1957, March 1: Sarah Wilderman's Fiery Death

On March 1, 1957, 60-year-old Sarah Wilderman of South Bend, Indiana, USA, was baby-sitting her 5-year-old grandson, John Huges, in her apartment attached to her daughter's home, when something went wrong.

        According to John, his grandmother ran out of her kitchen with her bathrobe on fire screaming "Call the fire department! I'm on fire!" She may have tried to use the phone before she collapsed. Help was summoned by her grandson who -- reports vary on this -- either called the fire department, got neighbors' attention, or both. Wilderman died from the rsulting burns, which Coroner Edward S. Shelley said covered every part of her body but the soles of her feet.

        Fire authorities were unable to determine how the fire started; Wilderman didn't smoke, there was no matches in the apartment, and there was no evidence any of the eletric appliances in the kitchen was involved. If answers were later discovered, they were never reported to newspapers, for no more was printed regarding Wilderman's unfortunate demise.

Thirty-Eight Years Later...

        ...Larry Arnold published his 1995 omnibus on the topic of spontaneous human combustion, entitled Ablaze!. In this book, Arnold claims that Wilderman's death is, in fact, an example of SHC, claiming that an article from the South Bend Tribune for March 2, 1957 "announced that a 'body fire' ignited around Mrs. Sarah Wilderman," and that "moments later she had '100 per cent burns of her entire body," excepting the soles of her feet. Fire officials were "baffled" and only "believed" her bathrobe had caught fire; the newspaper stated that Wilderman herself had "ignited mysteriously," and that she died eleven and a half hours later.

        The summary I present above is a compilation from three different articles on the matter, only one of which talked about the extent of Wilderman's burns, and none of which mentioned Wilderman had "ignited mysteriously." Arnold is quoting from a theoretical fourth article which, once again, happens to be in a newspaper that is only available from a library in the area it was published; Arnold somehow does this a lot. So I will be requesting the missing article from a library -- if it exists -- and will update after I find out more.

        I do, however, find it intriging that between 1957 when Wilderman died, and 1995 when Arnold declared her to be a case of SHC, no other book or article focused on spontaneous human combustion mentions Wilderman's death. There is no good reason for why this would be if a newspaper did indeed mention "ignited mysteriously"... usually far less than that is enough to have SHC get blamed.

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