1953, April 1: Bernard Hess’ Fiery Death

The strange story of Bernard Hess' apparent death by spontaneous human combustion seems to confirm that authorities, when confronted with the unexplainable, will most often find other explanations for these strange fire deaths. The details of this SHC event were first reported by Allen Eckert in 1964 and later expanded on by Larry Arnold in 1995. I summarize their accounts:

        In early April 1953, Bernard J. Hess was discovered dead in his overturned car at the bottom of a 20-foot embankment south or southeast of Baltimore, Maryland, USA. The coroner concluded that Hess had died almost instantly in the accident due to a fractured skull and internal injuries... but, strangely, Hess also had second and third degree burns on two-thirds of his body, even though there had been no fire in the car and his clothes were not burned. How had Hess been burned so severely? And had this somehow led to the accident?

        As Arnold pointed out, "Contemporary reports do not mention officials finding any electrical or fuel problems with the car that would have caused his injuries." So what exactly had happened to Bernard Hess?

The Facts of the Matter

        Newspaper accounts of the matter reveal a very different story from the above.

        Bernard Joseph Hess of Hanover, Pennsylvania, was not a trustworthy person. Both Hess and his wife, Esther, had been charged with embezzlement; Esther got a three-year prison sentence, while Hess was acquitted as a co-defendent in the case. Two months later, Hess was convicted of forgery, but was released on probation.

        On Tuesday, March 31, 1953, a man with stolen credentials took a car for sale in Baltimore, Maryland, out for a "trial spin," but never came back with it. Presumably that man had been Hess, for it was that same car -- newly equipped with Pennsylvania tags stolen from a different car -- that Hess was discovered in on April 1, 1953.

        The car had struck a tree on State Route 30 and overturned near Manchester in Carroll County. Hess was rushed by ambulance to the University Hospital, but died there around 2:30PM. Hess had been 35 years of age. A postmortem was performed by Dr. Russell S. Fisher, the chief medical examiner for Baltimore, who concluded that Hess had died from head injuries he had sustained in the accident.

        But, he added, Hess also had burns on his body caused by gasoline from the car that had soaked through his clothes. As it turns out, prolonged skin contact with gasoline can result in burns because the gasoline degreases the skin, which then loses moisture rapidly... and all a burn is, is the removal of water from an object until it's damaged. Clothing cannot be burned by gasoline itself, as clothing doesn't contain water as a vital element.

        So, yes... Hess had burns on his body under unburned clothing. But it wasn't caused by a fire.