“MYSTERY, MISMANAGEMENT, AND MAYHEM ON THE SS MORRO CASTLE” and More True Stories! #WeirdDarkness

MYSTERY, MISMANAGEMENT, AND MAYHEM ON THE SS MORRO CASTLE” and More True Stories! #WeirdDarkness

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Listen to ““MYSTERY, MISMANAGEMENT, AND MAYHEM ON THE SS MORRO CASTLE” and More True Stories! #WeirdDarkness” on Spreaker.

IN THIS EPISODE: Imagine getting onto a plane and once in the air finding out that the pilot wasn’t qualified to fly that kind of plane – and that he was only there because the original pilot wasn’t available due to being dead. That’s what happened in 1934 on the boat, the SS Morro Castle. And it was the beginning of tragedy after tragedy. (Mystery, Mismanagement, and Mayhem on the SS Morro Castle) *** Jeannie Saffin already had a tough life, being born with a birth defect that stunted her mental growth, leaving her with the mind of a child, never getting married and having kids, never dating… but that all pales in comparison to how she died: bursting into flames for no apparent reason. Was Jeannie Saffin the victim of spontaneous human combustion? (The Spontaneous Combustion of Jeannie Saffin) *** Sometimes it’s easy to get a girl to go out with you – just be polite and ask. Some men resort to cheesy pickup lines thinking it will help their chances. But one man chose to call upon a woman in a very unusual way… by purchasing a gravestone. (Pitching Woo With a Tombstone) *** If a man demands his girlfriend give up the baby they conceived, otherwise he would no longer be with the woman – what is that newborn’s mother to do? Sadly, Emily Dunn made the wrong decision – with tragic results. (The Durbin Baby Murder) *** The transplanting of an organ is almost a routine procedure now in the 21st century – even doing a transplant of an arm or a leg isn’t uncommon. But when you talk about transplanting a living head onto a dead body – that’s when things get tricky. But Robert White thought it could be done – and even tried doing it. (The Man Who Wanted To Do a Head Transplant) *** Plus, I’ll tell you about that time when a dam failed – and because of it, people were legally allowed to marry the dead. And still do to this day. (That Time A Failed Dam Led to Marrying Corpses)
SOURCES AND ESSENTIAL WEB LINKS…
“Mystery, Mismanagement, and Mayhem on the SS Morro Castle” by Brent Swancer for Mysterious Universe: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/56jb9c7j
“The Man Who Wanted To Do a Head Transplant” by Gary Krist for the Washington Post: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/39d2k9pw
“The Durbin Baby Murder” posted at Murders In History: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/c96z9kst
“Pitching Woo With a Tombstone” from the New York Journal, posted at The Victorian Book of the Dead website:https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/utw6vh45
“The Spontaneous Combustion of Jeannie Saffin” by Brent Swancer for Mysterious Universe:https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/e6as67fn
“That Time A Failed Dam Led to Marrying Corpses” by Kaushik Patowary for Amusing Planet: https://weirddarkness.tiny.us/zyrxx43k
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PARTIAL TRANSCRIPT…..

Back in the 1930s, the 508-foot American ocean liner SS Morro Castle was the epitome of luxury on the high seas. Between 1930 and 1934, the SS Morro Castle acted as a high-class passenger liner between Cuba and New York City, attracting a steady clientele even during the Great Depression, due to the fact that its wealthy passengers could legally avoid the Prohibition at the time, gambling and drinking alcohol on a nonstop party all the way to Cuba and back. The ship had a clean service record, offered high-end luxury accommodations, was fast, being able to make the trip in under 58 hours, and was a steady draw for American and Cuban businessmen and tourists of all ages alike. Yet all this was about to change, and the opulent SS Morro Castle was going to become a great maritime mystery.

I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness.

SHOW OPEN==========

Welcome, Weirdos – I’m Darren Marlar and this is Weird Darkness. Here you’ll find stories of the paranormal, supernatural, legends, lore, the strange and bizarre, crime, conspiracy, mysterious, macabre, unsolved and unexplained.

