Spontaneous Human Combustion: The truth behind the myth of Mary Carpenter

Author

Matt Mills
Matt Mills studied Media at the University of Wolverhampton and has had an interest in the paranormal for many years. He studies supposedly unexplained cases to find if the accounts are actually true, and his interest in the paranormal has also led to him investigating the famous Newby Church ghost photo and visiting the church.

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Many books and websites over the years have given accounts of spontaneous human combustion (SHC). But how many of these reports of people spontaneously bursting into flames and being consumed in such a short time are true?

One often repeated story is of Mary Carpenter, a woman who suddenly burst into flames in the late 1930s in a cabin cruiser on the Norfolk Broads in Eastern England. The story has appeared many times since the 1940s, although the victim was not named until at least the 1970s, and as recently as 2019 an article in the British newspaper The Sun gave a brief account of the case.

I first became aware of the case in the early 1990s in a children’s book about the unexplained whose title I cannot remember. The author or authors referred to “Mrs Carpenter”, who was on a boating holiday with her husband and children in 1938 when blue smoke suddenly emitted from her body and she burst into flames – according to the book she was subsequently reduced to ashes in minutes. Although the book was aimed at children, it had a rather disturbing illustration of a youngish woman lying on the floor engulfed in flames while her husband and two young boys look on in horror.

Mary Carpenter’s inexplicable fiery death in a cabin cruiser wasn’t the only case of spontaneous human combustion reported in 1938 – elsewhere that year, Phyliss Newcombe was said burst into flames for no apparent reason at a dance in Chelmsford in South-Eastern England, as researcher Jan Willem Nienhuys investigated in 2001. By studying newspaper accounts of the event, the research revealed that Phyllis’s dress had almost certainly been accidentally set alight by a discarded match. Although many printed and online accounts variously refer to Phyllis as becoming “a charred corpse” or even “pile of ashes”, Nienhuys concluded that the reports from 1938 revealed she was actually badly burnt on her legs, arms and chest, and died nearly three weeks later of pneumonia caused by burn-related sepsis.

A much-repeated and often altered story

Like the inaccurate story of Phyllis Newcombe’s death, sources give very similar details about Mary Carpenter. The earliest account by Eric Frank Russell in the journal Tomorrow (1942), who states that the Liverpool Echo on 30th July 1938 carried a story referring to a “woman burnt to death on motor cruiser on the Norfolk Broads”, but he does not mention her name. Russell quoted a police officer in the article who stated “’Apparently her clothes caught fire’”, with Russell continuing “but (the officer) couldn’t suggest how”. Russell repeated the same story in the Fate magazine in 1950 and in his book Great World Mysteries in 1957, giving exactly the same details and the identical quote from the police officer. On both other occasions, Russell didn’t provide the name of the victim.

A smouldering fire nearing the end of its life leaving a pile of ash

In 1964, American author Allen W. Eckert gave details on the case in True, a men’s magazine. Unlike Russell, who attributed the woman’s death to unexplained burning on a cabin cruiser, Eckert claimed that the victim, who remained unnamed, was “paddling about in a small boat with her husband and children” before adding a horrific reference to her being “engulfed by flame and quickly reduced to a mound of ugly ash. The terrified family was unhurt, and the wooden boat undamaged”. Three years later, Vincent H. Gaddis referred to the case in Mysterious Fires and Lights and gave exactly the same details as Russell, but adding that the still-unnamed victim “was… reduced to a charred corpse” rather than being turned to ash, and as with Russell he quotes the officer investigating the death. Ivan Sanderson, another American author who founded the Society for the Investigation of the Unexplained, summarised the case in his 1972 book Explaining The Unexplained, simply repeating the same information as Eckert.

It was in 1976 that a British author, Michael Harrison, gave an account in his book Fire From Heaven that specifically dealt with the subject of spontaneous human combustion. It appears to be possibly the first time the victim is named as Mary Carpenter. As with Gaddis, Harrison states that Mary was “reduced to a charred corpse” and makes the point that despite fire-causing substances being present on the boat and this “could have provided the authorities with a ready-made excuse…they admitted the inexplicable nature of the tragedy”. Once again, the quote from the policeman is mentioned about how he had no knowledge of why Mary was consumed by flames.

