Thursday, May 1, 2008

Strange Burnings--Spontaneous Human Combustion – Jodie Durocher

The last time 72 year-old widow Jodie Durocher was seen alive was on July 11, 1961 at 9 pm. The witnesses to her last moments were her fifty year old son, Dr. Robert "Robbie" Durocher, a cardiologist at Nashua Memorial Hospital; his twenty-nine year old girlfriend Mary "Bucky" Buckthorne, a one time head cardic nurse at the hospital since turned successful stripper; and Jodie’s landlady, Mrs. Pansy Kilgore, a forty-five year old woman known locally for not allowing her bad marriage to get in the way of having a good time. The visitors had all stopped by to say a quick and belated happy birthday to Jodie before heading out for a night of despicable behavior at the local Nashua City Motor Hotel. Unknown to Jodie, her visitors were an amorous trio of swingers who had met at an Easter sex party thrown by Dr. James MacDonald, the head of proctology and sexually deviant behavior at the hospital. The libidous trio had hit it off so well at the festive orgy that the three decided to continuing hitting it off privately a few weekends a month at local seedy motels and heavily foliaged public parks.

On the evening of the July 11 visit, the visitors were in a rush. They had missed their past planned weekends of mutual degradation due to Dr. "Robbie" having been out of state. The good doctor had claimed to colleagues that he had been beaver hunting in Michigan. In fact he had left New Hampshire to avoid a grand jury subpoena regarding criminal activities at the hospital. The criminal dealings went beyond the usual triple-billing of the government, or the performing of unnecessary but high margin surgeries on the comatose. Instead it involved embezzlement, drug dealing and extortion, and that was only in the candy striper department. However, a few days before the evening of July 11, Dr. Robbie had been able to return to New Hampshire with a high degree of confidence that the investigation was over. Due to a surprising accident of ill fortune, the lead witness for the state, a nurse named Rachel Mulligan, had died mysteriously. Sometime over the Fourth of July weekend, she had tripped over her own feet at the hospital’s top stairwell and then tumbled head over heels all the way down twenty-two flights. While some were suspicious of the accident-- somehow during her fall, Mulligan had entangled herself in medical gaze and had bound and gagged herself --- the police rapidly had concluded that it was an unfortunate accident. With her death, so died the investigation.

And so on this evening of July 11th the group were relaxed and happy mood, but rushed to get on with their perversions. Innocent of their plans, Jodie delayed them with a graciousness made of politeness and loneliness. Jodie had just prepared for bed by taking out her dentures and doffing her camel hair wig. The wig had been Robbie’s recent Mother’s Day gift to her. She pressed the visitors to stay, offering chamomile tea, a shot or two of whiskey and raisin biscuits. Before they could beg off, Jodie adjusted her wig onto her head and put her dentures in. But finally her Robbie put his foot down and insisted they had to go. At this, Jodie forced a smile, and slowly pulled her wig back off. The visitors then sang a velocissimo rendition of Happy Birthday and said a goodnight. It was about 9:00 pm. The last glimpse of Jodie was by Robbie. He saw his aged mother sink into her easy chair, her wig in one hand and her dentures in the other, staring at him dewy eyed as he closed the apartment door, cutting off his last vision of her alive.

The first sign of trouble was at 8:00 am the next morning. A next door tenant Mrs. Butkin was awakened by the smell of bacon-scented smoke. She assumed it was bacon fat burning in Jodie’s kitchen. Jodie was a lackadaisical cook and she burned most of the things she cooked. It was rumored she could burn water. Butkin stood in her bed, and pounded open-handed that wall which separated her apartment from Jodie’s. "Jodie,"she yelled. "Your bacon’s burning." She repeated this a few times. Hearing nothing in response, she thought of checking on Jodie. But since Ms Butkin knew that there was no such thing as a short visit with Jodie, she hesitated. Once Ms Butkin was in Jodie’s apartment, she knew that Jodie would insist they have tea and toast, and perhaps a shot or two while watching one of Jodie’s tv shows. Ms Butkin decided to lay back down in her downy comforter. She recalled falling into a deep sleep.

At 9:00 am, Mrs. Butkin was awakened by a pounding at her door. At her door was a stout, teenaged telegraph delivery-boy. Mrs. Butkin saw immediately that the telegraph was intended for Jodie and she curtly advised the heavily-acned boy to try pounding his fists on the door with the correct apartment number. The telegraph boy replied sharply in turn that he had tried the door with the correct apartment number but that there had been no answer. He further stated that he assumed that as a next door neighbor Mrs Butkin would be more than happy to sign for the telegraph, thereby relieving the boy of the duty to return all the earlier the next morning to pound some more. Mrs Butkin admitted to a reporter for the Nashua Telegraph that she was not happy about signing for a telegraph which was not her own. But in order to be rid of the boy–whom she described as "a pimply rascal, first class, with oak leave clusters"– Mrs Butkin scribbled her name to the telegraph receipt and took the telegraph. The boy had tipped his hat. That was the only tip in the transaction as Ms Butkin, being a bit muffed by the boy’s attitude, then slammed the door into his forced boyish grin.

Feeling somewhat entitled given that she had signed for the document, Ms. Butkin opened the telegraph and read it. It was from International Fruit Company of Panama. Jodie’s fruit of the month club subscription was being indefinitely suspended due to another military coup in Panama.
Mrs Butler thought about tossing the telegraph into the garbage but then she decided that she should give the telegram to Jodie. Rather than pound Jodie’s door, she decided to wait an hour or so to see if Jodie awoke. And so Mrs. Butkin had a cup of tea and watched a few game shows. Then she walked into the hallway and made her way to Jodie’s apartment door. She knocked loudly.

