1953, March 1: Waymon Wood’s Fiery Demise

When researching claims of the incredible, it's not uncommon to find that a story has been made more fantastic by those interested in selling the story... but, on rare occasion, a story is made less fantastic by those passing it on. With that in mind, allow me to explain what was reported in the Greenville News of Greenville, South Carolina, USA, on March 2, 1953.

         At around 11:15AM on Sunday morning, March 1, passers-by saw smoke coming from the windows of a car -- a 1951 'Nash' -- parked on the shoulder of Bypass Highway 291; the car's windows were blackened by the smoke, hiding the interior. The passers-by stopped and ran to the apparently burning car to try to help but, as they approached the vehicle, it pulled forward and drove about 400 yards along the highway; it then skidded ten feet to a stop, and fell off the road 270 feet down into a ravine, flipping over twice on the way down and landing on its side.

        Shortly thereafter, police and firemen arrived. Some of the windows of the car were kicked out, and the interior was soaked to stop the blaze that couldn't be seen. Only after all of this was done was the interior of the car examined... and the body of Waymon Wood found.

Wood's car
Mr. Wood's driver's seat and car. [Larger version here]

        Wood was badly burned, to say the least. Whatever the start of the fire was, it appeared to have been focused in the driver's seat where Wood was; the upholstery above this seat and on the driver's door had been burned and charred, and plastic fittings around the window and on the door handle had burned away. The windshield glass had developed a bubbled effect from the heat. In comparison, the front passenger seat was barely burned, and the back seats were undamaged.

        The scene of the accident had attracted hundreds of local gawkers -- including young children -- so Wood's body was removed from the scene as soon as possible. At the time of the report, the coroner had not yet had a chance to do a postmortem, but police were tentatively listing the death as a "possible suicide." It was generally stated by investigating officers that Mr. Wood "had been in ill health."

The Story Grows... and Shrinks

        The Greenville News article was apparently sent by someone to Curtis Fuller at FATE, an American magazine devoted to paranormal and strange topics. Fuller curated a section called "I See By The Papers" that largely included strange news sent to him by readers... and in the July 1953 issue of FATE, Fuller summed up the main points of the article above: passers-by saw smoke, tried to help, car drove away and into a ravine, fire confined to driver's seat, and a guess at suicide... and then Fuller added details that were not in the original article, or anywhere else that I can find. Fuller claimed "friends had been talking with Wood only an hour before and reported he had seemed cheerful. A reporter on the scene said that he noticed no gasoline fumes about the fire." These new details were clearly meant to counter the suicide theory, as well as to remove another possible cause for the fire. I have to assume that Fuller added these details himself.

        A shorter and different version of the story appeared in 1964 as part of an article on the topic of spontaneous human combustion written by Allan W. Eckert. The article, entitled "The Baffling Burning Death" appeared in TRUE, a manly magazine devoted mainly to supposedly true tales of adventure. Eckert brought the whole event down to just three sentences:

"On March 1, 1953, Waymon Wood, 50, of Greenville, South Carolina, was found crisped black in the front seat of his closed car parked on the side of Bypass 291. There was little left of Wood or the front seat. The heat had made the windshield bubble and sag inward, yet the half-tank of gas in the car was unaffected."

Gone is the fact the car moved while the fire was burning... this implies Wood was still alive at the time, and Eckert's arguments for the phenomena of SHC largely wanted near instant death, so the detail was removed. We're also told there was little left of Wood; again, Eckert's own presentation of SHC claimed victims were always reduced to mostly ashes, so he changed the detail to match. Finally, Eckert makes a big deal of the gas tank not exploding because he claims incredible heat is needed to reduce a human to ashes, yet SHC is supernaturally confined to just the victim. So again, the new detail just supports Eckert's claims.

        Since that time, Waymon Wood's death has popped up in every major work on spontaneous human combustion, and different works choose one of the two different stories -- Fuller's or Eckert's -- depending on what they want their overall presentation to say about the phenomena.

        But there are some details that Fuller missed... or maybe mis-placed.

Just One Day

        A lot can happen in just one day. A postmortem examination for example.

        On March 3, 1953, one day after the Greenville News published their article about Waymon Wood's death, the newspaper published a second article regarding the matter. Dr. J.I. Converse had performed his examination of Wood's body... and found the presence of gasoline in the remains of his clothing. After talking to the investigative officers and reviewing Converse's findings, Coroner J.O. Turner declared Waymon Wood's death to be a suicide.

        In light of the conclusions of this second article, Curtis Fuller's additions to his FATE account become highly suspicious...

"...friends had been talking with Wood only an hour before and reported he had seemed cheerful. A reporter on the scene said that he noticed no gasoline fumes about the fire."

...it seems as if Fuller knew what the second article said about Wood's death, and choose to add details to his article that would specifically question the conclusions. After all, there was no reason to add a comment regarding someone smelling gasoline, as this was in no way mentioned in the first article... but gasoline was mentioned in the second one. I'll always wonder on this point.