John Allan (1981) made a typically brief mention of the case in Mysteries: A Book of Beliefs, repeating the same part of the story as Gaddis where Mary was “reduced to ashes in front of her husband and children”, while The Reader’s Digest Mysteries of the Unexplained (1982) repeats Harrison’s description of the case as well as the now so-often quoted words from the police officer, believing Mary’s clothes had somehow caught fire, but he couldn’t explain why.

The same year, a rather sensational American book, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Book of Chance, written by Robert Crew and David Miller, whose cover states “A world of fascinating facts about risks, breaks, quirks, freaks, miracles and coincidence – the winners and losers of the game”, included the story, changing the location to Norfolk, Virginia and once again claiming Mary was “reduced to ashes”. The book mentions that she was aboard a boat, with no details about the type of boat where the mysterious fire occurred.

Jenny Randles and Peter Hough were to give a summary of Mary Carpenter’s death in their 1992 book Spontaneous Human Combustion, and as well as the usual brief details all writers previously covered on the case, they quoted Harrison without examining any reports further. A second book to mention the case in the 1990s was again a rather sensational publication, and was aimed at children: Beyond Belief in 1993, which was based on a television series produced by the American children’s TV channel Nickelodeon. In this version of the story, the writers add that Mary was “sipping a drink in the lounge when suddenly she burst into flames”. While Crew and Miller mistakenly give the location of Mary Carpenter’s mysterious death as Norfolk, Virginia, Nigel Blundell in Fact or Fiction?: Supernatural, which was published in 1996, wrote that “an American, Mrs Mary Carpenter, was holidaying with her family aboard a boat on the English Norfolk Broads when she suddenly burst into flames and was reduced to ashes”.

It is clear from all these sources that writers on the subject of alleged SHC deaths were in a habit of copying quotes and adding or changing information. The Carpenter case is also mentioned quite frequently online, the website steemit.com discusses the incident among other well-documented Spontaneous Human Combustion cases and refers to Mary as “Mary J. Carpenter”, the first time an initial had been added to her name. The website states Ivan Sanderson investigated the case, although it appears from studying Sanderson’s 1972 book, that he simply copied the information Eckert wrote a few years before and like Eckert and Sanderson, the article continues by stating the gruesome claim that Mary was “reduced to ashes”.

With writers either claiming Mary was reduced to ashes or was left a charred corpse, it is important to note that the former would be impossible in a confined space such as the interior of a cabin cruiser. Nienhuys (2001) refers to how “an adult human body can’t burn within five minutes”, as was claimed in the fictional account of “Maybelle Andrews”, the story being based on the numerous writers’ distorted facts on the Phyllis Newcombe case. Notably, the length of time between when Mary was said to have suddenly caught fire and then allegedly reduced to ash was also said to be quick, but no specific duration was ever given. Nienhuys continues by explaining:

because of the short time involved, it would require a very high temperature, but the total heat of the human body is such that the effect would be similar to burning ten litres (or quarts) of gasoline within five minutes… all people present would have died of a combination of lack of oxygen and smoke poisoning.

Certainly, this fact makes the claim Mary Carpenter was turned to ashes by the mysterious fire highly implausible, given the fact her husband and children were said to be unhurt and such an intense fire would also cause damage to the boat, despite the numerous claims that the vessel escaped unharmed.

Mary Carpenter’s real name and the true story revealed

In 1995, SHC researcher Larry Arnold mentioned in his book Ablaze: The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion a fact that every other writer who discussed the case wasn’t aware of. The victim’s name was not Mary Carpenter or anything similar, and he stated:

a look through the Liverpool Echo (July 30, 1938) would have shown…the victim is Maude Comissiong and not a Mrs. Carpenter.

