1919, April 7: J. Temple Thurston’s Mysterious Death

The strange story of J. Temple Thurston's mysterious death first came to notice in the literature of the weird in 1932, when the American author Charles Fort presented the matter in his book Wild Talents.

        Fort frames the mystery thus: Mr. J. Temple Thurston was, for unclear reasons, alone in his home, Hawley Manor, near Dartford, England -- his wife was away, and their servants had been dismissed -- when firemen were called to the manor at 2:40AM on April 7, 1919. The house was blazing... except in the room containing the body of Temple Thurston.

        Temple Thurston had been burned -- at the post-mortem it was found that he had large red patches on his thighs and lower legs, "as if, bound to a stake, the man had stood in a fire that had not mounted high" -- but his clothes showed no trace of fire damage. It was determined later that he had suffered heart failure due to smoke inhalation... but it struck authorities as odd that Temple Johnson was found fully dressed at 3:00AM, instead of wearing nightclothes.

        Nothing in the room he was discovered was on fire, even as the rest of the house blazed. There were no burned nightclothes to suggest Temple Thurston had changed clothes, or that he had encountered the fire somehow previous to being fully dressed. It was possible, for all anyone could say, that he had died hours before the fire had started.

        Firemen were perplexed by the fire as well. Though it raged outside of the room Temple Thurston was found in, there was no clear cause for the fire. No sign of arson, no fireplace or bad wiring, no indication of how the conflagration had begun in the first place. And since Temple Thurston's pockets contained money and his watch, burglary was not the cause of either the fire or Temple Thurston's death.

        What started the fire? How was Temple Thurston burned separate from his clothes? Why wasn't the room he was in on fire as well? What, exactly, happened that strange night in Hawley Manor?

A Word Regarding Charles Fort

        For those of you who don't know, Charles Fort is extremely famous for his four books on strange topics, and is often referenced by modern 'researchers' who include Fort's claims in their own articles and books. This is largely because Charles Fort almost always provides a reference to where he himself found his stories, such as in this case... Fort attributes the account above to the Dartford (Kent) Chronicle for April 7, 1919. So, while many other authors also mention this incident, ultimately all of them got it from Fort. Also, a number of these later authors attributed this incident to the topic of spontaneous human combustion, the proposed possibility of a human igniting from inside their bodies and being reduced to ashes for unknown reasons: but Fort never did.

        Which brings us to a problem... because, you see, Charles Fort didn't always list his sources correctly, or tell the story exactly as it was reported and, on rarer occasions, Fort would change key details of an account. Fort's altered or incorrect accounts were repeated verbatim by later 'researchers' who took for granted Fort was always right without double-checking his sources.

        Unfortunately, the story of J.Temple Thurston falls into the rarer category of cheat for Charles Fort because, you see, he reported the victim's name wrong; the person who died in Hawley Manor on April 7, 1919, was named John Temple Johnson, not J. Temple Thurston. So any modern presentation of this strange matter that uses the name of 'J. Temple Thurston' for the victim is just taking the whole story from Charles Fort's 1932 book Wild Talents.

        It's hard to guess why Fort changed the name of the victim; it may have been purposeful or accidental. In either case, the new name created confusion in later reports between the person who had died at Hawley Manor, and a well-known British author named 'E. Temple Thurston' [1879-1933], as evidenced by some 'researchers' describing "J. Temple Thurston" as a writer... which Fort never did.

        I contacted the Dartford Library by email to see if I could get a copy of the article Fort cited from the Dartford Chronicles for April 7, 1919, and they kindly sent me the actual article -- dated for April 11, not April 7, by the way -- as well as a second article from a differing newspaper in the area, along with some letters on the matter the papers received after the fact [Thank you, Dartford Library! You rock!]. It was from these articles that, first, the actual name of the victim was determined and, second, all other details Fort chose to share came into question. It's clear now that Fort trimmed the details from the Dartford Chronicle article to make the incident sound possibly paranormal, rather than just mysterious or odd.

What the Newspapers Really Said

Hawley Manor
Hawley Manor, after the fire. [Larger version here]

        Hawley House, or Manor, built nearly 200 years previous to the fire, had been occupied by the Masters family; and when Mr. John Temple Johnson married one of the Masters family's daughters, the two of them then took up residence in the hall. At the time of the fire, however, Temple Johnson's wife had left for a trip to the Barbados, for her health, and Temple Johnson himself was staying in London while she was away. He returned to Hawley Manor each weekend to pay the gardening staff.

        On the weekend in question, Temple Johnson had told the woman acting as caretaker of the manor that he would be staying until Monday morning, as he had a bad cold. She made his meals for him on Sunday, April 6, and left around 7:15PM as Temple Johnson was headed to the dining room to get his tea. She left a fire burning in the dining room and the library, and Temple Johnson knew that he would have to turn off the gas in the dining room himself. There was no fire in his bedroom, and the kitchen fire was nearly extinguished, so everything should have been safe. The caretaker only found out about the fire when she returned Monday morning at 7:30AM, her regular time of arrival, and "she could not account for the fire."

