The world of psychic powers really runs the range of the weird. People who can see the future, read minds, commune with spirits, or even move objects with their minds have all been documented and left us to wonder what is going on. Yet perhaps the most spectacular power is what is called "pyrokinesis," or the ability to control or defy fire with the power of the mind. It is a rather rare corner of the world of this sort of psychic phenomena, and one with relatively few cases, but they are out there. Here we will delve into the realm of people who somehow have the ability to mold or shape the force of nature we know as fire, or conversely are immune against it.
One of the most well-known cases of a person who was supposedly imbued with the ability to start fires was a man by the name of A. William Underwood. He is very much an enigma, with not much known or recorded about his early life. It is known that he was an African America man born in 1855 in Paw Paw, Michigan, and that he had an upbringing surrounded by poverty and discrimination, and other than that he seems to have been a rather nondescript and unremarkable man in most respects who might have just faded away into history if it weren’t for an alleged amazing talent he had.
What would mark Underwood’s place in history was one day in January of 1882, when he was brought to a Dr. L. C. Woodman along with some rather incredible tales. According to him and those who knew him, upon reaching puberty he had developed the power to ignite things just by breathing on them. It had apparently started one day when a piece of paper he had been holding in his hand had burst into flame, after which he soon realized that it was caused by his breath, with him purportedly able to ignite all manner of flammable objects, including paper, cloth, and pieces of wood. The power had gotten so pronounced and out of hand that Underwood had taken to routinely covering his mouth, and was careful not to breath on things for fear of setting them on fire, and it had apparently made him a bit of local celebrity.
Woodman was understandably skeptical at first, thinking it was all tall tales or a hoax, so he gamely offered Underwood to let him do a series of tests on him, an offer which the young man surprisingly accepted. Woodman then claimed to have carried out a series of extensive scientific tests on Underwood, during which he would routinely ignite objects under laboratory conditions, even when his mouth was washed out with various solutions and he was forced to wear surgical gloves. According to Woodman, there was no sign of trickery, and it appeared to be a genuine unexplainable phenomenon. Woodman would say of it in the Michigan Medical News:
I have a singular phenomenon in the shape of a young man living here, that I have studied with much interest, and I am satisfied that his peculiar power demonstrates that electricity is the nerve force beyond dispute. His name is Wm. Underwood, aged 27 years, and his gift is that of generating fire through the medium of his breath, assisted by manipulations with his hands. He will take anybody's handkerchief, and hold it to his mouth, and 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.
After this, Underwood’s case was widely discussed in medical journals of the era, and with no sign of hoaxing or fraud it was largely thought to be a true anomalous phenomenon and medical mystery. Of course there have also been skeptics, and one of the main ideas is that Underwood was hiding a piece of phosphorus in his mouth, which he would then spit onto the material and rub his hands together to ignite it, or using some other means of chemical combustion, but if this were the case then why would this have not been detected under the stringent testing carried out by Woodman and why would he have been so able to fool everyone? Since it was never conclusively proven to be a hoax and Underwood died in 1937, it seems very likely that he took any secrets he had to the grave with him, and that we will likely never know what was going on here.
While Underwood is perhaps the most well-known fire starter, there have been others as well. From the book Strange People, by Frank Edwards, in 1886 there was a 12 year-old boy named Willie Brough, of Turlock, Madison County, California, who could supposedly start fires just by looking at something. It apparently got so bad that he was expelled from school and kicked out by his parents, who thought he was possessed by the devil. There is also the case of an unnamed car mechanic in Memphis, Tennessee, who similarly to Underwood could allegedly set things alight merely by breathing on them. Apparently, then Vice President of the U.S. Charles Dawes personally investigated the case and was convinced of its veracity when the man took his handkerchief and caused it to burst into flame merely by breathing on it. Another much more recent case of pyrokinesis supposedly occurred in 2011, with a three-year-old girl in the province of Antique, in the Philippines, who could create fires without any physical contact with the objects. On one occasion she supposedly was observed by the mayor to merely say “Fire… pillow,” after which the pillow ignited into flame. After an exorcism failed to remove the powers it was surmised that she had inherited the ability from a past life.
