1959, January 6: Ricky P. Pruitt’s Fiery Death

In the annals of Spontaneous Human Combustion, the tale of Ricky Paul Pruitt's death has long stood alone.

        Spontaneous Human Combustion [SHC] -- the proposed possibility of a human being bursting into flames from inside of their body for unknown reasons -- has for centuries been associated with the mysterious fiery deaths of adults. These deaths have often been explained away by skeptical people as having been caused by the victim having an explainable accident with fire, such as falling asleep while smoking or tending an open fire, or perhaps being drunk while handling fire.

        Ricky Pruitt, however, was only four months old when he burned to death mysteriously in his crib, according to researchers of SHC. Pruitt of Rockford, Illinois, USA, died in 1959 when he "burst into fire and burned to death in his crib." Stranger still, the crib, the bedding on it, and the clothing the baby was wearing were not burned in the least.

        Since it seems reasonable to assume that young Pruitt wasn't playing with matches, how did he catch fire? And why was only the baby himself harmed?

The Paper Chase

        For a very long time, I personally didn't think that Ricky Pruitt ever existed. The reason for this was two-fold: first, I found no newspaper mentions of the baby's death on my initial searches for information and, second and more damning, was where the baby's death had first been mentioned as a case of SHC.

        The account of Pruitt's death as a paranormal event first appears in Allen Eckert's 1964 article regarding SHC -- "The Baffling Burning Death," published in TRUE Magazine for May of that year -- in a section of the article wherein Eckert argues that not all reported cases of SHC involve older people; and four-month-old Ricky Pruitt is Eckert's only example to show his argument is right. Unfortunately, I had already found that Eckert's article included fake stories invented just to support his arguments [follow the See Also link below for more on that]. Therefore, until an earlier source for the death of Ricky Pruitt appeared, I had to consider the story to be one that Eckert invented just to support his claims.

       That changed on January 14, 2021, when I received a message from Ricky Pruitt's brother, Daniel! He was able to point me to some newspapers local to Rockford, Illinois, that were not in most national databases and, after a few emails to Rockford local libraries, I was able to get copies of five articles from two local newspapers. They confirmed that Ricky Paul Pruitt existed, and did indeed burn to death in unburned clothing at the age of four months old; but it also revealed much more.

What the Newspapers Said

        About 3:15 in the afternoon on Tuesday, January 6, 1959, Mrs. Ida Pruitt arrived home with her two boys, baby Ricky, 4-months-old, and Daniel, who was two years old. She set Ricky down in his crib near her in the living room, then sat down in an overstuffed chair to watch TV a little while having a smoke. After awhile, she decided to make a phone call; and since her house didn't have a phone, she typically used the phone at her next-door neighbor's house, only about twenty-five feet away from her own. Ricky was asleep, so she rolled his crib into the bedroom and left him behind while she and Daniel walked next door to make the phone call. Her neighbors -- the Hubbards -- were not there, but she was able to make her call anyway; and the Hubbards arrived home as she was finishing the call.

        Mrs. Pruitt walked back to her house around 4:30pm... and discovered smoke billowing out of it. She started screaming, and Archie Hubbard ran from next door; then he rushed into the house and, groping through thick smoke and following choking sounds that had to be Ricky, found his way to the crib and brought the baby out. With Ricky out and handed off to his mother, Hubbard then went back inside and poured water onto the source of the smoke, a burning armchair in the living room.

Archie Hubbard in the News
Archie Hubbard poses with Ricky's crib and bottle. [for larger version click here.]

        The fire department was alerted around 4:34pm and arrived shortly. It was only after all of this that Ricky's wounds were noticed; two fire deputies, Gene Ebens and Duane Wise, rushed the baby to the Swedish-American hospital with first and second degree burns on his face, chest, legs, and one arm, and third degree burns on his abdomen. Both deputies examined Ricky's cloths once he had been delivered to the hospital, and neither man could find any burn damage on them.

        It was clear that Mrs. Pruitt's cigarette from earlier had accidentally ignited the armchair she had been sitting in, which was destroyed by the fire; a nearby couch had started to burn as well by the time the fire was extinguished. The fire itself had gone no further... Ricky's crib had been in the next room, between 15 to 20 feet away from the actual fire.

        An investigation of the fire was launched, largely for two reasons. First, Mrs. Pruitt initially told the firemen that she been away from the house for just three to five minutes; this was not enough time for the amount of fire damage they found to have occurred. Second, it was hard to believe that Ricky could have been burned as extensively as he was without damage to the clothing he had been wearing. The Fire Marshall wanted answers. On Wednesday, January 7, Mrs. Pruitt revised her time estimate to be around twenty minutes that she had been away from the house.

        Because the fire had burned out the lighting on Tuesday and the smoke was still clearing, fire inspectors had not been able to do a through examination of the house until Wednesday. This inspection made clear that the blaze had been a flash fire, fed by a strong wind current running through the house, which created the equivalent of a blast furnace in the center of the home. It had started in the chair and burnt fiercely, causing extreme heat damage within the path of the smoke: melted plastics and peeling paint, for example. Ricky Pruitt's burns had been caused by the intense heat of this smoky path, not the fire itself, which is why his clothing showed no damage even though the baby suffered the burns.

        Despite the efforts of the hospital, Ricky Pruitt died at 5:00am on Thursday, January 8. There was no autopsy, as it was clear that he had died due to the burns. Five years later, Allen Eckert claimed the baby's death was supernatural.

       As I mentioned above, Allen Eckert is both the first person to claim Ricky Pruitt's death was a case of SHC, and an author I basically cannot trust. As you can now see, his assessment of Pruitt's death -- "In the spring of 1959 [...] four-month-old Ricky Pruitt of Rockford, Illinois, burst into fire and burned to death in his crib. Neither crib nor bed clothing upon which he was lying was scorched." -- is factually challenged at best, mostly a lie at worst. It largely relies on the facts that Eckert chooses not to share to make the facts that he does share seem abnormal.

        Ricky Pruitt's death was a tragic accident; not a paranormal event.

Anomalies -- the Strange & Unexplained, as well as my other website -- Monsters Here & There -- are supported by patrons, people like you!

All new Anomalies articles are now posted for my patrons only, along with exclusive content made just for them. You can become a patron for just $1 a month!

PatreonAnomalies on PATREON --
Click here to find out more!