Coming up in this episode…

Imagine getting onto a plane and once in the air finding out that the pilot wasn’t qualified to fly that kind of plane – and that he was only there because the original pilot wasn’t available due to being dead. That’s what happened in 1934 on the boat, the SS Morro Castle. And it was the beginning of tragedy after tragedy. (Mystery, Mismanagement, and Mayhem on the SS Morro Castle)

Jeannie Saffin already had a tough life, being born with a birth defect that stunted her mental growth, leaving her with the mind of a child, never getting married and having kids, never dating… but that all pales in comparison to how she died: bursting into flames for no apparent reason. Was Jeannie Saffin the victim of spontaneous human combustion? (The Spontaneous Combustion of Jeannie Saffin)

Sometimes it’s easy to get a girl to go out with you – just be polite and ask. Some men resort to cheesy pickup lines thinking it will help their chances. But one man chose to call upon a woman in a very unusual way… by purchasing a gravestone. (Pitching Woo With a Tombstone)

If a man demands his girlfriend give up the baby they conceived, otherwise he would no longer be with the woman – what is that newborn’s mother to do? Sadly, Emily Dunn made the wrong decision – with tragic results. (The Durbin Baby Murder)

The transplanting of an organ is almost a routine procedure now in the 21st century – even doing a transplant of an arm or a leg isn’t uncommon. But when you talk about transplanting a living head onto a dead body – that’s when things get tricky. But Robert White thought it could be done – and even tried doing it. (The Man Who Wanted To Do a Head Transplant)

Plus, I’ll tell you about that time when a dam failed – and because of it, people were legally allowed to marry the dead. And still do to this day. (That Time A Failed Dam Led to Marrying Corpses)

If you’re new here, welcome to the show! While you’re listening, be sure to check out WeirdDarkness.com for merchandise, my newsletter, enter contests, to connect with me on social media, plus, you can visit the Hope in the Darkness page if you’re struggling with depression or dark thoughts. You can find all of that and more at WeirdDarkness.com.

Now.. bolt your doors, lock your windows, turn off your lights, and come with me into the Weird Darkness!

 

STORY: MYSTERY, MISMANAGEMENT, AND MAYHEM ON THE SS MORRO CASTLE==========

On September 8, 1934, the SS Morro Castle departed on schedule from Havana, Cuba on its way back to its home port in New York. It was mostly a routine voyage, although the regular captain, Captain Robert Wilmott, had suddenly died the night before to be replaced by Chief Officer William Warms. Nevertheless, the departure went without a hitch, with no way anyone could have predicted the tragic sequence events that was about to unfold. It began with stormy weather and a brisk northeastern wind, followed by a fire that inexplicably broke out in in a storage locker on B Deck. The blaze was fueled by the strong winds, soon spreading out of control to knock out power on the whole ship. With the ship plunged into darkness and the smoke and fire engulfing everything in its path there was complete panic and chaos on board. The Coast Guard moved in for a rescue operation, but the winds and large ocean swells made progress slow, only compounded by the fact that Warms was highly underqualified to be captain, and so made the mistake of continuing the ship’s course into the gale-force winds rather than turning back towards shore, and furthermore it would turn out that he had not sent a distress call until a full 38 minutes after the fire had broken out.

Making things even worse was that the crew of the vessel in general was composed of inexperienced people merely desperate for work during the Depression, and some of which had never even been on a ship before. Safety precautions were also a joke, with fire doors surrounded by wooden frames, alarm wires disabled, and fire hoses that had been turned off to keep passengers from tripping on them or slipping on water from them, and there was the fact that the lifeboats had been so heavily coated in paint that they were difficult to remove. Mandatory fire drills had never been carried out, nobody seems to have been trained in how to use the life jackets either, and it would turn out that the whole ship was a veritable fire trap, with heavy use of ornate wooden interiors, lacquered wooden furniture, and decks painted with highly flammable paint, which only made it all worse. Historian Deborah C. Whitcraft, co-author of Inferno At Sea: Stories of Death and Survival Aboard the Morro Castle has said of all of this:

“It was a very fancy, modern vessel for its time. Look at the interior. There were so many pieces of heavily varnished furniture that acted as accelerants to this fire. When the vessel was laid up between trips, the captain would order the crew to paint from stem to stern and back again. There were so many layers of paint in the chain and the davits of the lifeboats that, when the worst happened and those lifeboats had to be dropped, several of them were unable to deploy because they were so gummed up. It just locked the boats in place. If you look at the pictures of the charred remains, you see these boats just hanging there that could never be lowered. No requirements teaching people how to properly don life jackets, or how to go to the muster zones for the lifeboats occurred. Because Captain Willmott was a people-pleaser, he never wanted to inconvenience the passengers or even imply there could be the possibility that they would need to don these life jackets and jump overboard. When they dropped into the water there was a thirty-to-fifty foot drop. They had never been properly shown how to don the jacket and hold it against their chest, so the jacket came up and broke the necks of some. With others, it came off them completely or rendered them unconscious, which put them face down in the water. there were so many things that happened here that defy any explanation. It’s like a comedy of errors. There were so many things done wrong here. You just can’t make this stuff up.”

