A most dramatic claimed paranormal manifestation, frequently witnessed in the course of history. An early instance recorded in the Bible is that of Meschach, Shadrach, and Abednego, who were thrown into Nebuchadnezzar's furnace:
"Lo, I see four men loose walking in the midst of the fire and they have no hurt. And the princes, governors and captains and the king's counsellors, being gathered together saw these men upon whose bodies the fire had no power, nor was a hair of their heads singed, neither were their coats changed, nor the smell of fire had passed them." (Dan. 3:25-27)
Fire Immunity and Religion
Immunity to fire has often been recorded as a religious miracle, especially as an element in the life of saints. St. Francis of Paula (1508), in whose arms Louis XI of France died, held redhot cinders in his hands and said to the amazed spectators, "All creatures obey those who serve God with a perfect heart." According to the theologian St. Bonaventura, St. Francis was told that nothing could relieve the inflammation in his eyes but cauterization from the jawbone to the eyebrow. He addressed the flame in the brazier, "My brother Fire, the Most High hath created thee beyond all other creatures, mighty in thine enviable glory, fair and useful. Be thou clement unto me in this hour and courteous. I beseech the great Lord who created thee that he temper thy heat unto me, so that I may be able to bear thy gentle burning." He made the sign of the cross over the cauterizing iron and felt no pain whatever on its application.
St. Catherine of Siena fell into a trance with her face in the midst of burning coals on a hearth. When she was discovered and dragged away she was found unhurt. On another occasion, in church, a lit candle fell on her head while she was in a state of contemplation and was not extinguished until it was entirely consumed. She was not burned in the least.
The Camisard leader Claris, during the rise of the Huguenots against Louis XIV, in a state of possession and in the presence of 600 men, put himself on top of a pyre. The flames rose above his head. He continued to speak all the while and did not stop until the wood was consumed and there was no more flame. He was unhurt; there was no mark of fire on either his clothes or hair. One Colonel Cavalier, when in London in 1706, affirmed this as a fact; he was the leader of the troop that had surrounded the fire. Durand Page corroborated his statement. He had helped to fetch wood for the fire and did his best to comfort Claris's shrieking wife.
The Convulsionnaires of St. Medard exhibited similar phenomena. P. F. Mathieu states in his Histoire des Miracles:
"Marie Sonet, called the Salamander, on several occasions, in the presence of Carré de Montgeron and others, stretched herself on two chairs over a blazing fire, and remained there for half an hour or more at a time, neither herself nor her clothing being burnt. On another occasion, however, she thrust her booted feet into a burning brazier until the soles of both boots and stockings were reduced to a cinder, her feet remaining uninjured."
Bernadette Soubirous, the girl who had a vision of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, was seen by a Dr. Dozous in prayer in the grotto. P. J. Boisserie, quoting Dozous in his book Lourdes (1891), notes: "During her ecstasy, she put her hands together, and her fingers were loosely crossed above the flame of a taper which they enveloped in the cavity between the two hands. The taper burnt; the flame showed its point between the fingers and was blown about at the time by a rather strong current of air. But the flame did not seem to produce any alteration in the skin it touched. Astonished at this strange fact I did not allow anyone to put a stop to it, and taking out my watch I could observe it perfectly for a quarter of an hour. Her prayer ended, Bernadette rose, and prepared to leave the grotto. I kept her back for a moment and asked her to show me her hand, which I examined with the greatest care. I could not find the slightest trace of a burn anywhere. I then tried to place the flame of the taper beneath her hand without her observing it; but she drew her hand quickly back, exclaiming 'You burn me!"'
The fire ordeal of the Middle Ages to establish the innocence of a suspected person was performed, according to the famous jurist Sir William Blackstone, either by taking up in the hand unhurt a piece of red-hot iron of one, two, or three pounds weight, or else by walking barefoot and blindfolded over red-hot ploughshares laid lengthwise at unequal distances. If the party escaped being hurt he was judged innocent; if not he was condemned as guilty.
Fire ordeals as a kind of religious ceremony still took place as late as the 1920s. According to an article by Victor Forbin in the Revue Aristote, there was a demonstration of fire walking at Maritzburg, South Africa, in September 1929. Twelve tons of wood were burned in a ditch 14-15 meters long. Eight Hindus and four Englishmen walked through this bed of flames with bare feet. One of the Englishmen, two or three feet from the edge of the brazier, was seized with feebleness, fell on his knees, then recovered and finished the course. He fainted when he was beyond the ditch and was taken to the hospital where the doctors found the soles of his feet badly burned. When he regained consciousness he declared to reporters that his misfor-tune was because of the shouts of the public, which prevented him from concentrating on the Supreme Being (see also the contribution on the fire walk by Victor Forbin in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research [SPR], vol. 26, p. 83.).