Arnold also makes the point that Maude Comissiong was incorrectly named by a number of sources, including Gaddis, Reader’s Digest Mysteries and Randles and Hough. Arnold’s account of the case gives Maude Comissiong’s age as fifty-four, but he still repeats the story that “unexpectedly, before her family’s eyes, she quickly burned to a charred corpse”, and as with all the authors who mistakenly named the victim, or who didn’t give her name at all, he once again gives the familiar quote from the policeman who suggested the only explanation could be her clothes catching fire, even though he couldn’t suggest any form of ignition.

The truth revealed

It appears Arnold didn’t read the Liverpool Echo article in detail as studying it reveals a very different story.

The newspaper article dated July 30, 1938 shows that Maude Comissiong, who came from Leicester in Central England, was on holiday with her husband Albert – it doesn’t mention any children. Given that Maude’s age was fifty-four, she would have almost definitely had adult children by this time. Reading the article shows that her husband wasn’t even present when the fire started, as it states:

Albert Comissiong said he left his wife resting on the cruiser while he went into Great Yarmouth with friends.

It is clear from this statement that the boat had been moored on the Norfolk Broads at the time the fire happened.

A portable stove that might be lit using kerosene

The newspaper mentions the fact that Maude Comissiong had opened an oil stove and had planned to make tea, and that she also opened a can of paraffin. It appears likely that it was late afternoon due to the fact she was going to use the heater for tea. Despite the numerous references to a police officer not understanding how the fire happened, the reference to an officer in the article actually states “a police officer said apparently Mrs. Comissiong’s clothes caught fire as she made tea” and makes no mention whatsoever of the officer being puzzled about how Maude was burnt.

The article also states that Maude Comissiong died in hospital, the coroner’s verdict was accidental death and that “two Sheffield holiday-makers, Ronald Cutting and Bertram Donovan, described how they heard Mrs. Comissiong scream and then saw her in flames on the cruiser”. The conclusion of how her clothes caught fire does seem rather vague, however, with the investigation concluding that “somehow she lit a piece of paper and the paraffin ignited”.

Three almost identical articles in other newspapers provide more information. The Bradford Observer, the Nottingham Journal and the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette all reported the story on July 30 1938 and covered the tragic accident in more detail than the Liverpool Echo. The articles clearly state that Maude “was lighting an oil stove in the yacht when a two-gallon tin of paraffin became ignited”. It appears that as she was lighting the stove, a piece of paper next to it caught fire and ignited the paraffin in the open tin. Fire accidents involving paraffin, or kerosene as it is also known, were all too common in the 1930s. All three articles refer to Maude as being “burned about the neck, face, chest, and arms”. The reports in the Nottingham Journal and the Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette also refer to the other people on holiday “who wrapped her in blankets until the arrival of the ambulance”. The newspapers even mention of the name of the boat: Perseus.

These reports also state that Maude had died the day before, 29 July 1938, although they don’t state how long she was in hospital, or the exact cause of death. However, because it was stated that the coroner’s report was given on 29 July, it seems highly unlikely that she had died on the same day. As with Phyllis Newcombe, who died nearly three weeks after the Chelmsford fire from pneumonia brought on by sepsis, it is possible Maude Comissiong could have died as a consequence of her severe burns. In the days before antibiotics, both sepsis and pneumonia often sadly proved fatal.

Examination of the British Newspaper Archive website gives no more reports on the death of Maude Comissiong and a search of the site shows no information on any other fire-related deaths on the Norfolk Broads and certainly no deaths by mysterious or unexplained fires on a motor cruiser or any other boat.

Although the four newspaper articles show the victim’s first name to be spelled Maude, the National Death Index for England and Wales shows her name recorded as Maud Comissiong and the website myheritage.com lists her full name as Maud Elizabeth Comissiong. While there were two spellings of the name Maud/Maude, it seems possible that the writers of the newspaper articles could have misread the name Maud E. Comissiong and took the letter “E” of her middle initial to be part of her first name. Myheritage.com also shows her surname to have been Crossley at birth, she married Albert Comissiong in 1908 and they had two children together. The national indexes show Albert to have remarried in 1942, four years after his wife’s tragic death.