However, there was no answer to her knock. Mrs. Butkin frowned. Jodie was not usually a late sleeper. Mrs Butkin tried the doorknob. She snatched her hand away and held the red aching hand with her other. The door knob was so hot it had burned her hand. She rubbed the appendage and looked at the door. She saw no smoke coming from it. She touched the door. It was warm, but not hot.

Alarmed, Mrs. Butkin ran outside to find some help. She found a pair of city garbage workers on morning break sleeping in their truck. She awoke Joseph Moore, and Ben Watson, explained to them the situation and they all then rushed inside. Together, they managed to force open the door to Jodie’s apartment using a borrowed crowbar. Once the door flew open they were met with a terrible blast of oven-hot heat. The heat caused them to step back. Once it cooled, they proceeded forwards into the apartment. What they discovered inside the room defied belief.

The only portion of the apartment that was burned was the small corner in which sat the remains of Jodie’s easy chair... and of Jodie herself.

Jodie’s 150 pounds had been reduced to less than ten pounds of charred and smoking material comprised of bone splinters, and solidified fat. However, mysteriously, her wig was only lightly singed. The wig sat on top of the remaining mass of offal with wisps of white smoke filtering up from its hairs. On the surface of the mass itself were both sets of Jodie’s partial dentures, almost none the worse from the heat. The dentures looked as if they had been hand set in the middle of the mass in a macabre half-smile. Stranger still, when firefighters appeared and probed the mass, Jodie’s skull was found buried deep inside, and it seemed... shrunk to the size of a baseball by the intense heat.

Experts at local Rivier College were retained by the authorities to assist in the investigation. These experts pointed out that a temperature of 3200 degrees was necessary for such a thorough cremation. They could offer no explanation why the holocaust was limited to the one area of the apartment and why the apartment was not otherwise damaged by the intense heat. They had no clue what started the fire or why it stopped short of consuming the entire apartment, if not the entire building.

While the shrunken skull has gotten much play in the accounts of this strange fire, there is controversy about the skull. Some experts claim that Jodie’s skull was not shrunken at all. Instead, they assert that Jodie just had an unusually small skull for her size. Jodie stood four feet eight inches. Even for her diminutive size her head was considered small. Her head size was described variously by witnesses as about the size of a soft ball, or a large tomato. Photographs of Jodie confirm that she had a small head. Robbie claimed his father (who stood six feet 11 eleven inches) had been able to grip his mother’s head entirely in one of his hands. Indeed, Robbie remembered that when he and his siblings were little, his father would occasionally lift their mother off the floor in this fashion and shake her to the amusement of the children.

As for other clues to this strange fire? The remainder of the apartment showed all the signs of heat damage; from the four foot level and upwards the walls were covered with a greasy black soot. One enterprising investigator dabbed a forefinger into the oily residue and gave it the tip-of-the- tongue taste test. It tasted like ham, heavy with raisin sauce. Coincidentally, this was Jodie’s favorite dish.

Another, more strange clue was a cracked mirror. A full length mirror had cracked from the heat, leaving a vaguely humanoid shape. This aspect of the case led some investigators to claim the possibility of an alien element to the story, including the possible use of a death ray on Jodie by night-time celestial visitors whom the socially inept Jodie may have inadvertently insulted. In support of this theory, neighbors in the area reported strange lights in the sky that night. Ron MacDonald, a night watchman for a nearby tire warehouse about a quarter of a mile away claimed that he saw an eerie green light shaped like a two-man submarine over the apartment building sometime between 1 and 3 am. He had even taken a few photographs of the submarine-shaped light. However, before MacDonald could get the film developed, an agent from an unidentified governmental agency came to his house and seized the film roll. In exchange, MacDonald was left merely with a crumpled $5 dollar gift certificate to the gift shop at the J. Edgar Hoover Library.

John Gleason in his book of oddities "Not of Earth!" claims that Jodie’s death was caused by a follow-up experiment to the Philadelphia project. In this extension of that project, the military was trying to tele-transport random sleeping civilians to and from local miliary bases without waking them. Unfortunately for Jodie, the experiment had a critical failure. She was in the midst of being transported back to her apartment just when a sun spot flared. This scrambled her genetic code, and caused her to combust promptly upon being phased back into her armchair as a disorganized blob. This somewhat fantastical theory has been discredited by the fact that Gleason was hopelessly insane at the time he wrote the book. Indeed, Gleason’s original manuscript was written in his own feces. However, some university experts give credence to Gleason's theory based on the neat hand-drawn diagrams Gleason had included in the book which illustrated the theory.

What are the conventional explanations for the fire? Some experts hae pointed to Jodie’s usual nightly routine. Jodie typically would end her day by sitting in her armchair dressed in a cotton nightdress. With a mystery book in her lap, Jodie would read her book while puffing on a Cuban cigar. Usually she would also sip hard liquor from a Flinstone juice glass, generally gin, sometimes vodka, but occasionally straight grain alcohol cut with just a splash of tap water. Often she would fall asleep curled up in the chair, the book still open on her lap, the cigar burnt down to a glowing ash in her mouth and the empty glass of liquor lying spilt in her lap. Under these circumstances a fire almost certain to happen, especially given that the nightgown and arm chair were made of highly combustible materials. Robbie had often warned his mother of the danger of fire but she had dismissed his concerns as mere "namby-pampism". She continued her dangerous night ritual, sometimes adding to the danger by snacking on high flammable rice cakes sloppily dipped deep in a breakfast bowl overflowing with olive oil.

What could have burned Jodie so fiercely without causing more damage to her surroundings? Experts who investigated the case didn’t have a clue. To date, no one has stepped forward with a plausible theory accepted by all experts. As for the investigation, the case is considered closed. The cause of the fire and Jodie’s death is listed as unknown.