fire breather

Strange Powers

Fire-Breather - The Paranormal Talent of A.W. Underwood?

A an allegedly paranormal ability is displayed in the following case of a man with the 'supernatural' talent of fire-breathing without artificial aid. It was first noted by that pioneer collector of the strange and the odd - Charles Fort, and no natural explanation has ever been found for it. The tale of the fire-breather must remain within the realms of the fantastical, at least until the story itself is shown to be a hoax, or until such time that serious research into alleged psychic abilities and paranormal talents brings it and other such cases into the folds of modern science. 

The story goes that in 1882, in Paw Paw, Michigan, a remarkable human enigma was brought to the attention of Dr L. C. Woodman. The 24 year-old man, named A.W. Underwood, had to take great care whenever he breathed, apparently to avoid causing fires. At first the doctor thought the stories were mere exaggerations, but one day there was a knock on his door, and in walked A.W. Underwood himself, looking for help.

Dr. Woodman was persuaded to make tests in the presence of himself and some of his colleagues, and to their amazement Underwood performed incredible feats which they could not explain. Doctor Woodman told the Michigan Medical News (n.17; September 11, 1882):

He will take anybody's handkerchief and hold it to his mouth rub it vigorously with his hands while breathing on it and immediately it bursts into flames and burns until consumed. He will strip and rinse out his mouth thoroughly, wash his hands and submit to the most rigid examination to preclude the possibility of any humbug, and then by his breath blown upon any paper or cloth envelop it in flame. He will, while out gunning and without matches desirous of a fire lie down after collecting dry leaves and by breathing on them start the fire..

Dr. Woodman stated publicly that he was sure that Underwood's phenomena were authentic. The doctor also noticed that Underwood would hold the cloth or other material against his mouth so that he could force his breath through it, thus condensing whatever strange process it was. The doctors washed Underwood's mouth out with various mixtures, and obliged him to wear surgeon's rubber gloves - but it made no difference - the phenomenon carried on as normal. 

This is an exceptional case, especially as the subject allowed himself to be tested and investigated for months, and, although the report was published in the Michigan Medical News and other similar journals, no one ever came forward with an explanation for Underwood's bizarre fire-breathing talents.

A similar case was reported In 1927, when Vice President of the U.S., Charles Dawes, personally investigated the case of a car mechanic in Memphis, Tennessee, who supposedly had the mysterious ability to set inflammable material alight merely by breathing on it. The man took General Dawes' handkerchief, breathed on it, and it caught fire. Dawes and his colleagues decided that it was no trick, and since no reasonable explanation could be found, it was left unexplained. 

If genuine, these cases are unusual in that both Underwood and the anonymous car mechanic seemed to be able to control the phenomenon and produce it at will. More usually we hear of natural but apparently unconscious fire-starters, sometimes associated with poltergeist activity. Fort (see sources below) mentions some, for example at a farmhouse in Bridgewater, Scotland, in May 1878, fires started with no apparent cause, loud raps were heard and household items such as dishes and loaves of bread moved about. After a police investigation a servant girl, Ann Kidner, aged 12, was arrested, and accused of tossing lighted matches, but was released by the magistrate because of insufficient evidence. 

In October 1886, a 12 year-old boy named Willie Brough, of Turlock, Madison County, California, was accused of setting things on fire 'by his glance', and was expelled from Turlock School after five unexplained fires had started in his presence. His parents thought him possessed by the devil and sent him away. 

Sources and Further Reading

Edwards, Frank.  Strange People. London, Pan Books. 1966, pp211-212.

Fort, Charles.  Wild Talents - In The Complete Books of Charles Fort. New York, Dover, 1974, pp919-20, p926. 

Copyright 2003 by Brian Haughton. All Rights Reserved. 


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