Collected by Jan Willem Nienhuys, with the help of Mike Hutchinson,
Clare and Ian Martin, Scott Campbell, Marcel de Jong, Ed Oomes, Joe Nickell,
Ranjit Sandu, Margareth Schroth, Dennis K. Lien, Mike Ashley, Andy Sawyer,
Henriëtte de Brouwer and Edna Newcombe.
If any reader knows of more sources containing stories about Phyllis Newcombe and/or Maybelle Andrews, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Texts of 1938 newspapers are verbatim copied,
including typos and dubious style
(marked with [sic]), line breaks etc.
Best viewed with a window just about the width of this line.
Essex Chronicle, 2 September 1938
Essex Weekly News, 2 September 1938
Essex Chronicle, 16 September 1938
Essex Weekly News, 16 September 1938
entry of death
Daily Telegraph, 20 September 1938
Essex Chronicle, 23 September 1938
Essex Weekly News, 23 September 1938
E.F. Russell, Tomorrow, May 1942
E.F. Russell, Fate, December 1950
(= March 1955, UK edn.)
E.F. Russell, Great World Mysteries, 1957
Allan W. Eckert, True, 1964
Emile C. Schurmacher, Strange Unsolved Mysteries, 1967
Emile C. Schurmacher, in: Strange Stories, 1976
Vincent H. Gaddis, Mysterious Fires and Lights, 1967
Colin Wilson, The occult, 1971
I. Sanderson, Investigating the unexplained, 1972
Michael Harrison, Fire from Heaven, 1976/1978
Fortean Times 16, review of Fire from Heaven, 1976
R.J.M. Rickard, Fire from Heaven - A Critique, 1977
Evening News, 4 February 1978
Reader's Digest, Mysteries of the Unexplained, 1982
Lynn Picknett, Flights of Fancy?, 1987
Randles & Hough, Spontaneous Human Combustion, 1992
Larry Arnold, Ablaze!, 1995
Nigel Blundell, Fact or Fiction? Supernatural, 1996
The Essex Chronicle, September 2, 1938 December 1950
Henry McAusland, a civil servant, of Lin-
den Avenue, Romford, gave evidence of
accompanying Miss Newcombe to the dance.
She was wearing a dress made from white
net, or tulle, underneath which was satin.
There was a dark blue sash, and the front
of the dress billowed in the crinoline style.
The dress was long, and swept the floor. All
went well until midnight, when the dance
came to an end.
At the request of the Coroner, Mr. New-
combe then lit a cigarette and applied it to
the cloth, which did not ignite.
The Coroner then went to the ballroom
and inspected the scene of the tragedy, to
ascertain if a match or cigarette thrown or
dropped from the balcony over the landing
could have set fire to the dress.
On his return he remarked, "I am afraid
I can make nothing of it at all. Nothing
could have come from the balcony without
anyone noticing it, and it is not directly
over the landing, but over the stairs. I cannot
imagine anyone deliberately throwing a lighted
match from there.
Mr. McAusland raised the question
whether the satin underneath the net could
have become alight, but the Coroner said he
did not think that could be so, because the
material apparently did not come so far
down as the net and would be several inches
from the feet.
Cyril Herbert Bournbrook, Rectory Lane,
Chelmsford, also gave evidence of seeing the
girl in flames and going to her assistance.
Mr. McAusland told the Coroner that the
dress had been twice cleaned, on the last
occasion six weeks before the dance. There
would probably be some benzine or other
chemical in the material.
Returning a verdict of Accidental death,
the Coroner said he would record that the
clothing caught fire from some reason un-
known. "I must say," he added, "that in
all my experience I have not met with any-
thing so very mysterious as this."
The Essex Weekly News, Friday, September 23, 1938
Invisible Death p.8-11.
On p.10: Chelmsford woman burned to death in a dance hall, cause unknown. After hearing all the evidence, Coroner L. F. Beccles said, ''From all my experience, I have never come across a case so very mysterious as this!'' - Daily Telegraph, September 20th, 1938.
On the opposing page, but about 40 lines higher:
Same date, same fate [Dec. 27, 1938] for
James Duncan, Ballina, Co. Mayo, who became a pillar of
flaming agony in his own bedroom. 'So fierce ...
that rescuers were unable to approach.'