More inaccuracies and complete fiction

When researching the case, I found evidence that other alleged and well-documented cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion turned out to be wildly inaccurate or totally fictitious and Nienhuys (2001) makes a similar statement in his study that revealed the truth in the Phyllis Newcombe case. One particular incident that has been mentioned frequently in books and websites is the death of 11-month-old Peter Seaton, who was said to have suddenly caught fire in his cot in London in January 1939.

The Reader’s Digest Mysteries (1982) refer to the case on the same page as the “Mary Carpenter” myth – their horrifying description mentions that “a visitor, Harold Huxstep heard screams of terror. Rushing upstairs to Peter’s room, Mr Huxstep opened the door to face an inferno of leaping flames that flung him back across the hall”, and tragically Peter’s life couldn’t be saved. It was also mentioned that after thoroughly examining the bedroom, no source of ignition could be found and that, typically with many alleged SHC deaths, most of the furniture had not undergone any burn damage.

A 1920s electric fire. Image by Wikimedia user Draconichiaro [CC BY-SA 4.0]

The Belfast Telegraph on 5 January 1939 shows a very different picture. The blaze that killed Peter Seaton actually happened on Christmas Day 1938 and far from being unexplained, the fire had started when his foster mother had left an electric fire on in the bedroom throughout the night due to the very cold weather. Peter wasn’t the only victim of the blaze, as the report mentions a 24-year-old woman called Dorothy Lindsell, who was injured while escaping and who died four days later in hospital. The Scotsman reported on 27 December that Dorothy “was seriously injured and also had burns”.

It turned out that the witness named Harold Huxstep did exist as he is quoted in the Nottingham Journal on 4 January 1939. After mentioning how he couldn’t make it into Peter’s bedroom due to the intense blaze, and how his hair also caught fire, Harold stated that after Dorothy jumped from the window, “she hit the edge of the blanket held out for her and fell into the basement”. The information given by The Reader’s Digest referring to Harold Huxstep rushing upstairs to Peter’s bedroom is however false, as the Birmingham Daily Post on the same day gave the location of the room as the “ground floor”.

Another case that was alleged to have occurred by a number of authors, including Randles and Hough, was that of Euphemia Johnson in 1922, who lived in Sydenham, South London. Many websites also refer to this case where sixty-eight-year-old Euphemia, who lived alone, was said to have returned from shopping and after making a cup of tea in her kitchen, when she burst into flames for no reason. What is odd about this incident is that Euphemia’s remains were said to have been found reduced to calcinated bones and her clothes suffered no fire damage whatsoever.

Once again, Randles and Hough quoted Harrison (1976) for the source, although his book reveals he had studied a book titled Lo!,which was written by Paranormal investigator Charles Fort, who gave his name to the Fortean Times. Harrison quoted Fort by commenting that Euphemia was:

consumed so by fire that on the floor of her room there was only a pile of calcinated bones… The fire, if in an ordinary sense it was fire, must have been of the intensity of a furnace…

Harrison discussed the fire in more detail than Randles and Hough, and he included the reference to the unburnt clothes. In alleged SHC cases where the remains of a victim have been found, their clothes have been completely destroyed by burning. Surely, the intense burning would have consumed all of Euphemia Johnson’s clothing. In the case of John Irving Bentley, a retired doctor who was found burnt to ashes with just one leg remaining at his home in Pennsylvania in 1966, no traces of his clothing remained.

The death records for England and Wales contain no listing for a Euphemia Johnson aged in her late sixties who died during the 1920s. Examining British newspapers from the period around 1922 makes no mention of an elderly woman who died in an unexplained fire in Sydenham or any other part of London at any point in the early 1920s, or in the later part of the decade. One young woman with the same name died aged eighteen in Birkenhead in north-western in England in 1922, but the British Newspaper Archive had no mention of her. Another Euphemia Johnson died in Alnwick in north-eastern England in 1916 aged twenty-six, although again she has no mention whatsoever in newspapers. Widening the search of death records into the 1930s, a Euphemia Johnson died in Hampstead in north London in 1935, although she was aged seventy-six or seventy-seven and her death wasn’t even reported in any newspapers.

