1949, December 17: Ellen Coutres’ Fiery Death

In his 1967 book Mysterious Fires and Lights, Vincent Gaddis related the following account:

        On December 15, 1949, the Associated Press released an article to newspapers that told how Mrs. Ellen K. Coutres of Manchester, New Hampshire, USA, was found by police dead from burns in her home. Gaddis quoted the article:

"There was no other sign of fire, and although... the woman must have been a human torch, flames had not ignited the wooden structure."

There was no clear source for the fire that had killed Coutres; even the fire in her stove had been out for some time. Coutres was 53 years of age when she died.

        Perhaps not surprisingly, Gaddis felt that Coutres was likely a victim of spontaneous human combustion, the proposed possibility that humans can ignite from the inside of their bodies and burn to ashes for unknown reasons. All newer authors presenting the case of Ellen Coutres as SHC take the account from Gaddis' book, whether they know it or not. And how do I know?

The Paper Chase

        So I went digging to find the AP article that Gaddis quotes, and I found a different article on Ellen Coutres' death that was published on December 19, 1949, by the Nashua Telegraph of Nashua, New Hampshire. It is, in fact, the only article related to Coutres I could find; it doesn't say much... but what it says is very illustrating:

"Mrs. Ellen Coutres, 53, of Manchester died Saturday as a taxicab operator found her clothing still smouldering from flames. Only her clothing had caught fire. There was no ready explanation for the accident."

So there was a bit of a mystery to how Coutres' clothing had caught fire.. but the clothing fire appears to be what killed her. That, however, is not the important point.

        The important point is this: December 19, 1949, was a Monday. Since the article states Coutres died on the Saturday previous, that sets the date of her death as December 17, 1949... which is two days after Gaddis claims the Associated Press released an article about her death.

        I'm a little disappointed: this is the first indicator I've got that Gaddis may have willingly changed a story to be more spectacular. Up until now, I found most of his questionable details had come from other authors; but this one sits pretty squarely with Gaddis himself. Under the circumstances, I'm marking this account as "Factually Challenged," and unreliable as proof of the paranormal.

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