The inferno raged on. When all was said and done, the bodies of over 137 passengers and crew out of 549, possibly more if you account for any stowaways, were strewn about bobbing around in the sea everywhere, the ship was a total loss, and the charred husk of the vessel ran aground in shallow water off Asbury Park, New Jersey, to loom there just offshore like the remains of some ancient deep sea leviathan. The sight of this massive ship just sitting out there aground right off shore caused a lot of excitement at the time, with people flocking from all over to get a look and take photos. Before long there were even souvenir shops and food stalls set up, the whole thing like a carnival sideshow or county fair. The water was so shallow that some people even waded out to the hulking ship to reach out and touch it, and further off shore sightseeing cruises set up especially for this purpose went by full of gawking curiosity seekers. Eventually the ship was towed away and scrapped. Whitcraft say of all of this:

“The ship ended up sitting there for six months. The local people were really incensed that the governing body at the time thought they would use such a horrific tragedy as a boost to tourism, so they threw that idea out the window. But the real reason that Asbury Park ended up having the ship towed off the beach was because there was a cargo of untreated animal hides in the hull of the vessel that they had picked up in Cuba and were bringing back to New York. When the wind came off the ocean, the stench of those rotting hides pervaded Asbury Park.”

In the meantime, an investigation was being carried out to find out just exactly what had happened aboard the doomed ocean liner, with some oddities along the way to suggest that all of this had not been a simple accident. One was the death of the original captain, Robert Wilmott. It seemed strange that he just happened to have dropped dead from a heart attack on the night before the voyage, especially since he had been in top physical condition and had never had any heart issues in his history. Making it even more suspicious was that, although his body was meant to end up in New York to be tested for any foreign substances such as alcohol or poison, it never did arrive, and in fact was lost somewhere along the way to never be seen again. How could this happen? It seemed as if there were perhaps nefarious dealings going on, and as this avenue was pursued investigators began to look at one of the crew, Chief Radio Operator George White Rogers.

At the time Rogers was actually being hailed as a hero. Not only had it been him to realize what was going on and finally send a distress signal on his own, but he was also credited with saving the lives of several people aboard. At first glance, he seemed to be the good guy, but for investigators there were cracks beginning to appear in his heroic façade. For one, Rogers was one of the last known people to have seen Wilmott alive. That hardly proves that he poisoned the captain or engaged in any foul play, but it got more interesting when a background check on him was done to find that he had quite the criminal history, which had slipped by the ocean liner company because they had never checked on it. It turned out that Rogers had once been arrested for making terrorist threats as a disgruntled employee at his former company, and most intriguing of all, he had been arrested in the past for arson. Also a sort of red flag was that a failing radio shop he had opened in the aftermath of the disaster would also burn down to leave him with insurance money. This was all rather quite suspicious, as investigators were also trying to figure out what had caused the fire in the first place, and one word that had been thrown around quite a bit was arson.

The idea was that Rogers had perhaps poisoned Wilmott and then started the fire on the ship for reasons unknown, but investigators could find no motive and no hard evidence for it, so he was never arrested in connection with the death of Wilmott or the disaster. However, curiously he would be later arrested when, after hilariously getting a job as a police officer, he allegedly attempted to murder his superior officer by crafting a bomb out of an aquarium, of all things. According to Whitcraft, this was because he likely felt that the police were closing in on him. She says:

“One of his superiors, Lieutenant Vincent Doyle, starts asking George, ‘where were you when the ship caught on fire? What did you do?’ Well, George Rogers starts talking to Vince Doyle about points of origin, accelerants used, and all that. How could you know that if you weren’t the arsonist? So, when Vincent Doyle figured out that there’s something wrong here, George Rogers realized he was on to him. George Rogers decided he needed to kill Vincent Doyle. So, he took an aquarium heater and he made a bomb of it. Sociopaths are brilliant people. There are a lot of smart people who are crazy. So he makes this bomb that’s detonated by the lifting of the lid in an evidence box that’s in Vincent Doyle’s office. Well, it ripped his fingers off, but it didn’t kill him. The bomb wasn’t strong enough. So George Rogers went to prison for the attempted murder of his superior officer.”

Whether him wanting to kill Doyle because of the fire was really the case or not, he went to prison for the attempted murder, be released to serve in World War II, and unbelievably go back to prison for life for murdering two neighbors. Eerily, when he died suddenly of mysterious causes just three years into his life sentence at Trenton State Prison it seems his prison records vanished of the face of the earth. As all of this was going on, Warms, Chief Engineer Eban Abbott, and Ward Line vice-president Henry Cabaud had all been arrested on charges of criminal negligence leading to the high death toll. They would be convicted and sent to jail, but later all be suddenly acquitted and the blame came to mostly fall on the shoulders of Wilmott, who was too dead to put up much fight. A lot of people think this, plus the death of Rogers and disappearance of his records, are suspicious and indicative of some sort of dark conspiracy involving the government, the ocean liner company, foreign powers, or all of the above.

