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1938, August 27: Phyllis Newcombe’s Combustion

The Legend:

On August 27, 1938, 22-year-old Phyllis Newcombe was dancing vigorously in Chelmsford, Essex, when her body glowed with a blue light which turned into flames; she died within minutes.

Phyllis Newcombe

The Real Story

        The above legend was laboriously researched by Jan Willem Nienhuys in 2001, and I will now summarize what he discovered. [Nienhuys' excellent study is available online at his website at http://www.skepsis.nl/newcombe.html. He includes reprints of the main newspaper articles involved.]

        On August 27, 1938, 22-year-old Phyllis Newcombe was leaving a dance with her fiance, Henry McAusland. As the two approached a stairway just outside of the dance hall, Newcombe's dress caught on fire, starting with the hemline on the floor in front of her. The flames spread upwards rapidly, and she turned and ran back into the dance hall. As she collapsed just inside the hall, covered in flames by this time, several of the men at the dance threw their coats over her and smothered the flames. An ambulance was called but, due to the towns' lack of resources, the ambulance took over twenty minutes to arrive before rushing Newcombe to the hospital.

        She was severely burned on her legs and body, yet was considered to be in "fairly satisfactory" condition on September 2 and was aware and chatting with her family and fiance. Despite this, she died on September 15 due to hypostatic pneumonia, caused by toxaemia, in turn caused by sepsis of her wounds. An inquest was immediately called for.

        At the inquest, Newcombe's fiance, McAusland, forwarded the opinion that her dress may have been lit by a cigarette butt that had come in contact with the dress. To test this, Newcombe's father brought in a piece of the material used to make the dress. The coroner, Mr. L.F. Beccles, then demonstrated that the material would immediately flare up if exposed to an open flame, but would not light up if exposed to a lit cigarette.

        McAusland also volunteered that Newcombe's dress had been cleaned six weeks before the dance, and suggested that maybe a chemical agent had assisted its combustion.

        The coroner brought in a verdict of Accidental Death, and recorded that the clothing had caught fire from some reason unknown.

The Continuing Story of Phyllis Newcombe

        Over the next two decades, Newcombe's death was reported sparingly in publications devoted to stories of unsolved mysteries and paranormal events, generally as an example of an unexplained fire death... but was not yet considered to be a case of spontaneous human combustion. In these brief one-line reports, Newcombe's name was often left out and the description of where the event took place changed from "a dance hall" to "in the middle of a dance hall."

        In 1957, Eric Frank Russell's book Great World Mysteries re-told the story in greater detail, all incorrect. In his version, Newcombe (who is never named) was dancing in the middle of the hall with other couples when she burst into flames and burned "like a blow-torch" until dead. This story was further expanded on by Allan Eckert in an article he wrote for True magazine in May 1964, and by Vincent Gaddis in his book Mysterious Fires and Lights, published in 1967. The story that emerged from these authors was that of a young lady who burst into blue flames in the middle of a dance floor in Chelmsford, England. No one could extinguish these flames, and she was reduced to a mass of ashes within minutes... and she was still unnamed. From this anonymous account, an all-new -- and entirely fictitious -- account of a girl named Maybelle Andrew was created [see the link below for more].

        Phyllis Newcombe's name was attached to the new legend in 1976 by Michael Harrison in his book studying spontaneous human combustion, Fire From Heaven. It's clear from the text that Harrison had seen some of the earlier accounts of Newcombe's death, and had then attached her to the new legend... it's unclear if he ever knew that the two different accounts were actually related, or if he was just trying to add some facts to an unproven legend to make it sound more authoritative. In Harrison's version of the story, Newcombe bursts into flames while dancing, and dies minutes later in the manager's office of severe burns. 

        The final transmutation of Newcombe's death came in Larry Arnold's 1995 book, Ablaze!. Again, she is dancing with her fiance McAusland, when she bursts into flames; but this time, despite McAusland trying to beat out the flames bare handed, "in minutes she was ashes, unrecognizable as a human being..." but distinctly recognizable as a case of spontaneous human combustion. It is this version of the tale that is most often repeated, for the obvious reason that it is both exciting and supernatural; but inconveniently, just not true.

Theories

        One mystery still remains, however; how did Newcombe's dress catch on fire that night in Chelmsford? One plausible answer that was suggested by Nienhuys in his study was that a lit match had fallen on the front of her dress, tossed by some "careless person," as Henry McAusland had suggested. Which careless person? Likely, Henry McAusland himself.

        McAusland testified that he had been walking about five steps in front of Newcombe that night when her dress caught fire. He was also the person who suggested that a careless cigarette might have caused the accident. So the main question that will probably never have an answer is whether or not McAusland had lit a cigarette and dropped a match that night.