For the following week fires would start wherever Jennie went, including furniture, the walls, ceiling, clothing, and even a cat. It was enough to have her sent back to the orphanage, and although a reporter who investigated the fires was certain that she had caused them using mundane means such as matches or chemicals, it is unclear how she could do this from across the room while various witnesses looked on.
In 1895 there is also the strange story of a 16-year-old girl named Rhoda Colwell, around whom fires constantly erupted, to the point that they ended up burning down her family’s home in Brooklyn, New York. These mysterious fires were allegedly seen to break out right before the eyes of the startled police officers and fire officials sent to investigate, and the police Captain was forced to conclude, “I can attribute it to no other cause than a supernatural agency.” Interestingly, under intense questioning Rhoda broke down to admit that she had started the fires, but there was no evidence at all for how she could have possibly pulled it off.
Moving on into later years, in 1927 we have the 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 such as tires. A few years later, in 1929, a young girl by the name of Lily White was causing quite a stir on the West Indies island of Antigua. It was claimed that she had the habit of igniting the clothes she was wearing, which would burn to a crisp while leaving her completely unscathed. Lily purportedly constantly had to procure new clothes because of this, and in addition it was found that her bedsheets would often erupt into flames while leaving her unharmed. It was never explained how she was able to do this, and her ultimate fate is unknown.
More recently still is on odd account from Mexico, where in 1950 a man named Mario Orozco was actually brought to court on charges of causing his wife to explode into flame and burn to ash. It was alleged that he had been having an affair with a mistress and wanted the wife out of the picture, but the way he would supposedly do this was rather spectacular, to say the least. He invited the wife to have dinner at a restaurant, and as she sat across from her in her chair she reportedly suddenly went into convulsions and began spewing flame from her clothes. It was noted that Mario’s eyes were bulging and his mouth was open as if he were engaged in a strenuous effort, even though he was just sitting. As the horrified onlookers watched, the wife then burned completely down to ash and bone fragments while leaving the chair and everything around it totally untouched, and Mario was soon arrested on charges of causing the tragedy. With his mind?
Even more recently still there was a teenager by the name of Benedetto Supino, who one day in 1982 caused a comic book to ignite into flames as he sat in a dentist’s office reading it. Amazingly, although the book was burned to ash his hands remained unscathed. After this a pattern emerged in which everything around him seemed liable to go up into flames if he so much as looked at them, even if these objects were on the other side of the room and often in full view of witnesses. He was apparently especially good at burning or melting things that he held, during which time his hands were said to glow. Sometimes his own clothes would catch fire, or his own bed, and there could be found no rational explanation for it. One report would say:
One morning [Supino] was awakened by a fire in his own bed – his pajamas were in flames and the boy suffered severe burns. 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.
The boy was apparently studied by the parapsychologist Dr. Demetrio Croce, who believed him to be a genuine example of pyrokinesis, and supposedly taught him to “control and hone” his powers. Throughout all of this Supino refused to be medically examined, and indeed seemed to want to be rid of these abilities, at one point lamenting, “I don’t want things to catch fire, but what can I do?” As with many of these cases, it has been suspected that the boy was somehow tricking everyone and starting the fires through some sleight of hand, but he has always denied it and it still remains unexplained. Considering that Supino would refuse to speak of these abilities in later years we will probably never know if they were real or not, or whether he actually did learn to control them.
Finally, in 2011 a strange series of events unfolded in Iloilo City, in the Philippines. Here media reports went wild about a 3-year-girl girl named Emma, who displayed quite a frightening ability, indeed. It was reported that whenever the girl named an object in the room and said “fire,” the said object would eerily burst into flames without fail. The girl’s scared mother would say of this terrifying power:
Anything she mentioned and speaks for the object to be burned that is what actually happened. I supposed not to believed, but because I witnessed what actually happened, so it is. When she was speaking ‘Fire’ to the radio, pillow, blanket and mat that is exactly what happened. The bread she had eaten suddenly blazed after she was saying, fire…fire…Even to our dress in the wardrobe was not safe. I cannot explain about the unusual happening to my daughter. I hardly believe that she can do such unbelievable thing.
The phenomenon was witnessed by many people, including reporters and police officers, none of who could figure out how this young girl was doing this. One reporter on the scene by the name of Carol Velagio would say:
I have seen the fire she made, even her underwear also burning. I don’t believe that it was only a trick. I know they are just poor, and being a mother you cannot afford to burn those important things they cannot easily get. The camera I have used suddenly malfunctioned after Emma spoke fire on it. When I check it up, there was no fire on it. It removed the tape then try to record but still displayed error. But when we came to the city I tried recording, then it works.
Theories of how little Emma does this have ranged from the mundane to the more supernatural. Superstitious locals have blamed it on evil spirits that live in the house and take on the form of “black dwarfs.” Others think the family is pulling some sort of hoax, but there is no evidence of this. Then of course there is the idea that this is some sort of psychic ability the girl is manifesting. One paranormal investigator by the name of Dexter Espino tried to use thermal cameras on Emma and her house, but could find nothing out of the ordinary, even when she was displaying her “gift.” It is unknown what has happened to this girl, but one hopes that she at least learned to control this potentially devastating power. That is, if she ever really had it at all.
In the end, cases of actual pyrokinesis are exceptionally rare as far as psychic abilities go, and since so many have been attributed to trickery or hoaxes over the years it is difficult to really know what to make of such reports. Besides the obvious answers that this is hoaxes or magic tricks, there have been some serious attempts to explain it, such as that this is some latent ability to excite particles or even the work of poltergeist activity, but there is no hard evidence for any of this and it remains purely speculative. We are left to ask, are there those special individuals over the years who have actually been able to spawn and shape fire itself? Is this a real, legitimate psychic phenomenon worth looking at more closely? Or is it all smoke and mirrors and tall tales? Whatever the case may be, it sure at least fires the imagination.