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Wild Talents, by Charles Fort, [1933], at


If a man was scorched, though upon his clothes there was no sign of fire, it could be that the woman of Whitley Bay, who told of having found her sister burned to death on an unscorched bed, reported accurately. If the woman confessed that she had lied, that ends the mystery, or that stimulates interest. The statement that somebody, operated upon by the police, or by a coroner,

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confessed, has the meaning that has a statement that under pressure an apple produces cider. However, this analogy breaks down. I have never heard of an apple that would, if properly pressed, yield cider, if wanted; or ginger ale, if required; or home brew, all according to what was wanted.

Once upon a time, when mine was an undeveloped suspiciousness, and I'd let dogmatists pull their pedantries over my perceptions, I nevertheless collected occasional notes upon what seemed to me to be unexplained phenomena. I don't do things mildly, and at the same time much enjoy myself in various ways: I act as if trying to make allness out of something. A search for the unexplained became an obsession. I undertook the job of going through all scientific periodicals, at least by way of indexes, published in English and French, from the year 1800, available in the libraries of New York and London. As I went along, with my little suspicions in their infancies, new subjects appeared to me—something queer about some hailstorms—the odd and the unexplained in archaeological discoveries, and in Arctic explorations. By the time I got through with the "grand tour," as I called this search of all available periodicals, to distinguish it from special investigations, I was interested in so many subjects that had cropped up later, or that I had missed earlier, that I made the tour all over again—and then again had the same experience, and had to go touring again—and so on—until now it is my recognition that in every field of phenomena—and in later years I have multiplied my subjects by very much shifting to the newspapers—is somewhere the unexplained, or the irreconcilable, or the mysterious—in unformulable motions of all planets; volcanic eruptions, murders, hailstorms, protective colorations of insects, chemical reactions, disappearances of human beings, stars, comets, juries, diseases, cats, lampposts, newly married couples, cathode rays, hoaxes, impostures, wars, births, deaths.

Everywhere is the tabooed, or the disregarded. The monks of science dwell in smuggeries that are walled away from event-jungles. Or some of them do. Nowadays a good many of them are going native. There are scientific dervishes who whirl amok, brandishing startling statements; but mostly they whirl not far

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from their origins, and their excitements are exaggerations of old-fashioned complacencies.

Because of several cases that I have noted, the subject of Fires attracted my attention. One reads hundreds of accounts of fires, and many of them are mysterious, but one's ruling thought is that the unexplained would be renderable in terms of accidents, carelessness, or arson, if one knew all the circumstances. But keep this subject in mind, and, as in every other field of phenomena, one comes upon cases that are irreconcilables.

Glasgow News, May 20, 1878—doings in John Shattock's farmhouse, near Bridgewater. Fires had started up unaccountably. A Superintendent of Police investigated and suspected a servant girl, Ann Kidner, aged 12, because he had seen a hayrick flame, while she was passing it. Loud raps were heard. Things in the house, such as dishes and loaves of bread, moved about. The policeman ignored whatever he could not explain, and arrested the girl, accusing her of tossing lighted matches. But a magistrate freed her, saying that the evidence was insufficient.

There is a story of "devilish manifestations," in the Quebec Daily Mercury, Oct. 6, 1880. For two weeks, in the Hudson Hotel, in the town of Hudson, on the Ottawa River, furniture had been given to disorderly conduct: the beds had been especially excitable. A fire had broken out in a stall in the stable. This fire was quenched, but another fire broke out. A priest was sent for, and he sprinkled the stable with holy water. The stable burned down.

There are several recorded cases of such. fires ending with the burning of buildings; but a similarity that runs through the great majority of the stories is of fires localized in special places, and not extending. They are oftenest in the presence of a girl, aged from 12 to 20; but seldom do they occur at night, when they would be most dangerous. It is a peculiarity. See back to the case of the fires in the house in Bedford. It seems that, if those fires had been ordinary fires, the house would have burned down. The cases are of fires, in unscorched surroundings.

