In 1932, several mysterious fires erupted in a house on Elm Street in the small town of Bladenboro, North Carolina. Police, fire experts, and others were baffled by the outbreaks that occurred over three days in the home of elderly residents Council H. Williamson and his wife Lydia. Beginning on January 30 with a burning curtain and window shade in the dining room, and continuing the next day with a set of bedclothes, a stack of papers stored in a closet, and a hanging pair of trousers, the rash of twenty mysterious fires ended about noon on February 1. Soon, however, the fiery case went cold and, according to an article by AtlasObscura.com, remains unsolved to this day (Tomlin 2016). But that has now changed.
Reporter Jimmy Tomlin queried me about the case, and I agreed to study some clippings he forwarded, as well as to look at some other sources on my crowded shelves. I soon determined the affair was miscast as one of “spontaneous combustion,” to which it bore almost no resemblance, but rather was a case of “poltergeist”—i.e., prankster—phenomena, with which it shared many elements.
In fact, just such mischief is well known, including similar cases of fire outbreaks. For example, a nine-year-old boy confessed he was responsible for the fires that plagued his Alabama home. He had hoped to cause his family to return to the city from which they had recently moved (Nickell 2012, 325, Rogo 1979, 164–167). Typically the pranksters are children or immature persons with troubled home situations. I have attributed cases having such an m.o. to what I call the poltergeist-faking syndrome (Nickell 2012, 331).
What we know about the Bladenboro, North Carolina, outbreak comes from several newspaper articles written while the occurrences were quite fresh. (These include “Blazes” 1932; Bridger 1932; “Mysterious” 1932; “Very Puzzling” 1932; and others listed in Tomlin 2016.) Unfortunately, an account by the notorious mystery-mongering writer Vincent H. Gaddis (1967, 159–160), himself relying on another doubtful source written a quarter century after the events, makes serious errors. Many modern accounts of the Bladenboro fires, clearly copying Gaddis, repeat the misinformation, which helps make the case seem inexplicable.
The more trustworthy sources, the contemporary news accounts, do, however, provide details suggesting that the case is another example of the poltergeist-faking syndrome. First, all of the reported incidents are consistent with having been caused by a person in the house, seeming to center on the Williamson’s daughter, Katie, aged about 21. Corroboratively, the first fire, involving a window shade and curtain in the dining room, had begun burning “starting from the bottom of the shade” (Bridger 1932)—just where a person could easily reach. While fire attacked several articles of clothing, only in a single instance was one being worn and that was the dress of the daughter herself—further making her our suspect. She, “standing in a room, discovered that her clothing was in flames.” However, “When the fire was smothered only a small hole was burned” (Bridger 1932). The smallness of the hole suggests the possibility that Katie may have made the burn earlier, then (if there were witnesses) suddenly pretended to notice and smother the flames all in one action. (As magicians know, and other “poltergeist” cases confirm, people will often “see” what they expect to see.)
Witnesses who had come to the home to see what was happening no doubt themselves proved a distraction that made it easy for a fire-bug to strike surreptitiously. Some were impressed by the selectivity of the flames and the fact that nearby objects were not damaged. However, while fire tends to burn upward readily, it progresses downward or sideways with difficulty. Also, the fires (burning window shades for example) were usually spotted and extinguished quickly before causing proximate damage (to window frames for instance).
Gaddis (1967, 160), apparently misreading one source, claims the fires continued in the house even after the Williamsons briefly moved out, and he imagines an elaborate scenario involving police, electricians, and arson and gas company experts being plagued by the further outbreaks. In fact, the local sources do not support this, and one gives details to the contrary: “Volunteer guards patrolled the Williamson bungalow until morning,” while the family stayed at the house of a friend. “Nothing suspicious happened during the night,” the source insists (“Very Puzzling” 1932). Neither had any fires occurred on Sunday morning when everyone was away at church—a further indication that someone in the household was likely responsible, since nothing happened when everyone was absent.
An Associated Press report (“Mysterious” 1932) stated—perhaps more wisely than its writer knew—that the fires “started, burned and vanished as mysteriously as if guided by invisible hands.” It added, “There has been no logical explanation.” But now we have the most likely solution—one that (based on the scientific rule of thumb called Occam’s razor) best explains the events while making the fewest assumptions. The presumed “invisible hands,” of course, were not invisible at all, only secretive.
Bladen Journal. 1932. Cited in Tomlin 2016.
Blazes are mystery at Blandenboro [sic]. 1932. Daily Times-News (Burlington, NC), February 1.
Bridger, Mrs. R.C. 1932. Strange phenomenon puzzles citizens—fires break out most unaccountably. The Robesonian (Lumberton, NC), February 1.
Gaddis, Vincent H. 1967. Mysterious Fires and Lights. New York: Dell Publishing Co. Mysterious fires occur in residence. 1932. Daily Times-News (Burlington, NC), March 2.
Nickell, Joe. 2012. The Science of Ghosts. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
Rogo, D. Scott. 1979. The Poltergeist Experience. New York: Penguin Books.
Tomlin, Jimmy. 2016. North Carolina’s 1932 Series of Spontaneous Combustions Is Still Unsolved. Online at https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/north-carolinas-1932-series-of-spontaneous-combustions-is-still-unsolved; accessed January 19, 2016.
The Very Puzzling Mystery of the Bladenboro Fires. 1932. King Features Syndicate, in The Ogden Standard Examiner (Ogden, NC), March 13.