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1938, October -or- 1955~1959, October: Maybelle Andrews’ Combustion

The Legend:

Either in October 1938 or in an October sometime in the late 1950's (sources disagree on this point), Maybelle Andrews was dancing in a Soho nightclub in London, England, with her boyfriend, Billy Clifford, when blue flames erupted from her back, chest and shoulders. In minutes, she was reduced to a mass of ashes. Clifford was badly burned trying to put the flames out; he later stated that there were no open flames in the room, the fire had come from Andrews herself.

        As a case of a witnessed supernatural combustion, this event would be great evidence for the existance of spontaneous human combustion... if it were true.

The Origins of the Legend

        The legend of Maybelle Andrews' combustion is based on another legend of spontaneous human combustion, both of which were expertly studied by Jan Willem Nienhuys in 2001; I will now summarize from his study. [Nienhuys' excellent study is available online at http://www.skepsis.nl/newcombe.html]

        On August 27, 1938, 22-year-old Phyllis Newcombe was severely burned while leaving a dance in Chelmsford, England, and though she initially seemed to be recovering well, her wounds became septic and killed her a few weeks after the occurrence. The investigation determined that her dress had caught fire from something on the floor as she was walking out of the dance hall, but exactly what was never officially determined... and so her death was attributed to a fire of unknown origins.

        By 1957, the story of Newcombe's death had changed radically in paranormal literature. Due to a number of minor changes in the reports of Newcombe's death over time, coupled with the imaginative ways these changes were expanded on by later authors, the story of Newcombe's death became summarized as 'a young lady in Chelmsford, England, burst into flames in the middle of a dance hall. Efforts made to extinguish the flames were all useless, and she was reduced to ashes in a matter of minutes. The young lady didn't smoke, and had not come into contact with cigarettes.' Note that this new legend didn't include Newcombe's name... it was only in later years that she would be re-connected with the story.

Enter the Myth Makers

        The full legend of Maybelle Andrews was first published in Emile C. Schurmacher's book, Strange Unsolved Mysteries (published in 1967), and was clearly based partly on the new legend of Phyllis Newcombe, though mostly on Schurmacher's own imagination. He is the first author to name the victim Maybelle Andrews, and to identify her boyfriend as Billy Clifford. He is also the origin of the location of the event as "one of London's Soho nightspots." In this first version of the tale, he gave no date of occurrence other than 'October'; in a later re-write for Reader's Digest, he claimed it had occurred at the end of the 1950's. To make it all sound official, Schurmacher gave the impression that he himself had seen a London Daily Telegraph article of the event. In this version of the story, Maybelle dies in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

        Registers of birth and death records were checked by Nienhuys during his investigation; there is no record of anyone named Maybelle Andrews (or even close to it) between 1936 and 1946, and between 1955 and 1960.

        By 1976, the legend of Maybelle Andrews was a fully accepted account of spontaneous human combustion... so much so that Michael Harrison in his book about spontaneous combustion published during that year, Fire From Heaven, details both the legend of Phyllis Newcombe and the legend of Maybelle Andrews, and takes the similarities of the two cases as proof of one of his theories regarding spontaneous combustion; that rythmic movements like dancing can help cause it.

        Finally, Larry Arnold in his 1995 book, Ablaze!, sets the date for the event as 'October 1938,' a combination of the vague 'October' of Schurmacher's early account, and the year that Phyllis Newcombe died; in addition, he tells us she died within moments of the fire occurring, and that these details were confirmed by "a personal communication from journalist Michael Harrison..." despite the fact that this is different from what Harrison published in his own book. Oy.

        So, sorry folks... this case is a False Lead, a story that was never true to begin with. It does, however, serve a purpose; it kicks up warning flags about the level of research done in the two best known books on the topic of spontaneous human combustion, Fire From Heaven and Ablaze!.