However, by examining Charles Fort’s book Lo!, published in 1931, it is clear that Fort used a reference from Forensic Medicine and Toxicology by Dr Dixon Mann, which was the sixth edition published in 1922. It appears possible Harrison took the date of 1922 for his description of Euphemia Johnson’s death. Mann’s account of an unexplained fire death, where he doesn’t name the victim, differs considerably to the Euphemia Johnson story. Mann refers to a report from The British Medical Journal in 1905 where a Dr Archer investigated the death of “an elderly woman of very intemperate habits, who was a large consumer of all kinds of spirits”. The article refers to how the fire victim’s remains were:

a small pyramidal heap of ashes, on top of which was a skull… found on the floor in front of the chair. All the bones were completely bleached and brittle, every soft particle of tissue had been consumed.

What was noted was the fact that a tablecloth three feet from where the woman’s remains were found was unburnt, along with all the furniture. Harrison’s account of Euphemia Johnson’s death, however, places the tablecloth only “nine inches” from her remains.

Arnold referred to the unnamed woman’s death in his 1996 book, however he gives the correct date rather than giving the account of Euphemia Johnson. However, Arnold’s account contains an error where he mistakes the word “chintz”, which was the material the chair covering was made from, for “chair”. Importantly, the research by Dr Archer makes no mention of undamaged clothes, and it is uncertain where Harrison got this particular reference from.

One other point made in Archer’s research is the fact that the upper walls and ceiling were burnt, but in a case where the victim is consumed by such localised burning, it is natural for a ceiling and upper walls to become scorched. The undamaged tablecloth in this case is not unusual, for the smouldering effects of a localised fire can leave many nearby objects and even floors unburnt.

A search of the British Newspaper Archive suggests that the victim discussed by Dr Archer was Sarah Morley, an elderly widow from the village of Hockwold cum Wilton in Norfolk in Eastern England. Sarah’s remains were found on 24th May 1902 by a policeman who had noticed the blackened windows and curtains and the front room full of smoke. When entering the house he was unable to find Sarah upstairs, but when he went into the living room, he found her remains in front of a chair. The 72-year-old woman had been reduced to bones, with her skull on top.

A lit candle

A neighbour had last seen Sarah alive the night before, where she was reading by the light of a candle. It appears likely Sarah had suffered a fatal heart attack and her body was set alight by the candle, which led to the destruction of her body by what is known as the wick effect, where a person’s body fat acts like a candle. Harrison created a horror story by changing the victim’s name and the location of her death, and bringing the date forward by twenty years. Crucially, he also added the horrific story that while the victim was reduced to ash, her clothes remained unburnt.

It is clear from research that writers of mysteries and unexplained phenomena have for many decades been in the habit of taking an account of a person who died tragically as a result of a fire and transforming the details of their death into a horror story, where by distorting facts, in some cases altering names and creating horrific images such as a person being reduced to ash, they create an unexplained and terrifying myth that the unfortunate person caught fire for no reason. With the alleged case of Euphemia Johnson, an unnamed woman who died in a mysterious fire, not only was she given a false name and transformed into the subject of a bizarre horror story where she burnt to ash with her clothes unburnt, but the location and date of her death were altered as well.

Maud Comissiong, Peter Seaton and Phyllis Newcombe, who all died of burn-related injuries in incidents that can be rationally explained, have sadly been turned distastefully into victims of spontaneous human combustion in horror story myths created by writers who did not care to check facts in order to create their frightening accounts. In some cases, of course, the victims’ names also proved to be incorrect, Maud Comissiong being a notable example with the writers’ transformation of her into “Mary Carpenter”, while in the case of “Euphemia Johnson”, it has been found that she did not even exist and that there was no report of anyone dying in the horrific way her death by mysterious burning was so graphically described.