New Zealand Times, Dec. 9, 1886—copying from the San Francisco Bulletin, about October 14—that Willie Brough, 12 years old, who had caused excitement in the town of Turlock, Madison Co.,

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[paragraph continues] Cal., by setting things afire, "by his glance," had been expelled from the Turlock school, because of his freaks. His parents had cast him off, believing him to be possessed by a devil, but a farmer had taken him in, and had sent him to school. "On the first day, there were five fires in the school: one in the center of the ceiling, one in the teacher's desk, one in her wardrobe, and two on the wall. The boy discovered all, and cried from fright. The trustees met and expelled him, that night." For another account, see the New York Herald, Oct. 16, 1886.

Setting fire to teacher's desk, or to her wardrobe, is understandable, and would have been more understandable to me, when I was 12 years old; but in terms of no known powers of mischievous youngsters, can there be an explanation of setting a ceiling, or walls, afire. It seems to me that no yarn-spinner would have thought of any such particular, or would have made his story look improbable with it, if he had thought of it. I have other accounts in which similar statements occur. This particular of fires on walls is unknown in standardized yarns of uncanny doings. If writers of subsequent accounts probably had never heard of Willie Brough, it is improbable that several of them could invent, or would invent, anything so unlikely. It seems that my reasoning is that, under some circumstances, if something is highly unlikely, it is probable. John Stuart Mill missed that.

Upon the 6th of August, 1887, in a little, two-story frame house, in Victoria Street, Woodstock, New Brunswick, occupied by Reginald C. Hoyt, his wife, four children of his own, and two nieces, fires broke out. See the New York World, Aug. 8, 1887. Within a few hours, there were about forty fires. They were fires in un-scorched surroundings. They did not extend to their surroundings, because they were immediately put out, or because some unknown condition limited them. "The fires can be traced to no human agency, and even the most skeptical are staggered. Now a curtain, high up and out of reach, would burst into flames, then a bed quilt in another room: a basket of clothes on a shed, a child's dress, hanging on a hook."

New York Herald, Jan. 6, 1895—fires in the home of Adam Colwell, 84 Guernsey Street, Greenpoint, Brooklyn—that, in 20 hours,

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preceding noon, January 5th, when Colwell's frame house burned down, there had been many fires. Policemen had been sent to investigate. They had seen furniture burst into flames. Policemen and firemen had reported that the fires were of unknown origin. The Fire Marshal said: "It might be thought that the child Rhoda started two of the fires, but she cannot 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."

Colwell's story was that, upon the afternoon of January 4th, in the presence of his wife and his step-daughter Rhoda, aged 16, a crash was heard. A large, empty, parlor stove had fallen to the floor. Four pictures, fell from walls. Colwell had been out. Upon his return, while hearing an account of what had occurred, he smelled smoke. A bed was afire. He called a policeman, Roundsman Daly, who put out the fire, and then, because of unaccountable circumstances, remained in the house. It was said that the Roundsman saw wallpaper, near the shoulder of Colwell's son Willie start to burn. Detective Sergeant Dunn arrived. There was another fire, and a heavy lamp fell from a hook. The house burned down, and the Colwells, who were in poor circumstances, lost everything but their clothes. They were taken to the police station.

Captain Rhoades, of the Greenpoint Precinct, said: "The people we arrested had nothing to do with the strange fires. The more I look into it, the deeper the mystery. So far I can attribute it to no other cause than a supernatural agency. Why, the fires broke out under the very noses of the men I sent to investigate."

Sergeant Dunn—"There were things that happened before my eyes that I did not believe were possible."

New York Herald, January 7—"Policemen and firemen artfully tricked by a pretty, young girl."

Mr. J. L. Hope, of Flushing, L. I., had called upon Captain Rhoades, telling him that Rhoda had been a housemaid in his home, where, between November 19 and December 19, four mysterious fires had occurred. "Now the Captain was sure of Rhoda's

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guilt, and he told her so." "She was frightened, and was advised to tell the truth."

And Rhoda told what she was "advised" to tell. She "sobbed" that she had started the fires, because she did not like the neighborhood in which she lived, and wanted to move away: that she had knocked pictures from the walls, while her mother was in another part of the house, and had dropped burning matches into beds, continuing; her trickeries after policemen, detectives, and firemen had arrived.

The Colwells were poor people, and occupied only the top floor of the house that burned down. Colwell, a carpenter, had been out of work two years, and the family was living on the small wages of his son. Insurance was not mentioned.

