1956, April 28: Harold Hall’s Fiery Death

On Saturday, April 28th, 1956, 59-year-old refinery worker Harold J. Hall of Benicia, California, USA, ran into his landlord, Sam Massni, and the two decided to go to a show together. Both men headed to their separate apartments -- presumably in the same house -- but, when Massni still hadn't seen or heard from Hall after a half-hour passed, he headed over to Hall's apartment. Massni smelled smoke, so he broke through the door... and Hall was lying on the floor.

        The front of Hall's suit was burned, and Hall had second and third degree burns over much of the front of his body. He was rushed to the hospital, but died there the next day. Police Captain Romeo Lavezzo and Fire Chief Thomas G. Teffles were unable to explain what caused the fire; there were no obvious clues near Hall, such as cigarette butts or lighter fluid container, that could have started the blaze. Hall's clothing was forwarded to the 'State Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation' in Sacramento for examination. And that sums up what the Oakland Tribune for April 30, 1956, had to say about Hall's fate, and I've found no further information since.

The Story Grows

        In 1964, in an article by Allen W. Eckert that dealt with the topic of spontaneous human combustion, Hall's death was attributed to this proposed idea... but Eckert added some new details to the story, and got some basic facts wrong.

        As Eckert recounts the event, Hall and his landlord were chatting in front of the house they both lived in when Hall decided he was going to the movies, and headed inside to change clothes. After Hall had not reappeared for a half hour, the landlord -- who was apparently standing around outside the whole time -- went in to check on Hall, and found him on the kitchen floor. Hall's chest, arms, and face were charred, and even though he was alive he was unable to explain what happened... and then Eckert states that medical help had to make an incision in Hall's throat to aid breathing, but he soon died. An autopsy determined his lungs had been severely burned -- which, frankly, would explain why he couldn't explain what happened, since he would be unable to breath or talk to begin with... but I digress. The Fire Chief declared that the fire that burned Hall "had not been caused by gas, lighter fluid or anything else he could understand."

        As Eckert is telling this tale, he also changes Sam Massni's name to Sam Massenzi, and Fire Chief Thomas G. Teffles to Thomas Geifels; and he misspells 'Benicia' as 'Benecia'... which didn't help me track the original article much!

        Strangely, the story of Hall's "spontaneous combustion" was only picked up by one of the major works on SHC that followed him over the next three decades; Larry Arnold's 1995 book, Ablaze!. Arnold clearly gets his base tale of Hall's death straight from Eckert's previous article, because Arnold repeats the misspellings of 'Benecia,' 'Massenzi,' and 'Geifels'. Strangely, Arnold also shows signs of having seen the earlier article from the Oakland Tribune or another paper, because he describes Hall's condition on discovery as "arms, face, and chest virtually charged, the clothing on his back untouched"... which the clothing on his back was, because the front of his clothes were what was burned. Arnold, however, clearly wants this phrase to be mistaken to mean something along the lines of 'victim burned, but not his clothes,' a standard claim when trying to show a paranormal cause to a burning death.

SHC or Not?

        Going by the details we are told in the Oakland Tribune article, this was not an internal combustion because Hall lived two days after the incident... that doesn't happen if your guts catch fire first! This is the reason that Hall is reported to have died shortly after discovery in both Eckert and Arnold's versions of the story; still, Hall wouldn't have even lived as long as they give him had his innards started to blaze first.

        The fire, however, is still a mystery. Something had to have ignited Hall's clothes, and there has to be some reason only the front of him burned... more details about how he was found would probably answer a lot of questions, but there doesn't seem to have ever been a follow up article in the Oakland Tribune. I'll keep digging for other newspaper reports, in case they can offer more details.

        In the meantime, however, I'm marking this incident as "Factually Challenged," as details had to be bent and altered to make this event look paranormal.