Eric Frank Russell,
Fate, December 1950 (vol. 3, no. 8) Invisible Death p.5-12.
On p.10/11: Chelmsford (England) woman burned to death in the middle of a dance floor, cause unknown. After hearing all the evidence, Coroner L. F. Beccles said, ''From all my experience, I have never come across a case as mysterious as this!'' - Daily Telegraph, September 20, 1938.
In the second column of page 11, more or less adjoining the end of the above story in the first column, we find, with a distance of two lines between Beccles and Duncan:
James Duncan of Ballina, Co. Mayo, Ireland, became a pillar of flaming agony in his own bedroom. ''So fierce the fire ... that rescuers were unable to approach.''
Eric Frank Russell,
Great World Mysteries London, Dennis Dobson, 1957. p. 135
On September 20th 1938, the Daily Telegraph published the story of a woman who burst into flames bang in the middle of a dance-hall. She had not been smoking. Nobody bearing a cigarette had gone near her. There was not a fire or a naked light in the place. Couples glided around the floor, others chatted and sipped soft drinks. In the middle of the floor a shrill, tearing scream and a bellow of flames. She roared like a blow-torch and no man could save her. At the inquest Coroner L.F. Beccles listened to the evidence of many dumbfounded witnesses, then said, 'From all my experience I have never come across a case as mysterious as this!'
Opposite this on page 134, four lines below the line with "as this!" Russell writes:
James Duncan of Ballina, Co. Mayo, Ireland, became a pillar of
flaming agony in his own bedroom. 'So fierce the fire ...
that rescuers were unable to approach.'
Alan W. Eckert,
The baffling burning death,
True the man's magazine, May 1964. p. 32, 33, 104-106.
p.32 is an illustration of a Marilyn Monroe type
lady in a tight fitting short dress surrounded by
flames, and captioned with:
Flames flared out from the woman, and in minutes she was a pile of ashes on the dance floor.
On September 20, 1938, at Chelmsford,
England a woman in the midst of a
crowded dance floor burst into intense
blue flames seemingly generated from
her body. She crumpled silently to the
floor, and neither her escort nor other
would-be rescuers could extinguish the
blaze. In minutes she was ashes,
unrecognizable as a human being. Coroner Leslie
Beccles made a thorough investigation,
then threw up his hands. "In all my
experience," he said, "I've never come
across any case as mysterious as this."
Emile C. Schurmacher
Strange Unsolved Mysteries,
First printing: May 1967 Paperback Library (260 park Avenue South New York, N.Y. 10010)
ON A OCTOBER evening Maybelle Andrews, a 19-year-old
typist, was dancing the watusi with her companion, Billy
Clifford, 22, in one of London's Soho nightspots when she
burst into flames.
Fire suddenly blazed from her back, chest and shoulders, enveloped her head and ignited her hair. She ran frantically about, screaming in agony.
Before Clifford and some of the others were able to seize her and extinguish the fire with their hands and a topcoat, Maybelle had fatally inhaled flames. She died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.
With his burned hands swathed in bandages, Clifford testified at the inquest and told the mystified coroner:
''I saw no one smoking on the dance floor. There were no candles or open lights on the tables. I did not see her dress catch fire from anything. I know it sounds incredible, but it appeared to me that the flames blazed outward, as if they originated within her body.''
Other witnesses agreed with Clifford. The unsatisfactory and reluctant verdict of the coroner's court was: ''Death accidental, caused by fire of unknown origin'' ...
page 155 of the same book, in a note:
Commenting upon the fatal
burning of Maybelle Andrew, [sic]
Coroner James F. Duncan said, ''In all my experience I have
never been confronted by a case as fantastic as this. I can
find no logical explanation whatever as to why the
deceased's clothing and hair caught fire.''
Strange Stories, Amazing facts: stories that are bizarre, unusual, odd, astonishing and often incredible. Pleasantville, New York/Montreal, 1976.
On an October evening in the late 1950's
pretty 19-year-old secretary, dancing
with her boyfriend in a London discotheque,
suddenly burst into flames.
