Strange Powers, Fire Starters


Fire Starters - The Haunted Girls

The following cases of apparently paranormal firestarters involve some aspects  common in people who allegedly exhibit psychic / poltergeist - like powers.  Unfortunately we do not 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 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 (for parallels see Lurancy Vennum article on this site), 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 enquiries 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 (see A.W. Underwood and Carole Compton articles on this site for more examples). 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.

Sources and Further Reading

Fort, Charles.  Wild Talents - In The Complete Books of Charles Fort. New York, Dover, 1974, pp923-24.

? Copyright 2004 by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved.                                                                                       


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