One idea is that a deal had been struck between the United States and Cuba to use the SS Morro Castle to secretly transport arms and munitions to Cuba, and those who knew about it were pardoned or acquitted of any wrongdoing in the wake of the disaster to keep them quiet about it. What part did Rogers have to play in all of this? No one knows, but another conspiracy theory is that he had been hired by the cruise line itself to start the fire as a part of an insurance fraud scam or had even been a government informant or spy. Too bad he died suddenly in prison while doing time for a different crime, otherwise he would have been able to talk. Convenient. Was he perhaps silenced in a different way by his handlers after he was unexpectedly jailed for life for murder? Who knows, but it is easy to see why it all stinks of some sort of conspiracy, and Whitfield has said:

“To this day, there are still records of the Morro Castle that are deemed classified by the government. There is so much they wanted kept away from the American people. It’s like the JFK assassination. I think there’s so much that the American people will never know and will never be disclosed. And I think the people, especially the family of the ill-fated passengers, deserve to know more about what really happened.”

Why would they want to hide all of this? Considering that much of the information remains classified and all of the people who were actually there are dead, there is a very good chance that we will never know what happened aboard the SS Morro Castle. Was this all a planned incident, with the death of the original captain and the fire all connected in some sort of vast conspiracy? If so, who carried it out and why? Or was this all just a series of coincidences and unfortunate accidents that came together to create this concoction of a great maritime mystery and historical oddity? The cause of the fire is still officially unsolved, no one has ever been truly held accountable, and it will likely forever remain a strange mystery of the sea.

BREAK==========

Coming up…

Jeannie Saffin already had a tough life, being born with a birth defect that stunted her mental growth, leaving her with the mind of a child, never getting married and having kids, never dating… but that all pales in comparison to how she died: bursting into flames for no apparent reason. Was Jeannie Saffin the victim of spontaneous human combustion? (The Spontaneous Combustion of Jeannie Saffin)

The transplanting of an organ is almost a routine procedure now in the 21st century – even doing a transplant of an arm or a leg isn’t uncommon. But when you talk about transplanting a living head onto a dead body – that’s when things get tricky. But Robert White thought it could be done – and even tried doing it. (The Man Who Wanted To Do a Head Transplant)

But first… Sometimes it’s easy to get a girl to go out with you – just be polite and ask. Some men resort to cheesy pickup lines thinking it will help their chances. But one man chose to call upon a woman in a very unusual way… by purchasing a gravestone. (Pitching Woo With a Tombstone)

These stories and more when Weird Darkness returns!

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STORY: PITCHING WOO WITH A TOMBSTONE==========

According to the Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 21 November, 1896, p. 12:

A countryman once entered the office of a dealer in monuments in the late 1800’s. “I want a stone to put at the grave of my wife,” he said.

“About what size and price?”

“I don’t know,” the customer said. “Susan was a good woman. A trifle sharp, mebbe, at times, but she was a good woman and never got tired of working. Just seemed to sort of faded away. She brought me a tidy sum when I married her, and now I want to put up a stone that her children and me kin be proud of.”

“Did she die recently?” asked the dealer, sympathetically.

“Not so very. It will be five years next month. I thought to put up a stone sooner, but I’ve been too busy. Now I’ve got around to it, and want one right away.”

“Well, here’s a book of designs. Select what you think will suit you.”

“I don’t know much about such things, and you are in the business. I’d rather you would take $50 and do the best you can. I want sumthin’ showy. I’ll tell you how it is, and then you’ll know the kind. I want to marry the Widder Scroggs, and I heerd she said that I was too mean to even put a stone at the grave of my first wife, when she brought me all of my property. Put a stone that will catch the eye of a wider and write a nice verse on it. If $50 ain’t enough and you are sure a little more will help me with the wider put it on, and I’ll make it right soon as I marry her. She’s got a heap of property, and while it seems a lot of money to put in a stone, I reckon the chances are with it.” And the sorrow-stricken widower paid $50 and inquired where he could get a present cheap that would suit a widow.

A widower’s care of his wife’s grave could might catch a woman’s eye. Posted in The Kansas City (MO) Star, April 2, 1924, p.26, from The Newton Kansan newspaper:

“A Kansas woman fell in love and married a widower for no other reason, so she said, than that he took such excellent care of his first wife’s grave.”