As though driven by an inner storm, fire burst furiously from her back and chest, enveloping her head and igniting her hair. In seconds she was a human torch, and before her horrified companion and other people on the floor could beat out the flames, she died from first degree burns.
With his burned hands swathed in bandages, her boyfriend testified at the inquest: "I saw no one smoking on the dance floor. There were no candles on the tables, and I did not see her dress catch fire from anything. I know it sounds incredible, but it appeared to me that the flames burst outward, as if they originated within her body." Other witnesses agreed with him, and the mystified coroner's verdict was eventually "death by misadventure, caused by a fire of unknown origin."
On p. 607 the acknowledgements state:
INNER FIRES - (c) 1967 by Emile C.
Schurmacher; adapted from Strange Unsolved Mysteries by
Emile C. Schurmacher (Warner Paperback Library);
Note by JWN: a thorough search by Clare and Ian Martin has established that no person named approximately Maybelle Andrews died in England in the periods 1936-1946 and 1955-1960.
Mysterious Fires and Lights,
New York, David McKay, 1967, reprinted New York, Dell, 1968:
Eric Frank Russell, the English writer, recorded nineteen victims, six of them men, during 1938, simply by checking several newspapers daily. Some of these occurrences that baffled physicians and coroners are of special interest.
On the evening of September 19 at Chelmsford (England) a woman in the middle of a dance floor suddenly burst into intense blue flames and within minutes was a blackened mass of ash. Said Coroner L. F. Beccles: "In all my experience I have never come across a case as mysterious as this." (London Daily Telegraph, September 20, 1938).
On page 193 Gaddis refers to Eckert in a footnote.
The Occult: A History, Random House, New York, 1971.
Several cases are cited in a chapter of Strange Unknown Mysteries by Emile Schurmacher. A nineteen-year-old girl named Maybelle Andrews was dancing in a Soho nightclub with her boyfriend, Billy Clifford, when flames suddenly burst from her back, chest and shoulders, igniting her hair. She died on the way to hospital. Her boyfied, was was badly burned trying to put her out, explained that there were no open flames in the room - the flames seemed to come from the girl herself.
... (on static electricity, p. 508)
But this fails to explain how Maybelle
Andrews burst into flames. If she was dancing - Schurmacher
specifies the watusi - she was probably covered with a thin film
of perspiration [etc.]
Investigating the unexplained.
Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ 1972.
In a list of cases:
20 Sept. 1938, Chelmsford, England
A young woman was in the middle of a dance floor when blue flames burst from her body: the flames could not be extinguished and ''in minutes she was ashes, unrecognizable as a human being.''
[a note refers to Eckert, p.112]
Fire from Heaven: A Study of Spontaneous Combustion in Human Beings
Methuen, New York etc., 1978 (first edition: 1976, Sidgwick and Jackson, revised edition 1977, Pan Books; these three editions are not identical)
dustcover, inside front:
ESSEX, ENGLAND, 1938
Phyllis Newcombe engulfed in blue flames on a dance floor and burned to black ash in minutes.
I record my thanks to the librarians of the Daily Telegraph and of the London office of The Liverpool Post and Echo for finding me the particulars of Miss Phyllis Newcombe's and Mrs. Carpenter's tragic deaths respectively ....
page 92 (corresponding to page 103 in the 1977 edition):
As in the case of Phyllis Newcombe, who blazed,
enveloped in ''bluish flames'', as she waltzed on the dance floor.
Phyllis Newcombe was twenty-two, an enthusiastic and practised
dancer. She suddenly glowed with blue flames, and,
while the horrified and (as it seems) momentarily paralyzed
fellow-dancers looked helplessly on, was ''within minutes a
blackened mass of ash.''
This tragic case, that took place at Chelmsford Shire Hall on 27 August 1938, presented more problems to the coroner, L.F. Beccles, than the actual fire itself. The headlines in the Daily Telegraph of 20 September - three weeks after the death of Miss Newcombe - carried as much of the story as the public could be expected to know:
GIRL BURNED IN BALL DRESS
A Coroner: ''Most Mysterious Case''
Town in Need of Official Ambulance
At midnight on Saturday, 27 August 1938, Phyllis
Newcombe was leaving the dance-floor with her fiancé, Henry
McAusland, of Romford - the ''weekly hop'' at the Shire Hall
was over. Twenty-two-year-old Phyllis, happy to have been
dancing all the evening with her young man, stepped lightly
off the floor - and within a minute or two, died.