The police captain's conclusion was that the fires that had seemed "supernatural" to him, were naturally accounted for, because, if when Rhoda was in Flushing, she set things afire, fires in her own home could be so explained. Rather than to start a long investigation into the origin of the fires in Flushing, the police captain gave the girl what was considered sound and wholesome advice. And—though it seems quaint, today—the girl listened to advice. "Pretty, young girls" have tricked more than policemen and firemen. Possibly a dozen male susceptibles could have looked right at this pretty, young girl, and not have seen her strike a match, and flip it into furniture; but no flip of a match could set wallpaper afire. The case is like the case of Emma Piggott. Only to one person's motives could fires be attributed: but by no known means could she have started some of these fires.

Said Dr. Hastings H. Hart, of the Russell Sage Foundation, as reported in the newspapers, May 10, 1931: "Morons for the most part can be the most useful citizens, and a great deal of the valuable work being done in the United States is being done by such mentally deficient persons."

Dr. Hart was given very good newspaper space for this opinion, which turned out to be popular. One can't offend anybody with any statement that is interpreted as applying to everybody else. Inasmuch as my own usefulness has not been very widely recognized, I am a little flattered, myself. To deny, ridicule, or reasonably explain away occurrences that are the data of this book, is what I call

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useful. A general acceptance that such things are would be unsettling. I am an evil one, quite as was anybody, in the past, who collected data that were contrary to the orthodoxy of his time. Some of the most useful work is being done in the support of Taboo. The break of Taboo in any savage tribe would bring on perhaps fatal disorders. As to the taboos of savages, my impressions are that it is their taboos that are keeping them from being civilized; that, consequently, one fetish is worth a hundred missionaries.

I shall take an account of "mysterious fires" from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, Dec. 19, 1891. I shall go on to quote from a Canadian newspaper, with the idea of supporting Dr. Hart's observations. Reporters, scientists, policemen, spiritualists—all have investigated phenomena of "poltergeist girls" in ways essentially the same as the way of a Canadian newspaper man—and that has been to pick out whatever agreed with their preconceptions, or with their mental deficiencies, or their social usefulness, and to disregard everything else.

According to the story in the Globe-Democrat, there had been "extraordinary" occurrences in the home of Robert Dawson, a farmer, at Thorah, near Toronto, Canada. In his household were his wife and an adopted daughter, an English girl, Jennie Bramwell, aged 14. Adopted daughters, with housemaids, are attracting my attention, in these cases. The girl had been ill. She had gone into a trance, and had exclaimed: "Look at that!" pointing to a ceiling. The ceiling was afire. Soon the girl startled Mr. and Mrs. Dawson by pointing to another fire. Next day many fires broke out. As soon as one was extinguished, another started up. While Mrs. Dawson and the girl were sitting, facing a wall, the wallpaper blazed. Jennie Bramwell's dress flamed, and Mrs. Dawson's hands were burned, extinguishing the fire. For a week, fires broke out. A kitten flamed. A circumstance that is unlike a particular in the Bedford case, is that furniture carried outside, and set in the yard, did not burn.

An account, in the Toronto Globe, November 9, was by a reporter, who was a person of usefulness. He told of the charred patches of wallpaper, which looked as if a lighted lamp had been held to the places. Conditions were miserable. All furniture had

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been moved to the yard. The girl had been sent back to the orphan asylum, from which she had been adopted, because the fires had been attributed to her. With her departure, phenomena had stopped. The reporter described her as "a half-witted girl, who had walked about, setting things afire." He was doubtful as to what to think of the reported flaming of a kitten, and asked to see it. He wrote that it was nothing but a kitten, with a few hairs on its back slightly singed. But the chief difficulty was to explain the fire on the ceiling, and the fires on the walls. I'll not experiment, but I assume that I could flip matches all day at a wall, and not set wallpaper afire. The reporter asked Mrs. Dawson whether the girl had any knowledge of chemistry. According to him, the answer was that this little girl, aged 14, who had been brought up in an orphan asylum, was "well-versed in the rudiments of the science." Basing upon this outcome of his investigations, and forgetting that he had called the well-versed, little chemist "half-witted," or being more sophisticated than I seem to think, and seeing no inconsistency between scientific knowledge and imbecility, the useful reporter then needed only several data more to solve the mystery. He enquired in the town, and learned that the well-versed and half-witted little chemist was also "an incorrigible little thief." He went to the drug store, and learned that several times the girl had been sent there on errands. The mystery was solved: the girl had stolen "some chemical," which she had applied to various parts of Dawson's house.

