1964, October 23: Olga Worth Stephens’ Combustion

In his 1967 book Mysterious Fires and Lights, Vincent Gaddis described the strange death of Mrs. Olga Worth Stephens.

        According to Gaddis, in October 1964 Mrs. Stephens, a 75-year-old former actress, was sitting in a car parked on East Grand Ave. in Dallas, Texas, when she was seen by witnesses to suddenly burst into flames, becoming a "human torch." Her clothing was destroyed before anyone could reach her; she later died as a result of the burns received. Firemen stated the automobile itself was not burned in any way, and did not contain anything that could have started the fire.

        Gaddis is the first author to associate Stephens' death with the possibility of spontaneous human combustion... but his brief presentation didn't start to cover the known facts of the case. For that, let's step back to the earliest coverage of Stephens' death, in the Dallas Morning News for Saturday, October 24, 1964 in Texas, and the Miami News for Sunday, October 25, 1964 in Florida.

A Fuller Accounting

        On Thursday, October 15, 1964, Mrs. Olga Worth Stevens of Coral Gables, Florida, was visiting Dallas, Texas, for high blood pressure treatment. She was traveling that day with her sister-in-law, Mrs. Hal C. Worth, and an adopted nephew, Fortunato Nota. They had stopped at east Grand Avenue so that Worth could shop for a present to give to Stevens' nurse. Nota left Stevens in the back seat of the parked car while he went to get a cold drink. What happened next is a bit unclear.

        Stevens appears to have been seen by several people to be enveloped by flames in the back seat of the car about the same time; there is no statement that anyone actually saw the flames begin, so they may have all only noticed after the fire was big and obvious. People ran to the car and, though it's unstated if Stevens was pulled from the car or not, it seems likely; it is stated that her clothes had been "disintegrated" by the time this help reached her and, again unstated but likely, the fire was extinguished at this point or Stevens would have died that day. Firemen attending the scene afterwards found the car itself was not burned, and they found no combustible material in the vehicle that could be blamed for the fire.

        Stevens died eight days later at Bristol General Hospital, on Friday, October 23, 1964. With her death, the Homicide Bureau of the Dallas Police began a new investigation into the cause of the fire; clearly, they felt the 'accident' may have been more intentional than accidental. I haven't found any later statement on the matter that would say if the Police found something... so we're on our own for now.

Stevens or Stephens? And What Happened?

        Different newspapers reported Olga Worth's last name vaiously as Stephens or Stevens, including the two earliest that I referenced above... so that just seems like a luck of the draw, matter. I'm sticking to 'Stephens,' for now, because that's the name that turns up most in the SHC literature on this matter. Which brings us to the real question: was this a case of spontaneous human combustion?

        That depends on how you've chosen to define 'spontaneous human combustion.' The old definition of "a person igniting from the inside of their bodies and reducing to ashes for unknown reasons" doesn't apply here, simply because Stephens lived eight days after the fire... so the inside of her body wasn't destroyed, and the burns were on the surface. Evidentially, it appears that her clothing burned and Stephens was harmed secondary to that fire.

        Did she combust? Again, that depends on how you view the incident. If witnesses were looking at Stephens and saw her suddenly engulfed in flames, then you might be able to say she combusted. But if they were not watching her, and only looked over after the flames became large and obvious, then there is the possibility that Stephens' clothing had been burning with a small fire previously and built up to a big fire that was only noticed when it became obvious.

        It's also not clear how long she was left in the car alone for such a fire to start and grow. Larry arnold in his 1995 book on spontaneous combustion -- Ablaze! -- stated that "Mrs. Stevens' nephew had left her alone for only a few minutes at most in his search for refreshment," which would imply the fire acted quickly... but Arnold is referencing the same news articles I did above, and neither state how long Stephens was actually in the car alone. For all we know, Nota went to get a drink, and sat down somewhere to drink it; so there could have been time for a small fire to grow.

       Arnold also implies that Stephens' own body caused the fire, which could only mean that the surface of her skin somehow spontaneously ignited, and then her clothing was burned secondary to her body's own fire... but there is in fact no way to prove that conjecture with the evidence we have. Newspaper reports don't state how much of Stephens' body was burned, nor how severely or where; without medical reports from the hospital it is impossible to start to prove Arnold's theory. In fact, without further evidence this incident can't even be treated as paranormal.

        If Stephens' clothing was ignited somehow and was of a material that burned well, and Stephens was pulled from the car shortly after the fire was noticed, the overall effect might have been too fast for the car's interior to be damaged. If, however, witnesses left Stephens in the car until firemen arrived, then it would be strange that the car wasn't damaged. So, overall, there is a definite mystery about how Olga Worth Stephens met her fate... and hopefully someday I'll find out more about what happened.

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