Just as mysterious as the ability to start fires are those enigmatic individuals who are allegedly immune to fire. Some remarkable early accounts of this come from the 18th century, such as a case that supposedly occurred in France during the rise of the Huguenots against Louis XIV. At one point the Camisard leader Claris was surrounded by a troop of 600 men, and he suddenly went into a “state of possession.” He then climbed atop a burning pyre and stood there while continuing to speak as the flames engulfed him and danced around him. The fire burned away all of the wood, and when it did and there was nothing but smoke left Claris was reportedly still standing there speaking upon the charred remains of the pyre, completely unharmed, with not a single burn or scorch on either his clothes or his body. This strange spectacle was later confirmed by the leader of the troop that had surrounded the fire and many others who had witnessed it. Also in the 18th century is the case of woman named Marie Sonet, who was a member of religious sect and political movement in France at the time called the Convulsionnaires of Saint-Médard. P. F. Mathieu would write of Sonet in his Histoire des Miracles:
Marie Sonet, called the Salamander, on several occasions, in the presence of Carré de Montgeron and others, stretched herself on two chairs over a blazing fire, and remained there for half an hour or more at a time, neither herself nor her clothing being burnt. On another occasion, however, she thrust her booted feet into a burning brazier until the soles of both boots and stockings were reduced to a cinder, her feet remaining uninjured.
Another amazing account from the 19th century concerns an African American man in Maryland by the name of Nathan Coker. Coker was born in 1814 into slavery, and after finally gaining his freedom began working as a blacksmith, and it was here where he discovered that fire simply did not hurt him. He found he could put his hands into roaring flames or press them against white hot metal and remain unhurt, and when this ability became known he turned into a minor celebrity. Coker was apparently taken before a committee in order to demonstrate these powers of his, and according to witnesses he pressed red hot coals and metal against his flesh until they became cool, licked white hot rods, and swirled molten metal around in his mouth until it solidified, each time being examined by physicians afterward and shown to be completely unharmed. A newspaper report at the time in New York Herald would say of Nathan Coker and his incredible abilities:
How he acquired the power to perform the feats of placing his hands and arms in a vessel of boiling water and keeping them there for ten minutes, licking a red-hot shovel, holding in his mouth molten lead, and even swallowing it, as well as many others more daring, without apparent injury, no one knows, nor has he ever revealed the secret. In fact it is doubtful if he can himself explain the mystery, but he can and does handle bars of iron glowing with white heat, eat glowing charcoal made from hickory or oak wood, walk barefooted on a red-hot bar of iron, sixteen feet long, with perfect coolness and deliberation. These facts are attested by many respectable witnesses. He used to delight in frightening the ignorant and superstitious country people, to whom he was unknown, whenever he could find a crowd gathered around the stove in a village or country store, by stalking in, opening the stove door and running his hand down in the fire and deliberately taking a live coal in his fingers and coolly placing it in his pipe and walking off. He was at one time on exhibition, and his strange feats created considerable excitement, but owing to his dislike of notoriety and his lack of education, he soon retired from the stage. His power of resisting the effects of fire is singular and has never, so far as I know, been explained, though he has been examined by a number of scientific men. Many of the colored people, and in fact not a few of the whites, who had been taught by the crude theologians of fifty years ago to believe in a personal devil with horns, tail and cloven foot, whose kingdom was the bottomless pit, and who occasionally treated his refractory subjects to molten lead, firmly believed, and perhaps some of them still believe, that Nathan was a sort of brevet devil himself.
What was going on here and how did he do it? We may never know for sure. Also from the 19th century is the case of the medium and Spiritualist Daniel Dunglas Home, who claimed to be able to perform various feats of fire immunity with the aid of the spirit world, and that he could even confer this power onto others. His usual demonstration happened during séances, during which he would call upon the spirits and hold all manner of heated objects such as red hot coals and metal, but he was also known to put his hands and even his face into open flames and remain unharmed. One account of this comes from a William Stainton Moses, who would say of it:
He then went to the fireplace, removed the guard, and sat down on the hearth rug. Then he seemed to hold a conversation by signs with a spirit. He repeatedly bowed, and finally set to work to mesmerize his head again. He ruffled his bushy hair until it stood out like a mop, and then deliberately lay down and put his head in the bright wood fire. The hair was in the blaze, and must, under ordinary circumstances, have been singed off. His head was in the grate, and his neck on a level with the top-bar. This was repeated several times. He also put his hand into the fire, smoothed away the wood and coal and picked out a live coal which he held in his hand for a few seconds; but replaced soon, saying the power was not sufficient. He tried to give a hot coal to Mr. Crookes, but was unable to do it. He then came to all of us to satisfy us that there was no smell of fire on his hair. There was absolutely none.