Occurrences of more recent date. Story in the London Daily Mail, Dec. 13, 1921, of a boy, in Budapest, in whose presence furniture moved. The boy was about 13 years of age. Since about his 12th birthday, fires had often broken out, in his presence. Alarmed neighbors, or "superstitious" neighbors, as they were described, in the account, had driven him and his mother from their home. It was said that, when he slept, flames flickered over him, and singed his pillow.

In the New York Times, Aug. 25, 1929, was published a story of excitement upon the West Indian island of Antigua. This is a story that reverses the particulars of some of the other stories. It is an account of a girl whose clothes flamed, leaving her body unscorched. This girl, a Negress, named Lily White, living in the village of

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[paragraph continues] Liberta, flamed, while walking in the streets. However, at home, too, the clothes of this girl often burst into flames. She became dependent upon her neighbors for something to wear. When she was in bed, sheets burned around her, seemingly harmlessly to her, according to the story.

Early in March, 1922, an expedition, composed of newspaper reporters and photographers, headed by Dr. Walter Franklin Prince, arrived at a deserted house that was surrounded by snow banks out of which stuck the blackened backs, legs, and arms of burned furniture. The newspapers had told of doings in this house, near Antigonish, Nova Scotia, and had emphasized the circumstance that, "in the dead of winter," Alexander MacDonald and his family had been driven from their home, by "mysterious fires," unaccountable sounds, and the meanderings of crockery. The phenomena had centered around Mary Ellen, MacDonald's adopted daughter. With the idea that the house was haunted, the expedition entered, and made itself at home, everybody quick on the draw for note paper or camera. Mostly, in poltergeist cases, I see nothing to suggest that the girls—boys sometimes—are mediums, or are operated upon by spirits; the phenomena seem to be occult powers of youngsters. In MacDonald's house, the investigators came upon nothing that suggested the presence of spirits. Mary Ellen and her father, or father by adoption, were induced to return to the house, but nothing occurred. Usually, in cases of poltergeist girls, phenomena are not of long duration. Dr. Prince interviewed neighbors, and recorded their testimony that dozens of fires had broken out, in this girl's presence: but more striking than any testimony by witnesses was the sight, outside this house, of the blackened furniture, sticking out of snow banks.

New York Sun, Feb. 2, 1932—a dispatch from Bladenboro, North Carolina. "Fires, which apparently spring from nowhere, consuming the household effects of C. H. Williamson, here, have placed this community in a state of excitement, and continue to burn. Saturday a window shade and curtain burned in the Williamson home. Since then fire has burst out in five rooms. Five window shades, bed coverings, tablecloths, and other effects have suddenly burst into flames, under the noses of the watchers. Williamson's daughter stood

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in the middle of the floor, with no fire near. Suddenly her dress ignited. That was too much, and household goods were removed from the house."

In the New York Sun, Dec. 1, 1882, is an account of the occult powers of A. W. Underwood, a Negro, aged 24, of Paw Paw, Michigan. The account, copied from the Michigan Medical News, was written by Dr. L. C. Woodman, of Paw Paw. It was Dr. Woodman's statement that he was convinced that Underwood's phenomena were genuine. "He will take anybody's handkerchief, and hold it to his mouth, rub it vigorously, while breathing on it, and immediately it bursts into flames, and burns until consumed. He will strip, and will rinse out his mouth thoroughly, and submit to the most rigorous examination to preclude the possibility of any humbug, and then by his breath, blown upon any paper, or cloth, envelop it in flames. He will, while out gunning, lie down, after collecting dry leaves, and by breathing on them start a fire."

In the New York Sun, July 9, 1927, is an account of a visit by Vice-President Dawes, to Memphis, Tennessee. In this city lived a car-repairer, who was also a magician. "He took General Dawes’ handkerchief, and breathed upon it, and it caught fire."

