; Phantoms and Monsters: Pulse of the Paranormal

Saturday, August 04, 2012


Pyrokinesis (pyrokinetics) was the name coined by horror novelist Stephen King for the ability to create or to control fire with the mind that he gave to a character in Firestarter

The following cases of apparently paranormal firestarters involve some aspects common in people who exhibit psychic / poltergeist - like powers. Unfortunately we don't have much detail about the girls involved, so the case must remain intriguing though unsupported by independent evidence. However, it would be interesting to know if prior to or at the time of the alleged fire-starting incidents, these two girls had made claims of mediumship, telepathy or any other 'psychic' abilities.

In November 1890, in Thorah, near Toronto, Canada, strange things started happening around a 14 year-old English girl called Jennie Bramwell, the adopted daughter of a farmer, Mr. Dawson, and his wife. The girl had been ill and gone into a trance, crying out 'Look at that!' pointing to a ceiling which was ablaze. Shortly after, to the astonishment of Mr. and Mrs. Dawson, she pointed to another fire. The following day numerous fires broke out around the house; as soon as one was put out, another started. In one instance while Mrs. Dawson and the girl were seated facing a wall, the wallpaper suddenly caught fire, Jennie's dress then burst into flames and Mrs. Dawson burnt her hands extinguishing the fire. Fires continued to break out in the house for a whole week. A report in the Toronto Globe, for 9th November, described charred pieces of wallpaper, which looked as if they'd been burned using a blazing lamp.

The situation became unbearable, all the furniture was moved into the yard, and the unfortunate girl, blamed for the fires, was sent back to the orphanage from where she'd come. With her leaving, the phenomena stopped. The reporter from the Toronto Globe depicted her as 'a half-witted girl [who] had walked about the house with a match, setting light to everything she came across.' However, he had difficulty explaining how the fire on the ceiling, and those on the walls had been started. Charles Fort, describing the case, commented wryly - 'I'll not experiment, but I assume that I could flip matches all day at a wall, and not set wallpaper afire.'

The reporter wanted to know if Jennie had any knowledge of chemistry, as according to him the 'half-witted' little orphan was 'well-versed in rudiments of the science.' He subsequently made inquiries around town, and discovered that the girl was also 'an incorrigible little thief', and that she had visited the chemist many times on errands.

So, the mystery was solved: the girl had stolen "some chemical," which she had spread over various parts of the Dawson's house in order to start the fires.

In January 1895 there were fires in the house of an out of work carpenter, Adam Colwell in Brooklyn, New York. The fires were investigated by police and firemen who witnessed furniture burst into flames and subsequently reported that the cause of the fires was unexplained. However, the Fire Marshall suspected the pretty adopted daughter of the Colwells, Rhoda, as playing some part. He stated that 'It might be thought that the child Rhoda started two of the fires, but she can not be considered guilty of the others, as she was being questioned, when some of them began. I do not want to be quoted as a believer in the supernatural, but I have no explanation to offer, as to the cause of the fires, or of the throwing around of the furniture.'

Mr. Colwell asserted that on the afternoon of the 4th of January whilst in the company of his wife and stepdaughter Rhoda, a crash was heard - a large, empty stove had fallen over, four pictures also fell off the walls. Shortly afterwards a bed caught fire, a policeman was called who saw wallpaper start to burn. Another fire started and a heavy lamp fell from a hook onto the floor. The house burned to the ground and the family, who had lost everything apart from their clothes, were taken to the police station. Captain Rhoades, of the Greenpoint Precinct said that he could attribute the strange fires to 'no other cause than a supernatural agency.'

However, a Mr. J.L. Hope of Flushing, Long Island, came to see Captain Rhoades and told him that Rhoda had worked for him as a housemaid and, between 19th November and 19th December, four mysterious fires had broken out. This was enough to convince the Captain of Rhoda's guilt in the present case as well, and she was warned to admit the truth. Frightened, she wept that she had indeed started the fires as she disliked the place she lived and wanted to get away. The girl had also knocked the pictures off the walls and dropped lighted matches into the beds, continuing with her mischief even after the police, firemen and detectives arrived at the house.

Though the police Captain had previously thought the fires 'supernatural' he now found a natural explanation in Rhoda's now well-attested fire-starting tendencies. The New York Herald ran the story as 'Policemen and firemen artfully tricked by a pretty, young girl.' So instead of investigating the fires in Flushing the Captain gave the girl some 'wholesome advice' to which she apparently listened, and closed the case.

Such fire starting seems intimately connected with poltergeist activity (the moving about of furniture for example) and young girls. Some, though not all, of the fire-starters seem to be orphans in unhappy situations, and this may, in some cases, explain the motive. But since the methods by which these unusual fires were started are a mystery (explanations at the time obviously being ludicrous i.e. tossing lighted matches at the wall, ) we are still left with the puzzle that certain young people are possessed with the allegedly paranormal ability to unconsciously start fires without any visible means. As mentioned time and time again on Mysterious People, however, the sources for such 'paranormal' stories, especially those from the 19th century and earlier, are usually newspaper accounts, which unfortunately means that the events may or may not have happened as described. We can never be sure.


In the year 1882, in Paw Paw, Michigan, Dr L. C. Woodman heard rumors of a man with a remarkable ability. It was said a 24 year-old man, named A.W. Underwood, had to take great care whenever he breathed, apparently to avoid causing fires.

