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1952, September 18: Glen B. Denny’s Fiery Suicide

On September 18, 1952, Glen B. Denny of New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, apparently commited suicide... but the circumstances of this self-inflicted death were so extrodinary, that it is still unclear to this day exactly what happened. The event was investigated at the time by a man named Otto Burma, who then wrote up his account of this incident for FATE Magazine; the article was published in the May 1953 issue. I summarize the details below.

        At 1:00pm on Thursday, September 18, 1952, in Algiers, a sub-section of New Orleans, Mrs. Stalios Cousins smelled smoke coming from the apartment above her own; she called the police, who then called the fire department. In a short time, firemen broke down the door to the apartment above Cousins and quickly found the source of the smoke... a burning human body. Burma reprinted the following quote from the newspapers, a statement made by Lieutenant Louis Wattingney, one of the first firemen to enter the apartment:

"The man was lying on the floor behind the door and he was a mass of flames. Not another blessed thing in the room was burning. He was dead. I don’t know what caused the fire to burn so hot. He could have been saturated with some oil. I did not smell anything, however. In all my experience I never saw anything to beat this.“

        According to the same newspaper article, there was neither evidence of cigarettes or smoking, nor any signs of a struggle. The door was locked, and the windows shut. There was blood on the kitchen floor. An autopsy was called for. The man was identified as Glen B. Denny, owner of a foundry in nearby Gretna. He was 46 and known to be of quiet habits, but had been having personal problems of late that led him to heavy drinking. In fact, the last time he had been seen alive, he had obviously been suffering from alcoholic shakes.

        On September 19, the newspapers again recounted the details of the case... except this time, the articles claimed that the firemen who broke into the apartment had actually detected "a strong odor of gasoline." The conflicting detail led to Otto Burma paying a visit to the Algiers Police Station and Fire Department, trying to clear up if gasoline had been smelled or not. No simple answer awaited him; the officials there confirmed that the only burning object in the room was Denny's body, but told Burma he needed to consult the criminal records office to view the full report if he wanted to learn anything more... but the report had not yet been filed with the office.

        On the following Sunday, the 'Police Reports' section of one of the local newspapers reported that Denny had died from his burns, but did not state what caused the fire. Stranger still, it also reported that arteries on Denny's wrists and ankles had been severed! Burma contacted the coroner's office, full of questions... which the office hesitated to answer. Their findings, they explained it, was that Denny had been despondent and therefore must have severed his arteries to commit suicide. He then, the office asserted, poured kerosine on himself and lit himself on fire; carbon found in his lungs proved he was still alive when he started burning. The coroner didn't explain how he knew kerosine had been used, nor could he explain how a man with blood shooting from his wrists could possibly light a match.

       As if these details were not odd enough, three weeks later Burma got a copy of the official Police report; though a knife with blood stains was found at the scene, there was no evidence of any plausible cause for the fire. No burned matches and no gasoline, kerosine, or any sort of common accelerant was found anywhere in the apartment. Yet the report simply labeled the incident as a suicide, and the case was closed. No further answers were to be had for Glen B. Denny.

        Otto Burma finished out his article on the incident by comparing Denny's strange fate to many earlier reports of a proposed strange phenomena known as Spontaneous Human Combustion, a situation wherin it is believed that the human body can sometimes ignite from the inside and burn to ash in an extremely short time. 

Questions

        In the original FATE Magazine presentation -- “Cremation in New Orleans,” by Otto Burma, in the May 1953 issue -- this incident looks to be one of the most timely and best researched accounts I've ever run into... and yet, the strange death of Glen B. Denny has only turned up again in a few of the larger works on Spontaneous Human Combustion and strange topics in general, and is hard to find in print now. Also, in trying to verify the details of the FATE account, I've had a number of difficulties; enough so that I'm starting to seriously question if this event ever actually happened.

        I've been unable to pull up either the original newspaper articles mentioned by Burma in the FATE article, or references that verify they exist. I've been unable to independently verify the existence of either Glen B. Denny or Lieutenant Louis Wattigney. In short, absolutely nothing more has been heard of this case since it was published in FATE in 1953; and I am hard pressed to confirm the details as given in the orginal article. I am contacting libraries in New Orleans to either validate or invalidate the existence of the newspaper articles mentioned in Burma's FATE Magazine article... this will likely decide if I label the death of Glen B. Denny as a 'False Lead' or not. In the meantime, this story is definitely considered Unreliable!