1951, May 3: Carl Blocker’s Fiery Death

In his 1967 book Mysterious Fires and Lights, Vincent Gaddis wrote about "a puzzling fire fatality" that occurred in Wabash, Indiana, USA, while he was on the staff of a local newspaper in that state; so, presumably, Gaddis was in the right place at the right time to get the full story as the press corps knew it at the time.

        Gaddis states that on the evening of May 3, 1951, passing motorists discovered 44-year-old businessman Carl. C. Blocker in a ditch on the side of a highway near the town of Wabash, covered in burns and with his clothing almost entirely destroyed; what clothing was still there was aflame when the first motorist stopped to help. Blocker's car was off the road nearby. He was rushed to a hospital, but soon died without regaining consciousness. Fire damage in Blocker's car was minor, and confined to just the driver's seat... but the intensity of the heat must have been great, because metal on the instrument panel had begun to melt.

        Investigators could find nothing in the car that could explain how the fire started. Since Blocker had owned high-end dress shops, it was suggested that he may have had a flammable container of cleaning fluid in the car with him... but no container was found, and his wife said he never carried the cleaners with him. The coroner filed a verdict of death by third-degree burns.

        Though Gaddis was working on a newspaper in the same state at the time of the incident, it must be noted that it was 16 years later that he actually wrote about the incident... so it's possible his memory wasn't as precise as it could be.

What the Newspapers Said

        According to Indiana local newspapers reporting on May 4, Blocker was indeed found in a ditch by a passing motorist on May 3, 1951. He had apparently crawled away from his burning car in an attempt to extinguish his burning clothes in the mud of the ditch. He was discovered around 1:00AM on the side of the Indiana-15 highway by Wayne Hendrix, a plumber from Wabash.

        According to Hendrix initially -- the story expanded later -- he was driving north on the highway when he first saw the burning car on the side, then heard someone call for help. Hendrix found Blocker in the ditch with most of his body covered by burns and with his clothing mostly destroyed... all that was left were Blocker's shoes, shorts, and necktie. Blocker mumbled his first name -- Carl -- and asked to not be touched. Hendrix flagged a passing car and asked the driver to call an ambulance; they drove to the nearest town, Treaty, and an ambulance came soon after. Blocker was rushed to the Wabash County Hospital, and died there around 5:00AM due to the effect of the third-degree burns.

        Blocker's car was about 75 feet away from where Blocker was found. When Hendrix first stopped, only the front seat was on fire; this soon spread throughout the car. Investigating authorities found Blocker's partially burned coat near the car, as well as his driver's license and "other papers normally carried in a billfold." Coroner L.W. Yoder doubted the billfold could have completely burned away, and Blocker was known to carry "large sums of money," so police were investigating the possibility that robbery had been involved in the matter. Blocker owned dress shops in Marion and Elkhart; given the location of his car on the highway, he appeared to have been driving from Marion to his home in Syracuse when whatever happened, happened. Friends told police Blocker was a non-smoker, but the coroner said he had "conflicting reports on this point."

        By May 5, police had abandoned the robbery theory for a lack of evidence to support it... which I suspect means they no longer believed Hendrix had direct involvement in the situation. Money had been found in the pocket of the coat Blocker had thrown off; and his family told the police that he never carried a billfold, so it wasn't missing. The driver's license and other papers had probably been spread when the coat was thrown.

        The authorities had no idea what had started the fire yet. It was now being reported that Hendrix claimed to have detected "a slight odor of gasoline about the car," and that Blocker had indicated he had been alone in the car when asked by Hendrix. It was also reported that Blocker's brother in Syracuse told a sheriff that Blocker was a non-smoker, but "recently had started smoking a little." Sheriff Cecil Reynolds said they could see marks on the highway that indicated where Blocker had put on his brakes; he had not been traveling very fast. From there, the tracks rolled slowly into the roadside ditch.

        Examination of the car disclosed that part of the windshield had melted, and that there was melted glass in the car that was not from the windshield... implying the temperature in the car was higher than upholstery alone could generate, and that there were bottles of some sort in the vehicle when the fire started. It was found that Blocker used cleaning fluid at his dress shops, and that there were several new bottles at his Marion store, from which he had been driving. It was supposed that Blocker possibly had other bottle of the cleaning fluid in his car to transport to his Elkhart store, which would explain the melted bottle glass and offer a possible cause for the intensity of the fire.

        Police proposed, assuming Blocker was transporting some cleaning fluid, that one of the bottles had broken. If Blocker had a lit cigarette, then the fumes could ignite. The skids marks in the road showed the car stopped suddenly, then eased into the ditch... police now believed that Blocker had jumped from his car while it was still in the road and ran for the water and mud in the ditch while the car rolled into the ditch on its own.

        Of course, all of this was just guesswork; the local authorities announced they were asking for assistance from the Fire Marshal's office in trying to learn the source of the extremely hot fire.

        On July 30, 1951, Coroner Yoder issued a verdict of accidental death by fire. No further information was offered, which later SHC researchers took to mean that no further answers had been found... but there is no particular reason the coroner would give more details to the local paper at such a late date.

Spontaneous Human Combustion?

        Blocker lived long enough to talk to Hendrix and reach a hospital before he passed away. Since the primary definition of SHC is a fire that starts inside a human body and reduces the victim to ashes -- presumably near instantly -- it's safe to say that Blocker's death doesn't fit that description, as he died from the effects of external burns. Given this, most attempts to attach Blocker's death to the general topic of SHC has been to imply it is an unnatural fire... and therefore could have been SHC if the circumstances were right. But while its true that the source of fire in this case is unknown, this is not the same as proving it to be paranormal. The claims by SHC 'experts' that the car was only minorly damaged, and that Blocker never regained consciousness are both attempts to add to the possibly paranormal nature of the report; but since neither of these are true, I'm marking this account as "Factually Challenged," and therefore not reliable proof of anything paranormal.

        The only real question left is whether or not the Wabash authorities felt they had properly explained the origins of the fire, which the newspapers can't tell us. I'm sending an email off to the Wabash coroner's office to see if records are still available, and if I can get an answer to this question.