She was wearing what was described in court as ''a dress modeled on an old-fashioned crinoline'' - a description which was eagerly pounced on by authority as providing a ''reason'' why the dress should have flared up - as Henry McAusland testified - ''in seconds.'' Phyllis screamed; Henry tried to beat the flames out with his bare hands; and badly, indeed, fatally, burned, Phyllis was taken off to the manager's office - there to await an ambulance which did not turn up.
Immediately after the ''accident,'' the manager of the Shire Hall telephoned the police - it was then only a minute or two after midnight. Not until 12.35 a.m. did the ambulance turn up,
St. John Inspector Parrot ''explaining'' that the police - having
no ambulance of their own - had ''passed on the call'' to the St.
John Ambulance Brigade; but, as the ambulance (their only one
a city of some 25,000 people!) was ''out on a call,'' Inspector
Parrott had had to wait until its return before redirecting it to
the Shire Hall.
The ball gown ''modeled on an old-fashioned crinoline'' was too good to miss - and the coroner surmised that, as the sides of this ''old-fashioned'' dress stuck out, the light from a cigarette may ''inadvertently'' have touched it - upon which (''inevitably'') the dress flamed up,'' with the tragic results that we have heard.''
Now this case would have gone the convenient way of all well-handled inquests had not Miss Newcombe had a father of inquiring mind. He asked - and was given - permission to speak; and what he had to say caused the Coroner to declare: ''In all my experience I have never come across a case as mysterious as this.''
Producing a piece of the material of which his dead daughter's dress had been made, Mr. Newcombe invited the coroner to try its inflammable properties. ''Begin with this lighter,'' said Mr. Newcombe. The material flared up. ''Now let me light a cigarette,'' said Mr. Newcombe; ''and let us try that ...'' A lighted cigarette would not ignite the material - and, recalled, all the witnesses swore that no one had even produced a lighter at midnight in the Shire Hall, let alone a flaming one ...
Even if we subdivide the occurrence of spontaneous combustion into many classes, none of these classes is unique. An almost precisely similar case to that of Miss Newcombe is described by Emile Schurmacher in his Strange Mysteries, and quoted by Colin Wilson in The Occult.
Again we have a young woman dancing- that is, moving rhythmically with rotary movements (a potent source of power, according to ''primitive'' belief) - in a place in which there were no open flames: it was the large room of a Soho, London, nightclub.
Nineteen-year-old Maybelle Andrews was dancing with
her friend Billy Clifford, ''when flames suddenly burst from
her back, chest and shoulders, igniting her hair. She died on
the way to hospital. Her boyfriend, who was badly burned
trying to help her explained that there were no open flames
in the room - the flames seemed to come from the girl herself.''
In the fact that Maybelle was dancing with her male companion, her case most closely resembles that of Phyllis Newcombe; but in the fact that the flames seemed to come from her back and chest, rather than from her dress, her case bears a strong resemblance to the several cases quoted in this book, ...
p.186, in a list of patterns, under FIRE:
HARMFUL-to person through clothing:
Miss Phyllis Newcombe's dress caught fire at dance at Chelmsford; she, twenty-to, was burned to death. (See page 92.)
p. 268, in a note grouping Russell's cases into several categories:
Her dress flamed up as she was dancing
''Her fiancé tried to beat out the flames, but the heat drove him back...''