STORY: THE MAN WHO WANTED TO DO A HEAD TRANSPLANT==========

On Dec. 23, 1954, a surgical team led by Joseph E. Murray of the Peter Bent Brigham Hospital in Boston performed the first successful human organ transplant in history. The operation — in which a kidney was removed from the body of a healthy male patient and implanted into that of his ailing twin brother — was a milestone in the annals of modern medicine, an achievement that at the time seemed like something out of science fiction. But one of the young doctors witnessing the operation that day harbored dreams of an even more ambitious coup than Murray’s. Robert J. White, a 28-year-old resident in general surgery at Brigham, didn’t see why he should be content replacing individual organs when he could theoretically replace all the organs at once — by transplanting a sick patient’s head onto an entirely different body. This notion, hardly less bizarre-sounding today than it was in 1954, would become the goal White aspired to for the rest of his life.

White’s unorthodox quest made national news several times over the course of his long career, but in “Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher,” Brandy Schillace finally gives it the thoughtful book-length treatment it deserves. I trust it won’t be a spoiler to reveal that White died in 2010 without ever getting a chance to perform his much-desired head transplant — on humans, at least. But he did come remarkably close, at one point finding both a willing human volunteer (a quadriplegic with failing organs) and a medical establishment (Russia’s) flexible or reckless enough to fast-track the surgery without endless review board approvals. In fact, were it not for its exorbitant cost, the “White Operation” (as the good doctor himself rather immodestly dubbed the procedure) might actually have gone forward.

The idea of transplanting human parts was hardly new even when White first came up with his wholesale version in the 1950s. Surgeons in Europe had been doing serious work on transplants since the late 19th century, perfecting techniques of integrating new limbs and organs into the bodies of various lab animals. But all of these surgeries had ended in failure, with the recipient’s body interpreting the foreign tissue as a threat and creating a “destroying agent” to eliminate it. By the 1950s, this rejection issue led many to believe that human transplant surgery was hopeless, something that could succeed only in special circumstances (like those of Murray’s 1954 kidney procedure, where rejection did not occur because the patients were genetically identical twins).

Notwithstanding this stubborn obstacle, surgeons continued experimenting with transplants, setting off a kind of Cold War competition similar to the space race ignited by the Sputnik launch. A Russian physiologist named Vladimir Demikhov — who operated without benefit of an MD or a PhD — gave the Soviets an early lead in this “inner space race.” Film footage that leaked to the West in 1958 showed Demikhov ostensibly splicing together a mastiff and a much smaller dog to create a composite animal with eight legs and two fully functional heads. (Schillace, always alert to the queasy but alluring strangeness of her material, playfully notes that this “canine jigsaw” was named Cerberus, “after the three-headed hound of Hades.”)

Not to be outdone, White, practicing now at the Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital, began conducting equally macabre experiments on primates. After perfecting the means by which a monkey’s brain could be chilled, drastically reducing its need for oxygen, he performed experimental surgeries in which one animal’s brain was removed from its body and attached to the circulatory system of a second. Ultimately, in March 1970, he was able to perform a true White Operation — a grueling 18-hour procedure in which he moved an entire head from Monkey A onto the decapitated body of Monkey B. The results were promising, if grotesque: The hybrid creature, though paralyzed from the neck down, lived for nine days before rejection set in.

It would take the development of immunosuppressant drugs to ultimately solve the rejection problem and make transplants an almost routine procedure. But although the technical hurdles to White’s dream were being overcome, the moral impediments — not least the cruelty of causing so much animal suffering in the name of medical research — were another matter. White, as a devout Catholic who believed that nonhuman animals lacked an immortal soul, was firmly convinced that his ends justified his means and that his lab monkeys died for the greater good of saving human lives. Not everyone agreed, and throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the surgeon found himself engaged in some high-profile debates with the likes of Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci and animal rights activist Ingrid Newkirk.

Even more intriguing, however, are the philosophical issues raised by White’s work, and Schillace’s book is most fascinating when discussing how he did and didn’t address them. Moving a brain — and the consciousness that goes with it — from one body to another brings up fundamental questions about our notions of the self, the definition of death and even the ethics of immortality. “Could it really be ‘okay,’ ” as Schillace pithily asks, “to take off someone’s head?”

White, a man once characterized as “supremely untroubled by the implications of his work,” never had any doubt that it was. But as advances in medical technology make a brain transplant increasingly feasible, the issue becomes more urgent. As this spirited and breezily provocative book makes clear, we’ll have to grapple with the implications of a human White Operation much sooner than we think.

