“I have a singular phenomenon in the shape of a young man living here, that I have studied with much interest,” wrote Dr. L.C. Woodman to the Michigan Medical News, “and I am satisfied that his peculiar power demonstrates that electricity of the nerve force beyond dispute. His name is Wm. [William] Underwood, aged 27 years, and his gift is that of generating fire through the medium of his breath, assisted by manipulations of his hands.”
Lest the modern reviewer think that Woodman had stumbled upon an early X-man, the fire-breathing marvel required a long break after his performance “He will take anybody’s handkerchief, and hold it to his mouth, and rub it vigorously with his hands while breathing on it, and immediately it bursts into flames and is consumed…It is impossible to persuade him to do it more than twice in a day, and the effort is attendant with the most extreme exhaustion. He will sink into a chair after doing it.” Having Underwood along could be quite handy. One respectable citizen of Paw Paw, whose name is not preserved, recorded that Underwood joined him on a hunting party, and kindled a fire after matches failed.
Underwood charged $0.25 per show, good money in 1882, especially for a black man with no literacy skills living in the small town of Paw Paw, Michigan. Of his talent’s origin, reported Woodman “he is ignorant, and says that he first discovered his strange power by inhaling and exhaling on a perfumed handkerchief that suddenly burned while in his hands.”
Reportedly, Underwood passed every test. The Kalamazoo Gazette reported that the clerk of the Paw Paw School Board, Mr. David Fisher, saw the performance and didn’t believe it could be anything but a trick. As the Gazette reported “Mr. Fisher, not being satisfied, went to the fellow’s house in the night, got him out of bed, made him wash his hands and arms, then swabbed out his mouth, gave him a drink of water, and bid him go own with the show. The result was that the paper (ordinary newspaper brought along for the purpose) was set on fire. Mr. Fisher says there is no humbug about it.”
After the story hit the Michigan Medical News, it was picked up by Scientific American, and from there by newspapers from as far away as Smithville, Texas and Middlebury, Vermont. Woodman asked the reading public, “It is certainly no humbug, but what is it?”
…and for almost a year, there was no response to Dr. Woodman’s question. Underwood continued to draw crowds, and the public was at a complete loss to explain his pyrokinetic abilities. Then, shortly before Underwood, Woodman, and the whole lot disappeared into history, a Dr. R. Thomas of De Pere Wisconsin proposed an explanation, after his son Dr. A. F. Thomas reported seeing Underwood in action. Underwood, he claimed, used phosphorous.
Indeed, Thomas pere had done just such a trick as a boy. “The way I used to do it was to place a small piece of phosphorus in my mouth…out of sight when the mouth was opened. Then when I wished to perform, I would borrow a handkerchief – seldom my own – hold it to my mouth with both hands, blow hard through it a number of times, but off a little piece of the phosphorus, push it into the handkerchief with my tongue, and rub it vigorously between my hands, when lo! It would burst into a flame, to the astonishment of all present. ” The piece could be minute, smaller than a mustard seed. Thomas used to carry his “between my cheek and gum above the upper teeth, as tobacco chewers carry their quid, so that what answered for a minute inspection of the mouth and rinsing it with water, would not reveal it.”
Phosophorus, according to Wikipedia, ignites at slightly more than room temperature, and can be induced to ignite by friction. If it is indeed true that Underwood was using phosphorus, which is pretty dangerous stuff to carry in one’s mouth, than we have to acknowledge that Woodman, Fisher, and a whole host of other examiners failed to notice the phosphorus which from what we can gather is yellowish-white and glows when exposed to light. If he wasn’t using phosphoros or some other combustible material, then Underwood had the power of pyrokenisis, which shouldn’t exist outside of a Stephen King novel.
What do you think?
Post Script – Bryan Eno’s first album, Here Come the Warm Jets, contains a song which dimly references Underwood, titled “The Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch.” The lyrics don’t particularly make much sense given the backstory (“You’ll have to choose between the Paw Paw Negro Blowtorch and Me”), but then not much of the 1970s makes sense anyway.