1943, November 18: Madge Knight’s Mysterious Burns
The Legend :
On the night of November 18, 1943, Mrs. Madge Knight's screams woke her husband and sister in their home in Aldingbourne, West Sussex, England. They discovered Mrs. Knight writhing in pain in her bed, the skin peeling off her back under her bedclothes. A doctor that was called identified the wounds as some form of burn, and gave Mrs. Knight morphine. She died December 6 in the hospital from toxaemia (bacterial toxins in the blood, likely due to infection of the wounds).
At the inquest, various theories were put forward for how Mrs. Knight could have suffered such a severe burn without damaging either the clothes she was wearing or the bed she was lying in, but no explanation seemed satisfactory... so the jury finally gave an open verdict. The question of what happened has still not been answered.
All modern accounts of Madge Knight's mysterious burns originate in paranormal investigator Harry Price's 1945 book, Poltergeist Over England, in which Knight is presented as an example of a burn caused by ghostly activity. The story was later picked up and re-interpreted as an example of spontaneous human combustion... the earliest source I know for this is Vincent Gaddis' 1967 book, Mysterious Fires and Lights. It has been an oft-repeated account of SHC for the simple reason that, as an example of a person burned in unburned clothing, it is fine evidence for a fire that must have originated either within or directly on the person's body.
But the details of Madge Knight's death are not that straightforward. Price's original source for the account was a newspaper article from the December 23, 1943, edition of the West Sussex Gazette, which I've managed to get a copy of... and there is a definite mystery to Mrs. Knight's death, but not necessarily anything paranormal was involved.