This article from 1883 details the story told by Dr. S. C. Woodman regarding a young man whose breath was discovered to have amazing powers of flammability.
This twenty-seven year old man could hold a handkerchief to his mouth and, breathing on it while rubbing vigorously, it would burst into flames.
Apparently he had been thoroughly investigated and it appeared that his abilities were real. Interestingly when I did a bit of poking around to see what happened when this story was exposed as a hoax I found no evidence it was.
I’m not saying it was real of course, it is just that no-one worked out how it was done.
The Wikipedia entry names the young man as A. W. Underwood and suggests that he had a piece of phosphorus in his mouth, spitting it out into the handkerchief when needed. I think that any investigation would have picked that up pretty quickly though, don’t you?
I found another reference to his ability here and they also gave the example of another similar case from Memphis, Tennessee, in 1927. This one was investigated by US Vice President Charles Dawes and was again inconclusive.
I wonder what was really going on. Parts of this article suggest that this ability is due to an immense physical effort. The trick can only be performed twice a day and seems to be extremely exhausting. Dr. Woodman mentions that on one occasion that after setting a newspaper on fire that Mr. Underwood’s scalp was violently twitching ‘as if under intense excitement’.
I know that such behaviours can be faked (although I’m not sure that such scalp control isn’t a phenomenon all of its own) but Mr. Underwood is referred to as ‘ignorant’. I wonder if his lack of sophistication was real whether he would have been able to keep up this charade under such scrutiny.
Go for it people. Any suggestions as to what the trick was? Even more importantly, can any of you do it yourselves?!