Out of the case of the Negro who breathed dry leaves afire, I conceive of the rudiments of a general expression, which I expect to develop later. The phenomena look to me like a survival of a power that may have been common in the times of primitive men. Breathing dry leaves afire would, once upon a time, be a miracle of the highest value. I speculate how that could have come about. Most likely there never has been human intelligence keen enough to conceive of the uses of fire, in times when uses of fire were not of conventional knowledge. But, if we can think of our existence as a whole—perhaps only one of countless existences in the cosmos—as a developing organism, we can think of a fire-inducing power appearing automatically in some human beings, at a time of its need in the development of human phenomena. So fire-geniuses appeared. By a genius I mean one who can't avoid knowledge of fire, because he can't help setting things afire.

I think of these fire-agents as the most valuable members of a savage community, in primitive times: most likely beginning humbly,

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regarded as freaks; most likely persecuted at first, but becoming established, and then so overcharging for their services that it was learned how, by rubbing sticks, to do without them—so then their fall from importance, and the dwindling of them into their present, rare occurrence—but the preservation of them, as occasionals, by Nature, as an insurance, because there's no knowing when we'll all go back to savagery again, degrading down to an ignorance of even how to start fires—so then a revival of the fire-agents, and civilization starting up again—only again to be overthrown by wars and grafts, doctors, lawyers, and other racketeers; corrupt judges and cowardly juries—starting down again, perhaps this time not stopping short of worms. Occasionally I contribute to the not very progressive science of biology, and, as I explain atavistic persons in societies, I now make suggestions as to vestigial organs and structures in human bodies—that the vestigial may not be merely a relic, but may be insurance—that the vestigial tail of a human being is no mere functionless retention, but is a provision against times when back to the furry state we may go, and need means for wagging our emotions. Conceive of a powerful backward slide, and one conceives of the appearance, by only an accentuation of the existing, of hosts of werewolves and wereskunks and werehyenas in the streets of New York City.

Mostly our data indicate that occasional human beings have the fire-inducing power. But it looks as if it were not merely that, in the presence of the Negress, Lily White, fires started: it looks as if these fires were attacks upon her. Men and women have been found, burned to death, and explanations at inquests have not been satisfactory. There are records of open, and savage, seizures, by flames, of people.

Annual Register, 1820-13—that Elizabeth Barnes, a girl aged 10, had been taken to court, accused by John Wright, a linen draper, of Foley-place, Mary-le-bon, London, of having repeatedly, and "by some extraordinary means," set fire to the clothing of Wright's mother, by which she had been burned so severely that she was not expected to live. The girl had been a servant in Wright's household. Upon January 5th an unexplained fire had broken out. Upon the 7th, Mrs. Wright and the girl were sitting by the hearth, in the

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kitchen. Nothing is said, in the account, of relations between these two. Mrs. Wright got up from her chair, and was walking away, when she saw that her clothes were afire. Again, upon January 12th, she was, with the girl, in the kitchen, about eight feet from the hearth, where "a very small fire" was burning. Suddenly her clothes flamed. The next day, Wright heard screams from the kitchen, where his mother was, and where the girl had been. He ran into the room, and found his mother in flames. Only a moment before had the girl left the kitchen, and this time Wright accused her. But it was Mrs. Wright's belief that the girl had nothing to do with her misfortunes, and that "something supernatural" was assailing her. She sent for her daughter, who arrived, to guard her. She continued to believe that the girl could have had nothing to do with the fires, and went to the kitchen, where the girl was, and again "by some unknown means, she caught fire." "She was so dreadfully burned that she was put to bed." When she had gone to sleep, her son and daughter left the room—and were immediately brought back by her screams, finding her surrounded by flames. Then the girl was told to leave the house. She left, and there were no more fires. This seemed conclusive, and the Wrights caused her arrest. At the hearing, the magistrate said that he had no doubt that the girl was guilty, but that he could not pronounce sentence, until Mrs. Wright should so recover as to testify.