STORY: THE SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION OF JEANNIE SAFFIN==========

One prevalent phenomenon in the world of the paranormal is called spontaneous human combustion. It typically entails someone mysteriously bursting into flame, being burned down to a charred husk for no discernible reason, often with other things around them that are untouched by the flames. Such cases of this are numerous, but some really stand out, and this is one of those. Born in Edmonton, London in 1921, the woman called Jeannie Saffin already had a fairly rough life. She suffered from a birth defect that had severely stunted her mental growth, never allowing her to advance past the mental abilities of those of a child. She had never been able to live on her own or take care of herself, so at the age of 61, the unmarried Jeannie, who was still mentally at the level of a 6-year-old, was living with her 82-year-old Father, Jack Saffin. They had a mostly content life, despite Jeannie’s handicaps, but one evening in 1982 would spiral into horror and a strange mystery that is still discussed to this day, as well as one of the most talked about cases off supposed spontaneous human combustion.

On September 15, 1982, Jeannie was at home with her father and brother-in-law, Don Carroll. It was a perfectly normal, peaceful evening, with nothing out of the ordinary and no way to know that something very bizarre and terrifying was about to happen. It all started when Jack was in the kitchen getting dinner ready as Jeannie sat calmly in her usual chair at the table right nearby. At some point Jack saw a bright flash from the corner of his eye, and was shocked to turn to see his daughter on fire. Eerily, she was reported as just sitting there calmly with her hands in her lap as the flames rapidly spread out. She didn’t cry out or scream, just sitting there as the flames consumed her, although Carroll would later claim that when the fire reached her face she had belched flames that were “coming from her mouth like a dragon and making a roaring noise.”

Jack and Carroll sprang into action, managing to douse the raging fire with water from the kitchen, but although Jeannie was still alive at this point she was horribly burned. She was rushed to the burn unit at Mount Vernon Hospital by ambulance, but tragically would slip into a coma and die of her burns 8 days later. Rather spookily, at no point during the time that she was still conscious did she cry out in pain, rather just staring off into space as if in a trance. This is despite the fact that her burns were very serious, and doctors were shocked to see that the woman’s flesh had been burned away all the way down to the subcutaneous fat, with most of the damage focused in her face, abdomen, and hands, which were little more than skeleton. Also very strange was that her clothes were reportedly only lightly singed in places, and had not been completely burned away as would be expected.

When investigators examined the scene of the strange incident, they were rather perplexed by some odd details. They noticed that both the chair Jeannie had been sitting in and the adjacent walls were unmarked and undamaged by fire or smoke, and not only that, but there was no obvious source of ignition for the fire. The nearest flame that could have caused it was some 5 feet away, in the form of the pilot light for the gas stove, but she had been nowhere near it and it was protected by a grill hood that would have prevented it from igniting a person even standing right up against it. In addition, Donald Carrol would insist that the pilot light had not even been turned on at the time anyway. Another possibility was that Jack was known to smoke a pipe, and it was reasoned that a stray ember could have fallen on Jeannie, but Jack and Carroll both agreed that he had not been smoking at the time, and police found only fresh, unburned tobacco in the pipe on the table. So how had the fire started? No one had a clue. Police did consider the fact that both Jack and Carroll might have been lying about what had really happened, but there was no evidence that this was the case. PC Leigh Marsden of Edmonton Police Station would come to the conclusion that it was a case of spontaneous human combustion, but the coroner disagreed, saying there was “no such thing” and officially stating that it was an open verdict of death by “misadventure.”

This still doesn’t really answer what exactly happened to Jeannie Saffin. What caused her to explode into flames like that and be so thoroughly charred? Why was it that only certain parts of her body were burned and why had she not screamed or panicked? What was the roaring noise that was heard? How is it that nothing around her had been burned? In later years there have been efforts to try and explain some of these things, and there have been some holes in the story found as well. For instance, while most versions of the tale tell of Jeannie’s clothes being unburned, it was later found by research carried out by skeptic Joe Nickell that one of the paramedics at the scene in fact did state that her clothes had been on fire too, and that they had been put out with a wet towel. As to how the fire started, Nickell has also insisted that Jack had been likely smoking earlier, and that perhaps some of the pipe embers had landed on Jeannie’s clothes to smolder, only later fully igniting with a draft. It has also been pointed out that Jack Saffin was practically deaf, making his testimony of what had happened perhaps not totally reliable. The roaring sound was likely caused by the rapid evaporation of water from Jeannie’s body, and the lack of pain response could have been due to shock and perhaps medication she was on. However, even if these skeptical arguments are true, we are left to try and figure out how her body would ignite so spectacularly in the first place and why it had not burned anything around it.

