1957, January 4: Young Sik Kim’s Fiery Death

In 1964, author Allan W. Eckert published an article about spontaneous human combustion in which he related the strange fate of an elderly man in Hawaii.

        According to Eckert, 78-year-old Young Sik Kim, cripple, was living with his 77-year-old wife in an apartment in Honolulu when, in December 1956, he was discovered "wrapped in blue flames" by a neighbor, Mrs. Virginia Caget. Caget couldn't get near Kim; the heat was too intense. By the time firemen arrived -- 15 minutes later -- all that remained of Kim and the chair he was seated in was ashes... and his undamaged feet, still resting on his wheelchair where he'd propped them up. Hanging clothes and a curtain near the fire were also unharmed... the "investigating officials could give no answer."

        Unfortunately, this summary of Kim's death is wrong on every point that makes it look like a case of spontaneous human combustion... and Eckert knew that when he wrote it.

The Source for the Legend

        Let's step backwards a bit: Eckert appears to have gotten his story from just one of two places, and for one obvious reason: there are only two accounts of Kim's death previous to Eckert's article that also misspell Mrs. Cagat's name... she was actually named Virginia Catgata.

        One of those sources was a summary from a newspaper account presented in the May 1957 FATE Magazine, an American magazine devoted to stories of strange and paranormal events. The other source is the article from the Honolulu Advertiser that ran on January 5, 1957, which FATE summarized. And, no matter which was the starting point for Eckert's article, it's clear he invented the greater part of the story he presented.

        According to the Honolulu Advertiser article, Young Sik Kim was a "helpless cripple" who had had both legs paralyzed years earlier by a stroke and needed help just to get in and out of his wheelchair; he "whiled away his hours looking out the window." Kim was discovered ablaze around 11:30AM by 'Mrs. Virginia Cagat,' who fled the room due to the heat. Her screams alerted other neighbors, as well as Kim's wife, Chung Sim Kim, who had been doing laundry at the end of the hall; neighbors had to physically restrain her from trying to reach her burning husband. Due to the general confusion, it was fully ten minutes from the fire being discovered to when someone called the fire department.

        The room was on the second floor of the rooming house, and the firemen entered via a ladder to the window of the room Kim always sat by... shortly after, the fire was under control. Kim was dead; his body was charred, and the overstuffed chair he had been sitting in was destroyed. Also burned was a rack of clothes near the chair, and the curtain and blind at the window near the chair... his wheelchair, nearby because Kim used it for a foot rest, was only scorched. The fire had concentrated itself just in the corner where Kim had been seated, and damage to the room itself was minimal. At the time of the article's printing, fire officials did not know what had started the fire, and stated "We are checking all possibilities including careless smoking."

        So: no blue flames, Kim and chair were not reduced to ashes, the hanging clothes and curtain were not unharmed by the fire, Kim's feet were not left behind on the wheelchair, and investigating officials, while not sure what started the fire at that point, were still investigating possible causes. So Eckert's account of the fire as a SHC death is not just wrong, it's a flat lie; and I'm marking this account as "Factually Challenged."

The Investigation

        In a different newspaper, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, on the same day the Honolulu Advertiser article was printed, January 5, 1957, the police theory regarding 'careless smoking' was given a bit more detail: Kim could move his arms enough to handle a cigarette, "though there were conflicting reports as to whether he still smoked."

        By the 9th of January an autopsy had determined that Kim was dead before the fire started, likely due to a heart attack. It had also been determined that not only could Kim smoke, he was in fact capable of lighting his own cigarettes and was a heavy smoker. Further, several small fires had been started on Kim's apartment floor by dropped cigarettes on several occasions previous to the blaze the destroyed his body. So Kim likely died while holding a lit match or cigarette, and set himself and his chair afire.