1959, January 31: Jack Larber’s Fiery Death

In 1964, author Allen W. Eckert made note of the following strange event.

        On January 31, 1959, Sylvester Ellis, an orderly at the Laguna Home of the Aged in San Francisco, California, USA, gave a glass of milk to one of the patients at the home, named Jack Larber. When Larber finished his milk, Ellis took the glass back to the kitchen. About five minutes later, Ellis was walking back past Larber's room when he discovered the elderly gentleman enveloped in blue flames! The strange conflagration resulted in Larber's death and an uncomfortable mystery for authorities. Larber had not been a smoker, and had no matches; and though one fire official suggested that Larber may have been drenched with lighter fluid and then set ablaze, the actual investigation disproved this possibility... and the case remains unsolved.

        An astounding set of facts, indeed... except Eckert left a few extra facts out of his account of the event.

The Full Story

         News of Jack Larber's ordeal first hit newspapers on February 1, 1959; the earliest I've found is from the Oakland Tribune of Oakland, California. Jack Larber was 72-years old, and was staying in the 'senile ward' of the Laguna Honda Home in San Francisco, a ward he shared with 39 other patients. Larber was tied into a wheelchair because he had been falling out of it. Sylvester Ellis, the orderly, said he entered the ward at 10:00PM on Saturday night, January 31, and discovered Larber in flames; Ellis grabbed a blanket and used it to smother the fire. Larber had received "third-degree burns over 80% of his body," and was rushed to Mission Emergency Hospital in critical condition.

        Ellis told police that he had only left the ward for five minutes after giving Larber some milk to drink, and that the doors to the ward were kept locked. Larber was not a smoker, nor did he have matches. The newspaper speculated that Larber "was apparently doused with lighter fluid and set afire," though the article didn't state it this was an authoritative opinion or the reporter's own speculation.

         On February 2, Larber died from his wounds at San Francisco General Hospital. The Oakland Tribune now reported that Larber had been "found with his clothes ablaze," and that the theory of lighter fluid to start the fire was a guess from the police... one which had since been disproven by laboratory technicians who could find no trace of accelerant on Larber's remaining clothes. A Police Inspector, Frank Gibeau, had questioned five of the other inmates in the ward on February 1, but was not able to determine how the fire started. The newspaper then reported that staff members who were on duty at the time of Larber's fire were due to be questioned the same day.

And Now, We Get Weird

        In addition to the Oakland Tribune's article, two stories were sent out for national release to newspapers across the country and world through UPI (United Press International) and AP (Associated Press) on February 2... and these told a very different set of stories.

        The UPI story summed up the incident as: Larber died from burns he received while sitting by his bed in the 40 patient ward on Saturday night; that he had been found with his bathrobe ablaze, presumably a fire started by one of the other patients; and superintendent of the Laguna Honda Home, Luis Moran, repeated that all the other patients were senile, by a way of implying they were all crazy and forgetful and therefore likely to cause a problem and not answer questions. So, overall, it strongly implies the fire was caused by another patient. Note what's missing: there is no mention of Larber being tied into his wheelchair.

        Meanwhile, the AP story released the same day summed up the whole affair in just two lines: "A 72-year-old patient at the Laguna Honda home for the elderly was found Saturday night with all his clothes ablaze in a room where he was alone. Today Jack Larber died of burns which covered 80 per cent of his body." As you can see, it's an entirely different -- and incorrect -- story. And when this brief summary is incorporated with the previous statements about the Larber case, you get... well.

        Here's how the incident was presented nationwide in the "Cracker Barrel," a general interest column written by Jack Moffitt and published in quite a few newspapers; this particular article appears to have been distributed across the United States between May 25 and late July, 1959:

"In San Francisco, Jack Larber who neither smoked nor carried matches apparently took fire by spontaneous combustion on January 31 after drinking a glass of milk. Most records of self-lighting human torches concerned old women who usually are alcoholics. This case still is being investigated."

So little wonder that Allen W. Eckert listed the incident as an example of spontaneous human combustion when he wrote his article in 1964.

        The truth is that Larber's death cannot be labeled as 'paranormal' given the actual details of the event; so I'm labeling the SHC death of Jack Larber as "Factually Challenged," and not reliable as evidence of the paranormal.