It is important to consider the truth in their deaths and not to believe any inaccurate or sensationalised accounts in books or on websites unless these stories are thoroughly checked in sources contemporary to the time the tragedies occurred. Sadly, the horror stories continue to circulate on the Internet in the 21st century, so readers need to be cautious without checking the truth first.

Critically, these people should be remembered as people, and not simply as victims of fire, who over a long period have been either accurately or inaccurately named, and have featured so often in the half-fictional horror stories so many authors have created for many decades.

References

  • The following newspaper articles were used:
  • Burnt to Death at Wilton. Norwich Mercury, 31 May 1902
  • Woman in Flames: Tragic End To Boating Holiday: Liverpool Echo, 30 July 1938
  • Yachting Tragedy. Bradford Observer, 30 July 1938
  • On Yachting Holiday: Woman Receives Fatal Burns. Nottingham Journal, 30 July 1938
  • Yachting Tragedy. Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 30 July 1938
  • Screams Reveal Yacht Burn Victim. Leicester Evening Mail, 29 July 1938
  • Leicester Woman Burned to Death in Holiday Motor Boat. Leicester Evening Mail, 30 July 1938
  • Children Rescued From Blazing House. The Scotsman, 27 December 1938
  • Christmas Day Fire Drama Story: Hair Caught Alight In Effort To Save Baby. Nottingham Journal, 4 January 1939
  • Christmas Morning Fire. Birmingham Daily Post, 4 January 1939
  • Fire Left To Keep Baby Warm: Blaze Cost Two Lives. Belfast Telegraph, 5 January 1939

Also consulted

  • Allen, John. 1981. Mysteries: A Book of Beliefs. Elgin, Illinois: David C. Cook Publishing Co.
  • Archer, E.G. 1905. Spontaneous Combustion. British Medical Journal, Aug.12, 1905, Vol.2, No. 2328 (Aug. 12 1905), pp.345-346
  • Arnold, Larry E. 1995. Ablaze: The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion. New York: M. Evans and Co. Inc.
  • Blundell, Nigel. 1996. Fact or Fiction?: Supernatural. London: Sunburst Books
  • Crew, Robert and Miller, David 1982. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not: Book of Chance. Toronto: Ripley Books
  • Eckert, Allen W. 1964. The Baffling Burning Death, True, The Man’s Magazine, May 1964, p.33, 104-106, 112
  • Fort, Charles. 1931. Lo!. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd
  • Harrison, Michael. 1976. Fire From Heaven: A Study of Spontaneous Combustion in Human Beings. New York: Methuen
  • Lyon, Ron and Paschall, Jenny. 1993. Beyond Belief. New York: Villard Books
  • Mann, Dixon. 1922. Forensic Medicine and Toxicology, 6th edn. London: Charles Griffin and Co. Ltd
  • Nienhuys, Jan Willem. 2001. Spontaneous Human Confabulation; Requiem For Phyllis skepsis.nl/newcombe
  • Pettit, Harry. 2019. Spontaneous Human Combustion is Real and Burns You “Like An Incendiary Bomb”, Top Scientist Claims. thesun.co.uk
  • Randles, Jenny and Hough, Peter. 1992. Spontaneous Human Combustion. London: Robert Hale
  • Reader’s Digest. 1982. Mysteries of the Unexplained. Pleasantville, New York: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc.
  • Russell, Eric Frank. 1942. Invisible Death. Tomorrow, A Journal For The World Citizen of The New Age, May 1942, pp8-11
  • Russell, Eric Frank. 1950. Invisible Death. Fate 38, December 1950, pp. 4-12
  • Russell, Eric Frank. 1957. Great World Mysteries. London: Dennis Voson
  • Sanderson, Ivan. 1972. Investigating The Unexplained. Englewood Cliffs, New York: Prentice Hall, Inc.
  • Unknown. 2017. Fact or Fiction: Spontaneous Human Combustion. steemit.com
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