Wild Talents

A Hypertext Edition of Charles Hoy Fort's Book

Edited and Annotated by Mr. X

Chapter Eleven



DAMN THE particle, but there is salvation for the aggregate. A gust of wind is wild and free, but there are handcuffs on the storm.

During the World War, no course of a single bullet could have been predicted absolutely, but any competent mathematician could have written the equations of the conflict as a whole.

This is the attempt by the theologians of science to admit the Uncertainty Principle, and to cancel it. Similarly reason the scientists of theology:

The single records of the Bible may not be altogether accurate, but the good, old book, as a whole, is Immortal Truth.

Says Dr. C.G. Darwin, in New Conceptions of Matter:(1)

"We can not say exactly what will happen to a single electron, but we can confidently estimate the probabilities. If an experiment is carried out, with a thousand electrons, what was a probability for one, becomes nearly a [111/112] certainty. Physical theory confidently predicts that the millions and millions of electrons in our bodies will behave even more regularly, and that to find a case of noticeable departure from the average, we should have to wait for a time quite fantastically longer than the estimated age of the universe."

This reasoning is based upon the scientific delusion that there are final bodies, or wholes.

Arthur B. Mitchell, of 472 McAllister Avenue, Utica, N.Y., goes out for the evening. It can't be said exactly what will happen to a single cell of Mr. Mitchell's composition, but every wink of an eye, or scratch of an ear, of this body, as a whole, can be foretold.

But now we have a change of view, as to this body that had been regarded as a whole. Now Mr. Mitchell is regarded as one of many units in this community known as Utica. Now the admission is that Mr. Mitchell's conduct may be slightly irregular, but the contention is that the politics of Utica, as a whole, is never a surprise.

But surprising things, in Utica, are reported. Well, Utica is only one of the many communities that make up the State of New York. But the State of New York --

My own expression is that ours in an intermediate existence, poised, or fluctuating back and forth between two unrealizable extremes that may be called positiveness and negativeness; a hyphenated state of goodness-badness, coldness-heatness, equilibrium-inequilibrium, certainty-uncertainty. I conceive of our existence as an organism in which positivizing and negativizing manifestations, or conflicts, are metabolic. Certainty, or regularity, exists to [112/113] a high degree, in the movements of the planets, but not absolutely, because of small, unformulable digressions; and negativeness exists to a high degree, in the freaks of a cyclone, though not absolutely, because a still more frenzied state of eccentricity can always be thought of.

My expression is that there are things, beings, and events that conform strikingly to regularized generalizations, but that also there are outrageous, silly, fiendish, bizarre, idiotic, monstrous things, beings, and events that illustrate just as strikingly universal imbecility, crime, or unformulability, or fantasy.

In the London newspapers, last of March, 1908, was told a story, which, when starting off, was called "what the coroner for South Northumberland described as the most extraordinary case that he had ever investigated."(2) The story was of a woman, at Whitley Bay, near Blyth, England, who, according to her statement, had found her sister, burned to death on an unscorched bed. This was the equivalence of the old stories of "spontaneous combustion of human bodies." It was said that the coroner was at first puzzled by this story; but that he learned that the woman who told it had been intoxicated, and soon compelled her to admit that she had found her sister, suffering from burns, in another part of the house, and had carried her to her bed room.

But, in my experience with Taboo, I have so many notes upon coroners, who have seen to it that testimony was what it should be; and so many records of fires that, according to all that is supposed to be known of chemical affinity, should not have been, that, between what should [113/114] and what shouldn't, I am so confused that all that I can say about a story of a woman who burned to death on an unscorched bed is that it is possible-impossible.

Looking over data, I note a case that has no bearing on the story of the burning woman on the unscorched bed, but that is a story of strange fires, or of fires that would be strange, if stories of similar fires were not so common. It is a case that interests me, because it aligns with the stories of Emma Piggott and John Doughty. There was an occurrence, and it was followed by something else that seems related: but, in terms of common knowledge, it can not be maintained that between the first occurrence and the following occurrences there was relationship. Most of the story was told in the London Times, August 21, 1856; but, whenever it is possible for me to do so, I go to local newspapers for what I call data.(3) I take from various issues of the Bedford Times and the Bedford Mercury.(4)

Upon the 12th of August, 1856, a resident of Bedford, named Moulton, was absent from home. He was upon a business trip to Ireland. At home were Mrs. Moulton and the housemaid, Anne Fennimore. To fumigate the house, the girl burned sulphur, in an earthenware jar, on the floor. The burning sulphur ran out on the floor, and set the house afire. This fire was put out.

About an hour later, a mattress was found burning, in another room. But the fire from the sulphur had not extended beyond one room, and this mattress was in another part of the house. Smoke was seen, coming from a chest. Later, smoke was seen coming from a closet, and [114/115] in it linen was found burning. Other isolated fires broke out. Moulton was sent for, and returned, upon the evening of the 16th. He took off damp clothes, and threw them on the floor. Next morning these clothes were found afire. Then came a succession of about forty fires, in curtains, in closets, and in bureau drawers. Neighbors and policemen came in, and were soon fearful for their safety. Not only objects around them flamed; so flamed their handkerchiefs.

There were so many witnesses, and so much talk in the town, that there was an investigation. Considering that nobody was harmed, it seems queer to read that the investigation was a coroner's inquest: but the coroner was the official who took up the investigation. Witnesses told of such occurrences as picking up a pillow and setting it down -- pillow flaming. There was an attempt to explain, in commonplace terms: but nothing that could suggest arson was found, and Moulton had insured neither the house nor the furniture. The outstanding puzzlement was that an ordinary fire seemed to be in some way related to the fires that followed it, but in no way that could be defined. The verdict of the jury was that the fire from the burning sulphur was accidental, but that there was no evidence to show what had caused the succeeding fires.