Back of the Manor.
The back of the Manor, after the fire.
[Larger version here]

        The fire had been spotted by several people around the same time. At 2:15AM, a Harry Waghorn saw the fire from his bedroom window, and investigated. Discovering it was the manor house burning, he threw stones at the windows in the front and shouted to see if anyone was inside. Locked gates prevented him from reaching the back of the house, which is where the fire seemed to be mostly concerned. Another neighbor, William Tutching, managed to get a call out to the fire brigade through the factory he worked at... then Tutching, Waghorn, and other neighbors started to help break windows in an attempt to warn anyone inside... they were unable to enter the house, nor willing to risk their lives if there was no sign of an occupant. Frankly, I very much fear that, knowing what I know about fires in general, the neighbors may have helped this one grow by giving it access to more oxygen when they broke all the windows. In any case, around 2:30~2:40AM Police Constable Horton saw a reflection of the fire in the direction of Sutton, and also called the fire brigade. Horton had been in the area earlier, around 1:45AM, and there had been no signs of fire at the time. The fire brigade, after heading in the wrong direction, reached Hawley Manor around 2:55AM.

        The fire had grown from somewhere at the back of the house, to something that involved the whole center of the main structure. Witnesses initially felt it had started upstairs, as the roof had started to fall in already when they first arrived. Since it was generally know that Mrs. Temple Johnson was abroad, and that Mr. Temple Johnson was staying in London, it was assumed that no one was inside the building at the time. Chief Officer H. T. Potter of the fire brigade, being told it was possible that the caretaker, an elderly woman, might be inside, began a search of the rooms he could reach as the rest of the fire brigade concentrated their efforts on portions of the structure that had not yet been consumed.

        Potter took a winding stair up to a bedroom, but stumbled over a small table, found the next door burning, and had to retreat due to too much smoke. He returned shortly wearing a respirator to continue the search... and in the next room, Potter discovered Temple Johnson, fully dressed and lying on his back with his hands by his sides, his eyes closed, as if he had laid down to sleep. There was a small piece of sponge in his left hand, and a torch (flashlight) near his right. He was discovered in a small room adjoining to the bedroom; and here, only the door was afire. A window in the room had been broken by one of the stones tossed by the neighbors. Reports vary on whether Potter thought Temple Johnson was unconscious or dead at the time; either way, Potter tried to lift Temple Johnson, but being that he was a very heavy man, the Chief got assistance to carry the victim out to the lawn. Potter then informed police of the situation, and drove to get a doctor who determined Temple Johnson had been dead for around a half-hour to an hour. The body was transported to a mortuary as Potter stayed behind to help contain the fire.

        A post-mortem and inquest was held the next day, Tuesday, April 8. One of the things that was quickly determined was that both some of the initial witnesses and Chief Potter identified the likely starting point of the fire as somewhere around the dining room and library... exactly where the caretaker said she'd left house fires burning that Temple Johnson was going to extinguish when he went to bed.

        Potter also said that, to him, it appeared the Temple Johnson had been leaving his bedroom when he was overcome by fumes in the adjoining room. He had been found lying with his feet towards the burning door. Temple Johnson had scorch wounds on his calves and thighs that "were undoubtedly caused before death." Though his clothing overall was undamaged, the trousers leg that was closest to the burning door was scorched. In his pockets were found money, a watch and chain, a ration book, blank checks, and other articles. Physical evidence in Temple Johnson's corpse showed he had not ingested alcohol, and strongly suggested that he had passed out, then suffered heart failure due to inhalation of smoke and carbon monoxide.

        Which brings us to the two main points in Charles Fort's argument for a possibly paranormal mystery: how did Temple Johnson get burned in an unburned room and clothing, and why was he fully dressed when he died, around 2:00AM in the morning? First off, remember that Temple Johnson was staying overnight alone in the manor because he felt sick and didn't want to immediately travel back to London. If he was sick enough, this could have impaired his memory for simple things -- like turning off the gas fire in the dining room -- as well as his ability to properly respond to an emergency situation.

        A letter to the West Kent Advertiser on April 18 suggested that Temple Johnson may have fallen asleep in his bedroom fully clothed either in the armchair or on the bed, due to not being well. If such is true, he may not have known there was a fire until the bedroom was largely cut off; and, taking a flashlight and a damp sponge to act as a respirator, might have initially tried to leave by the main entrance to the room, doubling back towards the adjoining room with the stairway after the sheer heat of the fire scorched his legs. Here he gave in to the carbon monoxide that he might have been inhaling while asleep and before he knew there was a fire, only to die from its effects after passing out.

        While this might not be exactly what happened, it should still be very clear that there is no need for paranormal answers to questions in this unfortunate case.