In 1935 the psychical researcher Harry Price arranged a scientific investigation of fire walking in Surrey, England, with the cooperation of Kuda Bux, a Moslem fakir from Kashmir. The tests were successful, but two other individuals who attempted the walk suffered blisters on their feet (see Bulletin II of the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation, 1936).
Psychic Immunity to Fire
Among mediums none was more famous for handling fire with impunity than D. D. Home. In the report of a subcommittee for the London Dialectical Society (1871), five witnesses stated that they had seen red-hot coals applied to the hands or heads of several persons by Home without producing pain or scorching.
A Mrs. Honeywood and the Master of Lindsay, the earl of Crawford, described how in a séance on March 17, 1869, Home placed a red-hot coal on his hostess's white muslin dress without harming it and how he held a spray of white flowers, taken from a vase on the table, in the fire of the grate. Smoke rose from the coals, but the flowers remained uninjured and their pure white color undimmed. In the same séance, intensely hot lampglass was easily handled by Honeywood and Lindsay while Home thrust the heated glass (which instantly ignited a match held to it) into his mouth. Lindsay later reported:
"Eight times I myself have held a red-hot coal in my hands without injury, when it scorched my face on raising my hand. Once, I wished to see if they really would burn, and I said so, and touched a coal with the middle finger of my right hand, and I got a blister as large as a sixpence; I instantly asked him [Home] to give me the coal, and I held the part that had burnt me, in the middle of my hand, for three or four minutes, without the least inconvenience."
On one occasion Home knelt down and held his face in the flames of a bright coal fire. Lord Adare, in Experiences in Spiritualism with D. D. Home (1869), thus describes the incident:
"Having apparently spoken to some spirit, he went back to the fire, and with his hand stirred the embers into a flame; then kneeling down, he placed his face right among the burning coals, moving it about as though bathing it in water. Then, getting up, he held his finger for some time in the flame of the candle."
Sir William Crookes witnessed Home handling fire on two or three occasions. In the Proceedings of the SPR (vol. 6) he reports his experience, also shared by Sir W. Huggins, former president of the Royal Society, as follows:
"Mr. Home then waved the handkerchief about in the air two or three times, held it above his head and then folded it up and laid it on his hand like a cushion; putting his other hand into the fire, took out a large lump of cinder, red-hot at the lower part, and placed the red-hot part on the handkerchief. Under ordinary circumstances it would have been in a blaze. In about half a minute, he took it off the handkerchief with his hand saying, "As the power is not strong, if we leave the coal longer it will burn." He then put it on his hand and brought it to the table in the front room where all but myself had remained seated."
On this occasion, with another piece of red-hot coal nearly as big as an orange, Home improvised a furnace in his hand by covering the coal with his left hand and blowing at it until it was nearly white-hot. "Then," continues Crookes, "he drew my attention to the lambent flame which was flickering over the coal and licking round his fingers; he fell on his knees, looked up in a reverent manner, held up the coal in front, and said, 'Is not God good? Are not his laws wonderful?"'
William Stainton Moses also saw Home's strange abilities with fire:
"He then went to the fireplace, removed the guard, and sat down on the hearth rug. Then he seemed to hold a conversation by signs with a spirit. He repeatedly bowed, and finally set to work to mesmerize his head again. He ruffled his bushy hair until it stood out like a mop, and then deliberately lay down and put his head in the bright wood fire. The hair was in the blaze, and must, under ordinary circumstances, have been singed off. His head was in the grate, and his neck on a level with the top-bar. This was repeated several times. He also put his hand into the fire, smoothed away the wood and coal and picked out a live coal which he held in his hand for a few seconds; but replaced soon, saying the power was not sufficient. He tried to give a hot coal to Mr. Crookes, but was unable to do it. He then came to all of us to satisfy us that there was no smell of fire on his hair. There was absolutely none."F. W. H. Myers showed this account to Crookes, who declared that he was unable to explain how it was that Home was not severely burned. Crookes then told Myers:
"I do not believe in the possibility of the ordinary skin of the hand being so prepared as to enable hot coals to be handled with impunity. Schoolboys' books and medieval tales describe how this can be done with alum or certain other ingredients. It is possible that the skin may be so hardened and thickened by such preparations that superficial charring might take place without the pain becoming great, but the surface of the skin would certainly suffer severely. After Home had recovered from the trance I examined his hand with care to see if there were any signs of burning or of previous preparation. I could detect no trace of injury to the skin, which was soft and delicate like a woman's. Neither were there signs of any preparation having been previously applied. I have often seen conjurers and others handle red-hot coals and iron, but there were always palpable signs of burning."