This story attracted attention in London. After the first account, in the Times, there was considerable correspondence.(5) At the inquest, two physicians had given their opinion that the sulphur fire must have been the cause of the other fires -- or that inflammable, sulphurous fumes had probably spread throughout Moulton's house. But [115/116] the jury had refused to accept this explanation, because of testimony that chairs and sofas that had been carried out into the yard, had flamed. The fires were in a period of five days, and it is probable that in that length of time any permeation by fumes would have been detected. In the discussion in the Times it was pointed out that sulphurous fumes are oxides and are not inflammable.

However, I come to another fire, and maybe I'll explain this one.

It was upon the night of January 21, 1909. Upon this night, a small-town woman exasperated a New York hotel clerk. Perhaps I explain her unusual behavior by thinking that, having come from a small town, she started picturing the dangers of the big city, and let her imaginings become an obsession. The woman was Mrs. Mary Wells Jennings, of Brewster, N.Y. Place -- the Greek Hotel, 30 E. 42nd Street. See the Brooklyn Eagle, Jan. 22, 1909.(6) Mrs. Jennings asked the night clerk to change her room, saying that she feared fire. The clerk assigned her to another room. Not long afterward -- wouldn't he let her have another room? So another room. Again she annoyed the clerk. Room changed again. A few hours later, in an unoccupied room, where, during alterations, paints were stored, a fire broke out.

St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Dec. 16, 1889 -- "In some mysterious way, a fire started in the mahogany desk in the center of the office of the Secretary of War, at Washington, D.C. Several official papers were destroyed, but it was said that they were of no especial value, and could be replaced. Secretary Proctor can not understand how the [116/117] fire originated, as he does not smoke, and keeps no matches about his desk."(7)

It may be that there have been other cases, in which, "in some mysterious way" have been destroyed papers that were of no especial value, and could be replaced. Upon Sept. 16, 1920, London newspapers told of three fires that had broken out simultaneously in different departments of the Government Office, in Tothill Street, Westminster, London. It was not said that papers of no especial value had been destroyed, but it was said that these simultaneous fires had not been explained. London Sunday Express, May 2, 1920 -- "Upon the night of April 28, fire of mysterious origin broke out at the War Office, Constantinople, where the archives are stored. The iron doors were locked, and it was impossible to gain entrance to the building until afternoon. Many important documents were destroyed."(8)

The body of a girl -- and the body of a crow -- and a newspaper correspondent's vague feeling of an unknown relationship --

A woman who was away from home --

Upon the night of April 6, 1919 -- see the Dartford (Kent) Chronicle, April 7 -- Mr. J. Temple Thurston was alone in his home, Hawley Manor, near Dartford.(9) His wife went abroad. Particulars of the absence of his wife, or of anything leading to the absence of his wife, are missing. Something had broken up this home. The servants had been dismissed. Thurston was alone.

At 2.40 o'clock, morning of April 7th, the firemen [117/118] were called to Hawley Manor. Outside Thurston's room, the house was blazing; but in his room there was no fire. Thurston was dead. His body was scorched; but upon his clothes there was no trace of fire. [118]

1. Charles Galton Darwin. New Conceptions of Matter. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1931, 101-2.

2. London Weekly News, March 29, 1908, p.9 c.2.

3. "Spontaneous combustion in the Town of Bedford." London Times, August 21, 1856, p. 9 c. 4. The resident was Alfred Morton, (not Moulton), and the maid was either Fenemore or Fennermore, (not Fennimore).

4. "The fires in Horne-lane." Bedford Mercury and Huntingdon Express (Bedford), August 23, 1856. Henry Rose. "Spontaneous combustion." Bedford Mercury and Huntingdon Express (Bedford), August 30, 1856. "Fire." Bedford Times, August 16, 1856, p.3 c.1. "Extraordinary and mysterious fires in Bedford." Bedford Times, August 23, 1856, p.3 c.1-4. "The late mysterious fires in Bedford." Bedford Times, August 30, 1856, p.3 c.2-3. "The mysterious fires in Bedford," and, "The spontaneous combustion." Bedford Times, September 20, 1856, p.3 c.2-3.

5. "Late fires in Bedford." London Times, August 23, 1856, p. 8 c. 3-4. T. Herbert Barker. "The mysterious fires in Bedford." London Times, September 16, 1856, p. 10 c. 1. "Spontaneous combustion." London Times, September 20, 1856, p. 8 c. 6.

6. "Guest predicted a fire." Brooklyn Eagle, January 22, 1909, p.20 c.4.

7. St. Louis Globe-Democrat, (December 16, 1889): (Could not find in: 16, 18).

8. "Turkish fire mystery." London Sunday Express, May 2, 1920, p.1 c.4.

9. "Hawley fire mystery." Dartford Chronicle and District Times (Dartford), April 11, 1919, p. 7 c. 6 & p. 9 c. 3. The name of the man was J. Temple Johnson, (not J. Temple Thurston).

Next Chapter

Previous Chapter

Or, go to:


Chapter 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32

Return to Mr. X's Fortean Web-Site

Communications, (preferably in English), may be sent to Mr. X by electronic mail at fortean@resologist.net or by letters to: Box 1598, Kingston, Ontario K7L 5C8 CANADA.

Copyright X, 1998, 1999