Fortean Times 16, June 1976,
Review of Fire from Heaven,
The danger of 2nd-hand quoting is
illustrated by the way Harrison has obviously
been influenced by the sensational aspects of
cases as hammed up by Russell via Gaddis, for
example. One such classic is the burning of
Phyllis Newcombe in a ballroom in Chelmsford
about midnight, 27 August 1938. Russell/Gaddis
maintain the girl ''suddenly burst into intense
bluish flames and within minutes was a
blackened mass of ash'' (cf. Gaddis p224). Now
Harrison has tracked down the original report
in the Daily Telegraph 20 Sept 1938 and summarises:
The girl and boyfriend, Henry McAusland, stepped
off the dancefloor having danced
most of the night (Harrison finds something
suggestive about ''rythmic rotary movements'')
the girl screams as flames sprout from around
her, Henry tries to beat them off with his
hands and is burned; ''within a minute or two''
the girl dies. I have a copy of the key news
report here as I write: no mention of bluish
flames, charred heaps, or Henry flapping his
hands. According to the report, an ambulance
arrived about 35 minutes after the incident
and took Phyllis to hospital, where she died,
I'd guess, not less than an hour later. The
mystery is how how her dress became alight -
it was inflammable, but the inquest ruled out the
explanation by Henry himself of a casually
flicked cigarette butt.
R.J.M. Rickard, Fire from Heaven- A Critique, Fortean Times 23, Autumn 1977, p.26-28.
As I pointed
out in my first critique, Harrison must
have had a copy of the original source
of the Phyllis Newcombe story in front
of him to write most of the details he
put in (in the first edition as 'note to
p103' on p223, incorporated into (coincidentally)
p103 in the paperback) yet
here he is still insisting that the poor
girl 'glowed with blue flames' as she
danced, and 'was within minutes a blackened
mass of ash', and that her boyfriend
was 'fatally' burned trying to
extinguish her with his hands. I tried
to draw attention to the fact that according
to the only testimony we have (the
Daily Telegraph 20 Sept 1938, which
Harrison uses) the girl survived to die in
hospital about an hour later, not on the
ballroom floor instantly. Nor is there
any mention of the boyfriend [sic] attempts
to help or hypothetical injuries. Harrison
saw my criticism and saw fit not to correct
his error. That disturbs me.
Evening News, 4 February 1978
RIDDLE OF THE BURNING DEATH
Water only intensifies the fire
that comes from nowhere...
(part of a review of Fire from Heaven)
Like the FBI, the coroner was completely
foxed in the strange case of the Blazing
Girl in Chelmsford.
On August 27, 1938, Phyllis Maud Newcombe, a 22 year old shop assistant, of Bishop Road, Chelmsford, Essex, went with a friend, Henry McAusland, to a dance at Chelmsford's Shire Hall Ballroom.
She was proud of her long, crinolin-style dance frock, made of white tulle over satin, with a dark blue sash. But at midnight, after last waltz, that dress suddenly went up in flames. And on September 15, the girl died in Chelmsford Hospital.
Just another burning tragedy? Not according to the inquest evidence. The celebrated pathologist, Professor F. E. Camps, said that there were extensive burns on the upper part of the body. Had someone thrown down a match or cigarette from the balcony?
The coroner, Mr. L. F. Beccle, visited the scene of the tragedy and reported: "I am afraid I can make nothing of it at all. Nothing could have come from the balcony without anyone noticing it and it is not directly over the landing (where the girl was standing) but over the stairs."
The dead girl's father, Mr George Cyril Newcombe, said that he had experimented with some of the material from which the crinoline dress was made, and demonstrated that it would not ignite from a lighted cigarette.
The really frightening thing about the burning death is that we know so little about it. Scientists continue to hedge, but in countries all over the world there are coroners, policemen and fire chiefs convinced they had come face to face with it.
The comforting thing is that they all agree that it is as rare as it is mysterious.
Mysteries of the Unexplained: How Ordinary Men and Women Have Experienced the Strange, the Uncanny and the Incredible,
The Reader's Digest Association, Inc., s.l. 1982.
p.86 (in an SHC case list)
Phyllis Newcombe burst into flames in the middle of
a dance floor on the evening of August 27, 1938, at the Chelmsford
Shire Hall in Chelmsford, England. The 22-year-old girl was wearing
a dress "modeled on an old-fashioned crinoline." At midnight, just as
she was leaving the dance floor, her dress flared up, and within
seconds she was a blazing mass of blue flames. The young woman's
fiancé, Henry McAusland, tried valiantly to beat out the flames
with his bare hands, but it was already too late. Phyllis was fatally
burned before the ambulance arrived.
