Holy Smokes! Fire Breathing People!

We’ve all heard of fire breathing dragons and may have even heard tales of certain cryptids with the legendary ability to exhale a plume of smoke or even flame.  But one of the things about the human esophagus is it’s not made to be a passage for intense heat or flame.  So when we hear these stories collected by the legendary Charles Fort of people who could conjure up a pillar of flame from their own lungs, it seems something beyond conventional explanation may be necessary.

A human who breathes fire?  Conventional wisdom tells us we should stay away from fire – even lending to phrases like “playing with fire” indicating someone is doing something dangerous.  But in 1882, one Michigan man was afflicted with a curious illness – one that caused him from time to time to breathe out a breath of fire seemingly spontaneously generated within him.  Paw Paw, Michigan’s A.W. Underwood first came into Dr. L.C. Woodman’s care complaining of this mysterious ailment.  Woodman was curious, but almost certain that Underwood was making up the story, suggesting no one would ever believe him if he made a medical note of it.  But then things changed, and the story got more than a little strange.

Dr. Woodman was summoned to the door of his office one September morning by a frantic knocking.  Wondering what the commotion was about, he found Underwood standing there clutching his mouth with a terrified expression on his face.  It had happened again.  At first, Woodman would have none of Underwood’s stories and told him to get some rest.  Soon after, however, Dr. Woodman would be watching with horror as Underwood demonstrated his peculiar talent for breathing fire.  The experiments they would later run eventually made their way in a state medical journal.

Underwood took a discarded piece of cloth and held it to his mouth, forcing his breath through it and rubbing it with his hands.  After a few moments of humoring Underwood, Dr. Woodman was ready to escort the man from his office, but then the cloth erupted into flame.  Suspecting trickery, Dr. Woodman made Underwood conduct the test several times, even making him wash his mouth out several times under supervision and wear rubber gloves to ensure there was no trickery in this trick.  After conducting the experiment under the guidance of several of Dr. Woodman’s colleagues, Underwood was taken slightly more seriously.

Further tests indicated that the fire was somehow coming from Underwood’s mouth spontaneously as he blew through the papers and cloths – often provided to Underwood at random.  While hiking Underwood could similarly take a collection of damp leaves from the ground and blow into them causing them to erupt into flames as well.  It is still unknown just how Underwood conducted this feat, although many contemporaries believe he was nothing more than a skilled illusionist.  Despite this, Underwood was shortly lost in the annals of Fortean history, and the study of Dr. Woodman was not followed up on after his death.