The human body is composed of mostly water, and in fact is very difficult to catch on fire and fully burn in a short span of time as described here, something anyone who has tried to cremate one will attest to. How could she just so suddenly and completely burst into flame like that and be burned so thoroughly down to the bone in some places in the span of just a few minutes? One idea is that this was due to what is called the “wick effect,” essentially the idea that the fats in the human body can under some circumstances act like the wick of a candle, but this process would take hours to cause the kind of burning seen with Saffin, and she was only in flames for one or two minutes at most. It is the stubborn mysteries such as these that have kept the case alive, and of course there are those that hold this up as not only a genuine and exceptional case of spontaneous human combustion, but also one of the only known cases of this phenomenon that was actually witnessed firsthand as it occurred. Some researchers have even gone further and suggested that spontaneous human combustion could be even weirder than it seems already. Scientist Larry Arnold has studied the phenomenon for decades, and it convinced that there are what he called “fire leynes,” which are geographical hotspots for spontaneous human combustion and which he believes Britain happens to have a high concentration of. He says of this:

“There are more cases in the UK per head of population than anywhere in the world, a veritable cartography of combustion. If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time you, your dog, your car, or your home, seems more likely to go up in flames. We have no way to explain these cases other than these people burn themselves from the inside out. We have medical evidence to show this and witnesses – even survivors. It’s as bizarre as nature gets, yet mainstream science won’t accept it can happen.”

Is there anything to this? There have been all manner of explanations posited for why spontaneous human combustion might happen, ranging from the mundane and practical to the truly outlandish, and although it has all been discussed and debated for a very long time, there seems to be no firm agreement on the matter. In the meantime, cases still come in from time to time, with Saffin’s being a rather recent one that has the added benefit of having actual witnesses to the incident. What happened to Jeannie Saffin? How could she just go from sitting there to engulfed in flame and burned to the bone in just minutes without any discernible source or reason? Can this somehow be explained in rational terms, or is this an example of forces beyond our understanding? We may never know.

BREAK==========

When Weird Darkness returns…

If a man demands his girlfriend give up the baby they conceived, otherwise he would no longer be with the woman – what is that newborn’s mother to do? Sadly, Emily Dunn made the wrong decision – with tragic results. (The Durbin Baby Murder)

Plus, I’ll tell you about that time when a dam failed – and because of it, people were legally allowed to marry the dead. And still do. (That Time A Failed Dam Led to Marrying Corpses)

Those stories are up next.

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STORY: THE DURBIN BABY MURDER==========

Emily Dunn and Charles Durbin lived in Vandalia, Illinois. The two were not married and the couple would mess around and this resulted in Emily getting pregnant. Charles would then send Emily away to Decatur, Illinois to have the baby. He would tell her that she would have to get rid of it once it was born. He would only marry her if the baby was gone.

Emily would stay in Decatur and give birth to a chubby red-headed baby girl in August of 1884. While in Decatur and after the birth of her daughter Emily was living with Mr. and Mrs. Shiveley. Emily loved her child and it was noticeable to people around her, but Charles wanted the baby gone. So wanting to be with the man she loved she tried several times to give her child away.

By March 7, 1885, 27-year-old Charles was done with 21-year-old Emily still having the baby. In news reports, it seems he called the baby it. He was mad that the baby was still there. “I’ll be (cursed) if I don’t find a place for it” he told Emily before she left the Shiveley’s home. He would return after nightfall and state he found a home. The three would leave the home together.

They would walk to the railroad tracks and would get closer to an area without visible homes. From what Emily stated was that Charles and she walked to a point and he took the baby with him. He stated that the family lived not much further and he’d take her there. Emily was unwilling, but let him take her daughter. He was gone for 20 minutes before returning.
She was crying by the time he came back. He told her crying wouldn’t help anything and they wouldn’t be bothered again. What they didn’t know is a man named Boyd Shannon saw them from a distance, but he thought that the couple was another neighbor.

In the time he was gone Charles had thrown his baby girl into the river and let her drown. It’s unknown if Emily knew that Charles threw their daughter into the water or if she was an unwilling party to the murder. It’s believed that he did this on his own.

The two would go to the Humpty Dumpy Theater and then to the Shiveley home stating that Charles gave the baby to a man with the last name Smith. That their daughter was going home with him to California. They handed the baby over at the train depot. Now that their daughter was gone on March 16th the two then got married.

The body of the 7-month-old would soon be found.

Emily wouldn’t be prosecuted for the murder as she believed that he was giving their daughter away and not murdering her. It would be said that Emily would regret giving the prosecution her letters and for her testimony against Charles. She was still devoted to him and loved him though he killed their child.

At the trial, they claimed that the baby had to of died after the 7th due to decomposition. They also claimed everything was circumstantial and he could have given the baby away and the “Smith” man murdered the child. He was found guilty at trial and was sentenced 21 years in the penitentiary. Many thought that for the crime he would have hung and was surprised with his sentencing.