At the inquest the coroner initially surmised that a light from a cigarette must have set the gown on fire, but the young woman's father was able to demonstrate to the court that the dress was not that flammable. Using a piece from the same material, he showed that only an open flame would set the cloth on fire and that a cigarette by itself would not ignite it. Since all the witnesses swore that no one had used a lighter or struck a match at midnight in the Shire Hall, the case remained unsolved. (Vincent H. Gaddis, Mysterious Fires and Lights, p.224; Michael Harrison, Fire From Heaven: A Study of Spontaneous Combustion in Human Beings, pp.92-93; True, May 1964, pp.32-33,104-107,112)
Flights of Fancy? 100 years of paranormal experience,
Ward Lock Ltd, London, 1987.
The Cinders Syndrome
It seems as if most victims of SHC die alone,
but there have been witnesses to the abrupt visitation
of flame. On 27 August 1938 twenty-two-year-old Phyllis
Newcombe was dancing with her fiancé Henry McAusland
at the Shire Hall 'hop', Romford, Essex. At the end of the
dance she was suddenly enveloped in blue flame, which McAusland
tried to beat out with his hands, but 'within minutes' she
had turned into 'a blackened mass of ash'. The crinoline-style
frock she was wearing was blamed at the inquest for being
intrinsically flammable (precise reasons not stated), and the
inevitable accidental brush with a lighted match or cigarette
evoked. The dead girl's father, however, produced a piece of
material that had been used to make the ball gown and
deliberately applied a lighted cigarette to it. It would not
burn. The coroner admitted: 'In all my experience I have
never come across a case as mysterious as this.'
Another sick variation on the line: 'You shall go to the ball, Cinders', was the horrendous case of nineteen-year-old Maybelle Andrews who was dancing with her boyfriend Billy Clifford in a nightclub in London's Soho in the 1920s. Flames suddenly burst from her back, setting fire to her hair. A badly shaken Clifford, who was himself burnt by trying to beat out the flames, said afterwards that they seemed to come from within the victim, who died in the ambulance.
Picknett lists (p.124) Harrison among the 'titles that may whet your appetite'.
Jenny Randles and Peter Hough,
Spontaneous Human Combustion.
Robert Hale Ltd., London 1992.
22-year-old Phyllis was an enthusiastic dancer. On 27 August
1938, she was dancing at the Shire hall, Chelmsford, Essex. As she
was leaving the dance-floor with her fiancé, Henry McAusland, in a
matter of a few seconds her dress turned into a mass of flames. She
was taken to the manager's office to await an ambulance, but it was
over half an hour before it appeared. The poor girl died from her
The dress was modelled on an old-fashioned crinoline, so the coroner speculated that a lighted cigarette had brushed against it, setting it on fire. However, her father demonstrated at the inquest that it was not possible for a cigarette to have set light to the dress It needed a direct flame.
About twenty years later, there was an almost identical tragedy, this time in a large public room in Soho, London. 19-year-old Maybelle Andrews was dancing with her friend, Billy Clifford. Suddenly, her back, chest and shoulders burst into flames, igniting
her hair. Billy and some other men tried to beat out the flames, but she died on her way to hospital. He later commented: 'I saw no one smoking on the dance-floor. There were no candles on the tables and I did not see her dress catch fire from anything. I know it sounds incredible, but it appeared to me that the flames burst outwards, as if they originated within her body.'
p. 199 (in a case list):
53. 27 August 1938 Chelmsford, Essex, England
At midnight, 22-year-old Phyllis Newcombe was leaving the dance-floor with her fiancé, Henry McAusland, at the Shire Hall, when her dress suddenly flared up in flames. Henry tried to beat out
the flames and burnt his hands. Within minutes the girl was dead. The coroner thought that perhaps a lighted cigarette had started the conflagration, but it was demonstrated that a cigarette could not ignite her dress. (H)
[the H refers to Harrison]
68. October Late 1950s Soho, London, England
19-year old Maybelle Andrews was dancing with her boyfriend, Billy Clifford, when flames erupted from her back, chest and shoulders, igniting her hair. She died on the way to hospital. Her boyfriend said there were no naked flames, and the fire seemed to come from within the girl herself. (H)
Larry E. Arnold,
Ablaze! The mysterious fires of spontaneous human combustion.