Mrs. S. C. Hall's testimony of an occurrence on July 5, 1869, is often quoted. In this case the burning coal was placed on the head of Mr. Hall. He felt it warm but not hot. Home
"then proceeded to draw up Mr. Hall's white hair over the red coal. Mr. Home drew the hair into a sort of pyramid, the coal, still red, showing beneath the hair; then, after, I think, four or five minutes, Mr. Home pushed the hair back, and taking the coal off Mr. Hall's head, he said … addressing Mrs. Y.: 'Will you have it?' She drew back; and I heard him murmur, 'Little faith, little faith!' Two or three attempted to touch it, but it burnt their fingers. I said, 'Daniel, bring it to me; I do not fear to take it.' It was not red all over…. but it was still red in parts. I put out my right hand but he murmured, 'No, not that; the other hand.' He then placed it in my left hand….I felt it…. 'warm'; yet when I stooped down to examine the coal my face felt the heat so much that I was obliged to withdraw it."
The source usually cited for this incident is S. C. Hall's Retrospect of a Long Life. It does not appear in that work, however, and may simply be an apocryphal tale.
Another fire test was reported by Frank Podmore from a letter written to him by Mrs. William Tebb in June 1882:
"Only on Friday I was in a circle with five others when one fell apparently in deep trance and put his hands over a flame and held them for some time without apparent injury. He also held the flame close to his eyes, to our horror, and we had to beg for the fire test to be dropped. It seemed too much to risk the eyesight in such a way. The burning of the hands we had been able to bear. The man afterwards was apparently no worse."
An American woman named Suydam handled hot iron and live coals and lamp chimneys at their most intense heat in public séances. "While she is under the control of the 'Fire Queen'," reported the Religio Philosophical Journal of Chicago, "her hands are cold and clammy; as cold as ice."
James Robertson, in his book Spiritualism, an Open Door to the Unseen Universe (1908) describes a séance with John Hopcroft, a London shoemaker, in his own house in Glasgow in which "he placed his hands amidst the ruddy coals in the fireplace, and lifting a piece which was perfectly red, he walked through the room so that its glow was reflected by the pictures on the wall."
The New York Herald of September 7, 1871, published the remarkable case of Nathan Coker, a 58-year-old African blacksmith of Easton, Maryland, who in the presence of a committee placed an iron shovel heated to a white heat upon the soles of his feet and kept it there until the shovel became black. When it was again red hot he laid it on his tongue and licked it until it became cooled. He poured a large handful of melted squirrel shot into the palm of his hand and then put it into his mouth, allowing it to run all around his teeth and gums. He repeated the operation several times, each time keeping the molten lead in his mouth until it solidified. After each operation he was carefully examined by physicians and was found unhurt.
The British newspaper Daily Express published a story in 1917 about an interesting experience Rose de Crespigny had with the medium Annie Hunter, in the presence of the paper's correspondent. The control of the medium was said to be a Persian fire worshiper. A log that the reporter brought up from the cellar when red hot was lifted out of the fire by the entranced medium. Talking in an excited way in a foreign language, she carried it about the room. The reporter shrank away. His hair was singed. De Crespigny also held the log across her arms for some seconds without the least harm. Another man, encouraged by what he had seen, allowed her to put the log near his head without any bad results.
There are a variety of different explanations of fire immunity and a variety of conjuring tricks that include apparent fire immunity. A substance called Mallot's metal melts at very low temperatures and can be handled safely for relatively brief periods. It has been noted that under hypnosis, a person can be made to produce a blister on his body after being touched by a pencil and told that it is a lit cigarette. In various altered states of consciousness the body reacts differently to its environment and can, for example, develop an immunity to pain. Few today attempt such feats, except for the well-documented fire-eating by circus performers, and from the sketchy descriptions of reporters it is often difficult to discern exactly what occurred in past generations.
Boisserie, P. J. Lourdes. Paris, 1891.
Carrington, Hereward. "Psychical Phenomena Among Primitive Peoples." Psychic Research (October 1930).
Lang, Andrew. "The Fire Walk." Proceedings of the Society for Psychical Research 15, p. 36.
Leroy, Oliver. Les hommes salamandres: Recherches et réflexions sur l'incombustibilité du corps humain. Paris, 1932.
Michell, John, and Robert J. M. Rickard. Phenomena: A Book of Wonders. London: Thames and Hudson, 1977. Reprint, New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.
Price, Harry, and E. J. Dingwall, eds. Revelations of a Spirit Medium. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1922.
Rickard, Robert, and Richard Kelly. Photographs of the Un-known. London: Book Club Associates, 1980.
Stein, Gordon. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit: Gale Re-search, 1993.