STORY: THAT TIME A FAILED DAM LED TO MARRYING CORPSES==========

Sitting low among the hills, just north of the city of Frejus, in southern France, not far from the French Riviera coast, are the broken remains of the Malpasset Dam. This river barrier, completed in 1954, was built to regulate the flow of the Reyran River, and store water for agriculture and domestic use. The Reyran River is very irregular. It remains completely dry for most of the year including the hot summer months, but in winter and spring, this 27-km-long river becomes a raging torrent. A dam would help tame the river and provide water all round the year.

André Coyne was selected to build an arched dam across the valley. Coyne had been building dams throughout his career. He was the chief engineer of dams in the Upper Dordogne River, and while in that position, he designed the Marèges Dam which incorporated several innovative advancements in dam design. In 1935 he became the head of France’s Large Dam Engineering Department and between 1945 and 1953 he served as President of the International Commission on Large Dams. Coyne built dams in fourteen countries, including Portugal, India, Morocco, Zimbabwe, and Canada.

Construction of the Malpasset Dam began in 1952 and completed in 1954. Shortly after, the first filling of the reservoir began. The filling of a reservoir is a gradual process that can take many years, especially when its fed by a river that flows for only three months a year. Five years later, in 1959, the water in the reservoir was still 7 meters below the top, when small leaks began to develop along the right bank of the dam—an ominous sign of things to come.

That year, the region experienced more than the average rains causing the water level to surge up by nearly 5 meters. Instead of opening the spillway to relieve pressure upon the dam, it was decided to allow the dam fill up because opening the drain valves would have hampered the construction of the Marseille-Nice motorway about a kilometer downstream. On the evening of 2 December 1959, the water level in the dam reached the top of the concrete barrier for the very first time. The four last meters had filled up in less than 24 hours.

Later that night, the thin walls of the dam collapsed under the massive weight of the water and a huge wave swept through the valley, destroying all structures including houses, roads, railway lines, telephone and electricity network all the way to Fréjus. Large chunks of concrete, from the breached dam, some weighing up to 600 tons, were found more than a mile away. Over 400 people perished and 7,000 were left homeless. André Coyne, the dam’s chief engineer, was deeply affected by the tragedy. He died less than a year later.

The major takeaway from the disaster was that it was important to adequately understand the geology of the rocks over which a dam was to be constructed. But the most immediate consequence of the dam failure was the laying down of a law that legalized marriage with a dead partner.

Among the dead was a young man named André Capra, who was engaged to his then-pregnant girlfriend Irène Jodart. Despite the death of her partner, Jodart was determined to marry him. When President de Gaulle visited the town a week later, Irène Jodart pleaded with him to let her go along with her marriage plans even though her fiancé had drowned. de Gaulle agreed to look into the matter. Within a month, the National Assembly had passed a unique law allowing the President of the Republic to “authorize the celebration of the marriage if one of the future spouses is dead providing a sufficient gathering of facts establishes unequivocally his consent.”

Hundreds of widows and widowers have applied for post-mortem matrimony since then. Anyone wishing to marry a dead person must send a request to the president, who then forwards it to the justice minister, who sends it to the prosecutor in whose jurisdiction the surviving person lives. If the prosecutor determines that the couple planned to marry before the death and if the parents of the deceased approve, the prosecutor sends a recommendation back up the line. The president, if he wishes, eventually signs a decree allowing the marriage.

Every year, French authorities receive around fifty requests for posthumous marriage. About 20 get approval.

While many get married for purely sentimental value, posthumous matrimony also play a practical role if the woman left behind is pregnant, as was the case with Irène Jodart. Legitimizing a marriage ensures that the children are recognized as the legitimate offspring of their dead father and the legal heir. Indeed, the practice of marrying the dead actually dates back to the First World War, when grieving girlfriends wanted to assure the legitimacy of their children whose fathers had died on the front before being able to tie the knot.

Most posthumous weddings are organized quietly. Usually, the woman will stand next to a picture of her deceased fiancé. Instead of a priest, the mayor will conduct the ceremony reading aloud the Presidential decree instead of the deceased man’s marriage vows. But some marriages have drawn media attention. In 2004, Christelle Demichel married her dead fiancé who was hit by a drunken driver and killed while he was riding his motorcycle home from work. In 2009, Magali Jaskiewicz married her fiancé—another victim of a road accident. Magali Jaskiewicz’s boyfriend who had asked her to marry him two days before he was killed. Again in 2017, when a police officer Xavier Jugelé died in a terrorist attack, his longtime partner Etienne Cardiles received the President’s approval to marry him.

Outside of France, there have only been a handful of cases where the las have upheld posthumous marriages.

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