In Cosmos, 3-6-242, is a physician's report upon a case. It is a communication by Dr. Bertholle to the Société Medico-Chirurgicale:

That, upon the 1st of August, 1869, the police of Paris had sent for Dr. Bertholle, in the matter of a woman, who had been found, burned to death. Under the burned body, the floor was burned, but there was nothing to indicate the origin of the fire. Bedclothes, mattresses, curtains, all other things in the room, showed not a trace of fire. But this body was burned, as if it had been the midst of flames of the intensity of a furnace. Dr. Bertholle's report was technical and detailed: left arm totally consumed; right hand burned to cinders; no trace left of internal organs in the thorax, and organs in the abdomen unrecognizable. The woman had made no outcry, and no other sound had been heard by other dwellers in the house. It

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is localization, or specialization, again—a burned body in an almost unscorched room.

Upon the night of Dec. 23, 1916—see the New York Herald, Dec. 27, 28, 1916—Thomas W. Morphey, proprietor of the Lake Denmark Hotel, seven miles from Dover, N. J., was awakened by moaning sounds. He went down the stairs, and found his housekeeper, Lillian Green, burned and dying. On the floor under her was a small, charred place, but nothing else, except her clothes, showed any trace of fire. At a hospital, the woman was able to speak, but it seems that she could not explain. She died without explaining.

One of my methods, when searching for what I call data, is to note, in headlines, or in catalogues, or indexes, such clue-words, or clue-phrases, as I call them, as "mystery solved," or an assurance that something has been explained. When I read that common sense has triumphed, and that another superstition has been laid low, that is a stimulus to me to be busy—

Or that story of the drunken woman, of Whitley Bay, near Blyth, who had told of finding her sister burned to death on an unscorched bed, and had recanted. Having read that this mystery had been satisfactorily explained, I got a volume of the Blyth News.

The story in the local newspaper is largely in agreement with the story in the London newspapers: nevertheless there are grounds for doubts that make me think it worth while to re-tell the story.

The account is of two retired schoolteachers, Margaret and Wilhelmina Dewar, who lived in the town of Whitley Bay, near Blyth. In the evening of March 22, 1908, Margaret Dewar ran into a neighbor's house, telling that she had found her sister, burned to death. Neighbors went to the house with her. On a bed, which showed no trace of fire, lay the charred body of Wilhelmina Dewar. It was Margaret's statement that so she had found the body, and so she testified, at the inquest. And there was no sign of fire in any other part of the house.

So this woman testified. The coroner said that he did not believe her. He called a policeman, who said that, at the time of the finding of the body, the woman was so drunk that she could not have known what she was saying. The policeman was not called upon to state how he distinguished between signs of excitement and terror,

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and intoxication. But there was no accusation that, while upon the witness stand, this woman was intoxicated, and here she told the same story. The coroner urged her to recant. She said that she could not change her story.

So preposterous a story as that of a woman who had burned to death on an unscorched bed, if heeded, or if permitted to be told, would be letting "black magic," or witchcraft, into English legal proceedings. The coroner tried persistently to make the woman change it. She persisted in refusing. The coroner abruptly adjourned the inquest until April 1st.

Upon April 1st, Margaret Dewar confessed. Any reason for her telling of a lie, in the first place, is not discoverable. But there were strong reasons for her telling what she was wanted to tell. The local newspaper was against her. Probably the coroner terrified her. Most likely all her neighbors were against her, and hers were the fears of anybody, in a small town, surrounded by hostile neighbors. When the inquest was resumed, Margaret Dewar confessed that she had been inaccurate, and that she had found her sister burned, but alive, in a lower part of the house, and had helped her up to her room, where she had died. In this new story, there was no attempt to account for the fire; but the coroner was satisfied. There was not a sign of fire anywhere in the lower part of this house. But the proper testimony had been recorded. Why Margaret Dewar should have told the story that was called a lie was not inquired into. There are thousands of inquests at which testimonies are proper stories.

Madras Mail, May 13, 1907—a woman in the village of Manner, near Dinapore—flames that had consumed her body, but not her clothes—that two constables had found the corpse in a room, in which nothing else showed signs of fire, and had carried the smoldering body, in the unscorched clothes, to the District Magistrate. Toronto Globe, Jan. 28, 1907—dispatch from Pittsburgh, Pa.—that Albert Houck had found the body of his wife, "burned to a crisp," lying upon a table—no sign of fire upon the table, nor anywhere else in the house. New York Sun, Jan. 24, 1930—coroner's inquiry, at Kingston, N. Y., into the death of Mrs. Stanley Lake. "Although her body was severely burned, her clothing was not even scorched."

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