At first the doctor thought the stories were mere exaggerations, but one day there was a knock on his door, and in walked A.W. Underwood himself, looking for help.

Dr. Woodman was persuaded to make tests in the presence of himself and some of his colleagues, and to their amazement Underwood performed incredible feats which they could not explain. In an article from Michigan Medical News, dated September 11, 1882, Doctor Woodman stated:

“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.. ”

Dr. Woodman stated publicly that he was sure that Underwood’s ability was authentic.

The doctor also noticed that Underwood would hold the cloth or other material against his mouth so that he could force his breath through it, thus condensing whatever strange process it was.

The doctors washed Underwood’s mouth out with various mixtures, and obliged him to wear surgeon’s rubber gloves - but it made no difference - the phenomenon carried on as normal.

A similar case was reported In 1927, when Vice President of the U.S., Charles Dawes, personally investigated the case of a car mechanic in Memphis, Tennessee, who supposedly had the mysterious ability to set inflammable material alight merely by breathing on it.

The man took General Dawes’ handkerchief, breathed on it, and it caught fire.

No reasonable explanation could be found, but Dawes and his colleagues decided it was a genuine ability and not a trick.

If genuine, these cases are unusual in that both Underwood and the anonymous car mechanic seemed to be able to control the phenomenon and produce it at will.

Paranormal researcher Charles Fort wrote of an incident which took place at Bridgewater, Scotland, in May 1878. Mysterious fires were being started with no apparent cause, loud raps were heard and household items such as dishes and loaves of bread moved about. After a police investigation a servant girl, Ann Kidner, aged 12, was arrested, and accused of tossing lighted matches, but was released by the magistrate because of insufficient evidence.

In October 1886, a 12 year-old boy named Willie Brough, of Turlock, Madison County, California, was accused of setting things on fire ‘by his glance,’ and was expelled from Turlock School after five unexplained fires had started in his presence. His parents thought him possessed by the devil and sent him away.


In 1982 Benedetto Supino, an Italian adolescent boy, discovered something quite strange about himself. He was sitting in a dentist's waiting-room reading a comic book when all of the sudden the thing burst into flames right there in his hands.

At the time, no doubt, he claimed total innocence to deaf ears. Once a fiery pattern was established after a few more incidents, his surrounding adults may have been more likely to believe him - especially when they actually saw him accidentally ignite things without a match in sight.

As we already said, Benedetto Supino discovered his strange powers at a young age - around 10 - when a dentist's comic book flamed-up in his hands. Although there were instances of the boy starting a flame with sufficient intention and concentration, it seems that usually neither was the case.

Paranormal.About.com gives an example of the latter happening:

"One morning [Supino] was awakened by a fire in his own bed – his pajamas were in flames and the boy suffered severe burns."

Doesn't sound like a terrific gift there, does it? The same article goes on to give other instances of flames starting by his intention, or merely by his presence:

"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."

Everywhere he went - according to some sources, fuse boxes ignited, newspapers burst into flames and non-specific 'small objects' would smoke and burn. Obviously the boy's parents worried. They sent him to physicians and scientists who apparently found no reason for the strangeness. He was also sent to an Archbishop with the same result - nothing. The burden taxed the boy - he himself can be quoted as saying:

"I don't want things to catch fire, but what can I do?"

It seems though, that with some help he was finally able to learn control. According to Prediction Magazine:

"When an entire army of doctors were unable to help him, he turned to parapsychologist Dr. Demetrio Croce, who taught him to control and hone his abilities."

Now we haven't found any specifics as to what exactly is meant by the word 'hone' in this case. We don't know whether Supin's just managed to turn it off completely, or just to burn things he wants to burn.


Then there is the case of Lily White, a West Indian woman from Liberta, Antigua. It was reported in the New York Times issue of August 25, 1929, that her clothes would burst into flames. Fire attacked her garments when she was at home and also in the streets, leaving her naked. Lily had become dependent on her neighbors for things to wear. Even as she slept, her sheets would burn up around her yet she was never harmed by the flames themselves.

In an interview in the March 14, 1976 issue of Sunday People, Parapsychologist Dr. Genady Sergeyev referred to the powerful telekinetic medium Nina Kulagina, quoted as: "She can draw energy somehow from all around her; electrical instruments can prove it. On several occasions, the force rushing into her body left four-inch-long burn-marks on her arms and hands...I was with her once when her clothing caught fire from this energy flow. It literally flamed up. I helped put out the flames and saved some of the burned clothing as an exhibit."

The ability to control fire with the mind or mental resistance to handling flaming objects is scientifically inconclusive. One belief is that Pyrokinesis works by exciting the atoms of an object to heat it up and have it catch fire. Since all matter, on a nuclear psychics level, is simply different forms or levels of energy, this notion makes basic sense. People who display such ability are believed to visualize the particles of a flame to slow down or to speed up and move very fast, thus heating up or going out. Being that a Pyrokinetic individual can control heat, it is also considered the most unstable and dangerous of kinetic ability. These phenomena leave a great many questions about the power of the human mind, the laws of psychics and the power of faith.


The Big Book of Canadian Hauntings

Manual of Pyrokinesis: The Psychical Influence of Particle Acceleration and Heat Flow - Applications, Experimentation, and Measurement

Quantum Psychics - Scientifically Understand, Control and Enhance Your Psychic Ability