- The Haunted Girls
The following cases of apparently paranormal
firestarters involve some aspects common in people who allegedly exhibit
- like powers. Unfortunately we do not have much detail about the girls involved,
so the case must remain intriguing though unsupported by independent
evidence. However, it would be interesting to know if
prior to or at the time of the alleged fire-starting incidents,
these two girls had made claims of mediumship or any other 'psychic' abilities.
In November 1890, in Thorah, near Toronto, Canada, strange
things started happening around a 14 year-old English girl
called Jennie Bramwell, the adopted daughter of a farmer, Mr. Dawson, and his wife. The girl had been ill and gone into a trance
(for parallels see Lurancy Vennum article on this site), crying out 'Look at
that!' pointing to a ceiling which was ablaze. Shortly after, to the
astonishment of Mr.
and Mrs. Dawson, she pointed to another fire. The following day numerous fires broke
out around the house; as
soon as one was put out, another started. In one instance while Mrs. Dawson and the girl
were seated facing a wall, the wallpaper suddenly caught fire, Jennie's dress
then burst into flames and Mrs.
Dawson burnt her hands extinguishing the fire. Fires continued to break out in the
for a whole week. A report in the Toronto Globe, for 9th November,
described charred pieces of wallpaper, which looked as if they'd been
burned using a blazing
The situation became unbearable, all the furniture was moved into the yard,
and the unfortunate girl, blamed for the fires, was sent back to the orphanage
from where she'd come. With her leaving, the phenomena stopped.
from the Toronto Globe depicted her as 'a half-witted girl [who] had walked about
the house with a match, setting light to everything she came across.' However, he had difficulty explaining how the fire on the
ceiling, and those on the walls had been started. Charles Fort, describing the
case, commented wryly - 'I'll not experiment, but I assume that I
could flip matches all day at a wall, and not set wallpaper afire.'
wanted to know if Jennie had any knowledge of chemistry, as according to him the
'half-witted' little orphan was 'well-versed in rudiments of the science.' He
subsequently made enquiries around town, and discovered that the girl was also
'an incorrigible little thief', and that she had visited the chemist many
times on errands.
So, the mystery was solved: the girl had stolen
"some chemical," which she had spread over various parts of the Dawson's
house in order to start the fires.
In January 1895 there were fires in the house of an out of work
carpenter, Adam Colwell in Brooklyn, New York. The
fires were investigated by police and firemen who witnessed furniture burst into flames and
subsequently reported that
the cause of the fires was unexplained. However, the Fire Marshall suspected the pretty
adopted daughter of the Colwells, Rhoda, as playing some part. He stated that 'It
might be thought that the child Rhoda started two of the fires, but she can not
be considered guilty of the others, as she was being questioned, when some of
them began. I do not want to be quoted as a believer in the supernatural, but I
have no explanation to offer, as to the cause of the fires, or of the throwing
around of the furniture.'
Mr. Colwell asserted that on the afternoon of the 4th of
January whilst in the company of his wife and stepdaughter Rhoda, a crash was
heard - a large, empty stove had fallen over, four pictures also fell off the
walls. Shortly afterwards a bed caught fire, a policeman was called who saw
wallpaper start to burn. Another fire started and a heavy lamp fell from a hook
onto the floor. The house burned to the ground and the family, who had lost
everything apart from their clothes, were taken to the police station. Captain
Rhoades, of the Greenpoint Precinct said that he could attribute the strange
fires to 'no other cause than a supernatural agency.'
However, a Mr. J.L. Hope of Flushing, Long Island, came to see
Captain Rhoades and told him that Rhoda had worked for him as a housemaid and,
between 19th November and 19th December, four mysterious fires had broken out. This was enough to convince the Captain of Rhoda's guilt in the present case as well,
and she was warned to admit the truth. Frightened, she wept that she had indeed
started the fires as she disliked the place she lived and wanted to get
away. The girl had also knocked the pictures off the walls and dropped lighted
matches into the beds, continuing with her mischief even after the police, firemen and detectives
arrived at the house.
Though the police Captain had previously thought the fires
'supernatural' he now found a natural explanation in Rhoda's now well-attested
fire-starting tendencies. The New York Herald ran the story as 'Policemen
and firemen artfully tricked by a pretty, young girl.' So instead of
investigating the fires in Flushing the Captain gave the girl some 'wholesome
advice' to which she apparently listened, and closed the case.
Such fire starting seems intimately connected with
poltergeist activity (the moving about of furniture for example) and young girls
(see A.W. Underwood
and Carole Compton
articles on this site for more examples). Some, though not all, of the
fire-starters seem to be orphans in unhappy situations, and this may, in some
cases, explain the motive. But since the methods by which these unusual fires
were started are a mystery (explanations at the time obviously being ludicrous
i.e. tossing lighted matches at the wall, ) we are still left with the puzzle
that certain young people are possessed with the allegedly paranormal ability to
unconsciously start fires without any visible means. As mentioned time and time
again on Mysterious People, however, the sources for such
'paranormal' stories, especially those from the 19th century and earlier, are
usually newspaper accounts, which unfortunately means that the events may or may
not have happened as described. We can never be sure.
Sources and Further Reading
Fort, Charles. Wild Talents - In The Complete Books of
Charles Fort. New York, Dover, 1974, pp923-24.
Copyright 2004 by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved.