1929, August 24 (pre.): Lily White’s Flaming Wardrobe

In his 1976 book on spontaneous human combustion, Fire From Heaven, author Michael Harrison presented the story of a true fashion disaster.

         Harrison states that the New York Times of August 25, 1929, tells of a young woman named Lily White living on the island of Antigua in the British West Indies who had a unique problem: her clothes burned off her, often. Her clothing would ignite and burn until destroyed, at home or while out walking; and these strange conflagrations never actually harmed White herself... just her clothes. Sometimes she'd awake in the morning to find her bedding had been scorched above and below her, and, again, she herself would be unharmed. "Kindly neighbors" often supplied her with new clothing when such a fire occurred.

Spontaneous Human Combustion?

        Clearly, Miss White does not burst into flames and die horribly as she is near instantaneously converted to ashes... which is, technically, what I tend to look for in a claim for SHC. Instead, White's account was associated with the phenomena of SHC by Michael Harrison in 1976 because Harrison felt that a mysterious fire from inside might be related to a mysterious fire from outside; and so, on that thin justification, he added a number of reported fires apparently caused by either a 'poltergeist effect' or that occurred during larger hauntings.

        The original term 'poltergeist' was used to describe when a discarnate spirit appeared to have a physical effect on the environment... such as slapping or scratching a person, or making a cup float around a room. By the 1970's, however, with the rise of interest in 'Extra Sensory Perception' ('ESP') and other powers attributed to a person's mind, 'poltergeist' came to have a new meaning: it described the effects of a person unconsciously using their mind's powers to change the physical environment around them.

        Harrison presents White's account as a case of this psychic 'poltergeist' activity. He suggests that either someone wanted to punish White but not actually harm her, or that White herself was causing the poltergeist fires to assault her. He speculated:

"What if, in the case of Miss White, we have a link between the harmless poltergeist phenomenon and the destructive (and usually fatal) spontaneous combustion phenomenon?"

        There is, of course, no proof for this theory.

        So, yeah: Not SHC.

But Did it Happen...?

        The whole account above comes down to the contents of just one short article released to news services by Associated Press on August 24, 1929. Harrison's reference to the New York Times having the article on August 25 is true, because the exact same article appeared in newspapers in the US nationwide for quite a while after the story was released... and it's worth seeing what the article said verbatim in this case. The following comes from the Star Press of Muncie, Indiana, USA, though I've confirmed the same article's existence with varying titles in many other newspapers:

"'Goddess Of Fire' Stirs West Indies

"St John's, Antigua Island, West Indies, Aug. 24 (AP) -- The natives here, filled with superstition, are apprehensive of a disastrous earthquake or fire, because of the appearance in Liberta Village of a young woman who is called the 'Goddess of Fire.'

"Whenever she walks the highway, say the natives, her clothing catches fire and burns to ashes. While she is in bed, the same thing happens and not even the smell of smoke is left on the sheets.

"The young woman known as Lily White, has lost all her clothing and very soon after the neighbors have supplied her with other dresses they too, have been destroyed by fire. White folks sense an explanation in this constant supply of new dresses."

        So first off, Harrison's claim regarding scorched bedding is not supported, and the scorched bedding is needed for Harrison to claim the fires occur even when White is not consciously capable of starting a fire herself. Apparently, the evidence for her clothing burning off while she's asleep is that she wakes up naked.

        Secondly, the "kindly neighbors" mentioned by Harrison sound more like they re-supply White with dresses out of fear.

        And, thirdly, no other article has ever appeared regarding the matter, nor has anyone I know of dug back to confirm the claims... which would be a good idea, as the author of the article themselves clearly don't believe the story as it has been told.

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