M. Evans and Company, Inc. New York, 1995.
As the clock approached midnight on
August 27, 1938, the fire again
appeared in public. In a very public place -
the Chelsmford Shire Hall in south-east
England. Young and pretty Phyllis
Newcombe, twenty-two, was whirling
and twirling on the floor at the weekly
Saturday dance with her fiancé, Henry
McAusland, when she dance-stepped into
combustion Phyllis screamed. Blue
flames were swirling around her body.
In horror, everyone screamed. The
unnerved McAusland tried to beat out the
flames bare-handed. All attempts to
rescue his fiancée failed, and ''in
minutes she was ashes, unrecognizable as a
The Essex Chronicle (September 2, 1938) had this story first, one that didn't spread like wild fire through the British press. London's Daily Telegraph picked up the story on September 20, when it chronicled the coroner's court proceedings. Ironically, testimony began with a plea for an ambulance to serve the city of twenty-five thousand: it had taken the ambulance from a nearby brigade thirty-five minutes to arrive at the dance hall - as if a more timely response would have saved the poor girl. Not! McAusland testified Miss Newcombe's dress and body ignited ''in seconds'' and that no ambulance could have gotten there quickly enough.
What material was her dress? asked Coroner L.F. Beecles. [sic] ''A frock modelled on an old-fashioned crinoline'' came the answer. Why, crinoline will burn! He thus declared ''the tragic results that we have heard'' were caused by a dropped cigarette, which caused the dress (and not Miss Newcombe) to inflame.
Fortunately for justice, Miss Newcombe's father had a more inquiring mind than the coroner first demonstrated. Mr. Newcombe produced a swatch of fabric from which his daughter's dress had been cut. It would burn when lit by a lighter, he showed; but lighted cigarettes failed to produce the same, expected result. Coroner Beecles now had to admit, ''From all my experience, I have never come across a case so very mysterious as this.''
A case that became even more mysterious, if possible. The Essex Weekly News (September 1938) also covered this fantastic story, though it appeared to be a wholly different story. The News had Miss Newcombe ''descending the staircase and on discovering that her dress was alight rushed screaming up the stairs. Her dress immediately burst into flames and at the entrance to the ball-
room she collapsed." On-lookers smothered the fire, limiting its damage ''to her legs and body.'' Many days later, she died in the hospital of ''hypostatic pneumonia and toxaemia secondary to burns.'' In the News' version, the coroner admits this was his oddest case, then appends this: ''Obviously this is not spontaneous combustion.''
October 1938; a nightclub in Soho, the London district famed for its nightlife. Nightlife became nighthorror, then nightdeath for Maybelle Andrews, a nineteen-year-old out of town with Billy Clifford. In midstep with Billy on the dance floor, she erupted in flames ... flames shooting from her back, chest, shoulders and hair. She died moments later. According to a personal communication from journalist Michael Harrison, the inquest was conducted by Coroner James F. Duncan, who concluded: ''in all my experience I have never been confronted by a case as fantastic as this. I can find no logical explanation whatever as to why the deceased's clothing and hair caught fire.
Perhaps had His Majesty's Coroner known about the long history of SHC, he would have found the logical - though no less fantastic - explanation he sought.
On December 26, 1938; Ballina, Ireland.
James Duncan, seventy-six, a nonsmoker
and not near any observed fire,
became a pillar of flame in his bedroom.
Fact or Fiction? Supernatural,
Sunburst Books, London, 1996.
That same year 22-year-old Phyllis Newcombe was leaving a dance
hall at Chelmsford, Essex, when blue flames suddenly engulfed her
body and she was reduced to a pile of ashes within minutes. 'In all
my experience I have never come across anything as remarkable as
this,' admitted a baffled coroner.
In a similar case, 19-year-old Maybelle Andrews was dancing with her boyfriend at a club in London's Soho when flames shot from her chest and back. 'The flames seemed to come from within her body,' said her tearful boyfriend. Other dancers failed to beat them out and within minutes she was dead.