1959, December 13: Billy Peterson’s Fiery Death

In 1964, Allan W. Eckert published an article on the topic of spontaneous human combustion, in which he was the first to make note of a strange occurrence that turned up in Pontiac, Michigan.

        On Sunday, December 13, 1959, passing motorists spotted smoke coming from a car parked in a garage around 7:45PM, and called in an alarm. Firemen soon arrived, but were not prepared for what they found. The smoke came from a small smoldering fire on the right of the front passenger seat of the car, caused by heat from the end of a tube that had been attached to the exhaust pipe of the car to bring the gases from it into the closed vehicle.

        And Billy Peterson, 30, was sitting in the driver's seat of the car.

        Peterson was taken to Pontiac General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. An autopsy showed that he had died from inhalation of carbon-monoxide fumes from the car's exhaust. None of that, however, explained the external condition of Peterson's corpse, for his back, arms, and legs were covered with third-degree burns... yet neither his clothes nor his body hair was burned in the least. Pontiac Fire Chief James White was sure that the small fire on the passenger side had not touched Peterson.

        Peterson had been despondent about a illness that had prevented him from working for months. He had spent the afternoon with his mother at an uncle's house, then driven home... and around forty-five minutes later the alarm had been called in. The purposeful re-routing of the exhaust suggested that Peterson had committed suicide... but how had he burned up in unburned clothing while sitting on an unburned car seat?

        White could only guess that Peterson's body had been burned after his death through some sort of "cooking action" caused by the adjacent heat of the small fire, though he was also quoted as saying "I would not quarrel with the theory concerning Spontaneous Human Combustion!"

        Three years later in 1967, Vincent Gaddis added more details to the incident in his book Mysterious Fires and Lights. Peterson, whom Gaddis states was only 27 years old, lived about a mile away from his uncle's house. When firemen discovered Peterson, his was face was as badly burned as the rest of his body, and firemen noted that the temperature inside the car was hot enough that a plastic religious statue on the car's dashboard had melted.

        Peterson had shortened the car's tail pipe to accommodate the flexible tube attached to it; the missing piece of tail pipe was found at the home of Peterson's uncle. Relatives said that Peterson had been "puttering around in the garage" earlier that evening... so it seemed a premeditated suicide that eventually took place. Peterson had been suffering from a serious kidney ailment, which is why he'd been off his job as a welder at a General Motors plant for two months. He was slated to return to work on December 14 -- the day after he died -- and his mother said he seemed to be in good spirits when he left that day.

        At the hospital, it was clear that unsinged hair was protruding from skin that had suffered third degree burns, which perplexed the doctors. For a short time the police considered the possibility of Peterson having been murdered; tortured by fire and then dressed again afterwards to be left in the car. But the doctors stated that the nature and severity of the burns made it very unlikely that anyone would have been able to dress the corpse after the burning, so a final verdict of suicide was pronounced.

        What had burned the body of Billy Peterson after he died? Was it radiation, as some suggested? Did his body burn itself in some unexplained way? Or was it a divine act of some sort?

Relevant Sources... and Annoyances

        So in 2013, I contacted the Pontiac Library in Pontiac, Michigan, to see if I could get newspaper sources related to Peterson's death; and, helpfully, they sent me what has to be a local article on the matter, plus his obituary. Unhelpfully, they never told me what newspaper they got these two articles from! Because of that, this current review of the incident has waited until I could find other articles that I can accurately date to the time and know the source of that correlates with what the library sent me before I could trust it. [Because I still don't know the actual source for the articles from the Pontiac Library, I'm just including them as PDF downloads in the sources.]

        In any case, here is a summary of the newspaper accounts from the Pontiac Library and from the Detroit Free Press of December 14 & 15, 1959, regarding the death of 27-year-old Billy Thomas Peterson.

        On December 13, Peterson was visiting his cousin's house, Arlen Thornbury, with Peterson's mother, Mrs. Lulu (or Lula) Fowler. Thornbury stated that Peterson had spent most of the afternoon working on his car, and he had apparently stayed behind to do so while Thornbury and Fowler attended church. Peterson left Thornbury's house around 7:00PM to head home.

        Around 7:45PM, another resident at the rooming house, John Westmoreland, spotted smoke streaming from the back seat of Peterson's parked car near the house, and ran to investigate; Westmoreland pulled Peterson from the driver's seat of the car, then called the Police and Fire Departments. Presumably an ambulance was called for also, because Peterson was rushed to the Pontiac General Hospital as the firemen investigated the car.

        At the hospital, the doctors were perplexed... Peterson was clearly dead, and had second and third degree burns covering his body; yet neither his clothes nor his hair had been burned. Deep burns existed under the untouched hair. Doctors guessed at possible causes -- acid? electricity? -- while an autopsy got under way. Based on the questions the doctors had, the police proceeded to investigate the possibility that Peterson's death was a murder.

        At the car, it was found that only a small area of the back seat had been smoldering -- not burning -- which had produced the smoke... but it had also heated the interior of the car to such a degree that plastic fixtures, like the door handles, had melted. The examination of this smoldering burn led to the discovery of the flexible pipe that was entering the back seat from the trunk of the car. This was followed back to where it had been attached to a newly shortened exhaust pipe; a purposeful re-routing of the gases from the exhaust to the interior of the car, which had also heated the interior of the vehicle and set the seat touching the end of the pipe to smoldering. The autopsy, and police questioning of Peterson's family and girlfriend, added up to an answer.

        The police were told that Peterson, who had been divorced twice, and was living in a different state than his two children, had been unable to work at his welding job at the General Motors Truck & Coach Division for two months due to a kidney ailment; he was scheduled to start work again on the Monday the 14th, the day after his death. His girlfriend stated that he'd been told recently by his doctor that the kidney ailment was terminal, and that he had just a year to live.

        The autopsy showed that Peterson had died before his body burned, killed by the inhalation of carbon monoxide from the exhaust. Given that he had spent the day working on his car, the obvious conclusion was that he had installed the flexible pipe himself so he could commit suicide via the poisons in the car's exhaust. Sadly, one newspaper reported, the autopsy also revealed nothing wrong with Peterson's kidneys... his doctor was being called to answer questions at a prosecutor's office regarding the matter.

        After it was clear that carbon monoxide poisoning had killed Peterson, the burns made sense... since he was in no condition to remove himself from the car as the internal temperatures rose high enough to melt plastic, and cook flesh.

        In the literature -- and I use the word loosely in this case -- of spontaneous human combustion, much has been made of the mysterious burns found on Billy Peterson's corpse. It's clear now that much of this depends on presenting just parts of the actual story, and in the wrong order, so it sounded as if fire, police, and medical officials were confused after the investigation, rather than at the start of the matter. As such, I'm marking this account as "Factually Challenged," as the facts tell a very different story.

        The death of Billy Peterson is perfectly explainable... and also tragic.

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