Home also frequently claimed to be able to make other people and even objects immune to fire, granting them his power for short times. He would pass handkerchiefs or flowers through flames and they would not burn, or place burning coals on people’s bodies and clothing without producing pain or scorching. One of the most remarkable of these demonstrations was during one séance in which Home went into a trance, walked to the fire, took out a very large, red-hot coal, and placed it on the head of a Samuel Carter Hall, editor of The Art Journal, who would remark that it felt warm but was not hot. The coal remained there for several minutes without singing his hair or burning his skin. Another account of Home's ability to do this was given by a Lord Adare, who would say:
Presently, he took the same lump of coal he had previously handled and came over to us, blowing on it to make it brighter. He then walked slowly around the table, and said “I want to see which of you will be the best subject. Ah! Adare will be the easiest because he has been most with Dan. [Home is here referring to himself as Dan.] Mr. Jencken held out his hand saying “Put it in mine,” Home said “No no, touch it and see,” He touched it with the tip of his finger and burnt himself. Home then held it within four or five inches of Mr. Saal's and Mr. Hurt's hands, and they could not endure the heat. He came to me and said, “Now, if you are not afraid, hold out your hand”; I did so and having made two rapid passes over my hand, he placed the coal in it. I must have held it for half a minute, long enough to have burned my hand fearfully; the coal felt scarcely warm. Home then took it away, laughed and seemed much pleased.
Home was allegedly never found to be engaged in any sort of trickery, even when scrutinized by experts and medical professionals. One skeptical physician would come away amazed by Home’s abilities and unable to explain any of it, of which he would say:
I do not believe in the possibility of the ordinary skin of the hand being so prepared as to enable hot coals to be handled with impunity. Schoolboys' books and medieval tales describe how this can be done with alum or certain other ingredients. It is possible that the skin may be so hardened and thickened by such preparations that superficial charring might take place without the pain becoming great, but the surface of the skin would certainly suffer severely. After Home had recovered from the trance I examined his hand with care to see if there were any signs of burning or of previous preparation. I could detect no trace of injury to the skin, which was soft and delicate like a woman's. Neither were there signs of any preparation having been previously applied. I have often seen conjurers and others handle red-hot coals and iron, but there were always palpable signs of burning.
There were other spirit mediums at the time who claimed a similar ability to call upon spirits during séances to make them immune to fire or hot objects. An American medium named Suydam could reportedly handle hot iron, live coals, and intense lamp chimneys for long periods while under control of a spirit she called the “Fire Queen,” after which her hands would remain “cold and clammy; as cold as ice.” A medium and self-proclaimed “Persian fire worshipper” named Annie Hunter was supposedly able to carry about glowing hot logs while chanting in a mysterious language There was also a London shoemaker and medium by the name of John Hopcroft, who during séances would handle hot coals or put parts of his body into fires with no ill effects. James Robertson would write of one such instance in his book Spiritualism, an Open Door to the Unseen Universe:
He placed his hands amidst the ruddy coals in the fireplace, and lifting a piece which was perfectly red, he walked through the room so that its glow was reflected by the pictures on the wall.
Moving into the 20th century we have the remarkable case of a woman by the name of Lily White, who seems to have possessed a strange mix of both pyrokinesis and fire immunity. In the 1920s, Lily White was living on the island of Antigua in the British West Indies, and made quite a name for herself with a bizarre phenomenon that surrounded her. It seems that Lily’s clothing had the unfortunate habit of spontaneously igniting into flame, after which they would burn away to nothing while leaving her naked and completely unharmed. This could apparently happen at any time, regardless of whether she was at home or out walking or shopping, and there were occasions when she would wake to find her bed burned to cinders, yet she would remain uninjured, with not so much as a blister. It was said that her neighbors would often take pity on her and give her new clothes to replace those that had been destroyed. The story was carried in numerous newspapers, and one such account in a 1929 edition of The New York Times would say of it:
St John's, Antigua Island, West Indies. The natives here, filled with superstition, are apprehensive of a disastrous earthquake or fire, because of the appearance in Liberta Village of a young woman who is called the 'Goddess of Fire.' Whenever she walks the highway, say the natives, her clothing catches fire and burns to ashes. While she is in bed, the same thing happens and not even the smell of smoke is left on the sheets. The young woman known as Lily White, has lost all her clothing and very soon after the neighbors have supplied her with other dresses they too, have been destroyed by fire. White folks sense an explanation in this constant supply of new dresses.
What are we dealing with in cases such as these? Are these genuine accounts of people who could really control fire or resist its effects? Were they really able to tap into and control or subvert the most feared force of nature of humankind? Or are these simply parlor tricks, charlatans, and tall tales? It all remains a little explored or understood corner of the domain of psychic phenomena, whatever the case may be, and the answers are unclear.