Fire Immunity
A most dramatic claimed paranormal manifestation, frequently
witnessed in the course of history. An early instance recorded
in the Bible is that of Meschach, Shadrach, and Abednego,
who were thrown into Nebuchadnezzar’s furnace
‘‘Lo, I see four men loose walking in the midst of the fire and
they have no hurt. And the princes, governors and captains and
the king’s counsellors, being gathered together saw these men
upon whose bodies the fire had no power, nor was a hair of
their heads singed, neither were their coats changed, nor the
smell of fire had passed them.’’ (Dan. 325–27)
Fire Immunity and Religion
Immunity to fire has often been recorded as a religious miracle,
especially as an element in the life of saints. St. Francis of
Paula (1508), in whose arms Louis XI of France died, held redhot
cinders in his hands and said to the amazed spectators, ‘‘All
creatures obey those who serve God with a perfect heart.’’ According
to the theologian St. Bonaventura, St. Francis was told
that nothing could relieve the inflammation in his eyes but cauterization
from the jawbone to the eyebrow. He addressed the
flame in the brazier, ‘‘My brother Fire, the Most High hath created
thee beyond all other creatures, mighty in thine enviable
glory, fair and useful. Be thou clement unto me in this hour and
courteous. I beseech the great Lord who created thee that he
temper thy heat unto me, so that I may be able to bear thy gentle
burning.’’ He made the sign of the cross over the cauterizing
iron and felt no pain whatever on its application.
St. Catherine of Siena fell into a trance with her face in the
midst of burning coals on a hearth. When she was discovered
and dragged away she was found unhurt. On another occasion,
in church, a lit candle fell on her head while she was in a state
of contemplation and was not extinguished until it was entirely
consumed. She was not burned in the least.
The Camisard leader Claris, during the rise of the Huguenots
against Louis XIV, in a state of possession and in the presence
of 600 men, put himself on top of a pyre. The flames rose
above his head. He continued to speak all the while and did not
stop until the wood was consumed and there was no more
flame. He was unhurt; there was no mark of fire on either his
clothes or hair. One Colonel Cavalier, when in London in
1706, affirmed this as a fact; he was the leader of the troop that
had surrounded the fire. Durand Page corroborated his statement.
He had helped to fetch wood for the fire and did his best
to comfort Claris’s shrieking wife.
The Convulsionnaires of St. Medard exhibited similar phenomena.
P. F. Mathieu states in his Histoire des Miracles
‘‘Marie Sonet, called the Salamander, on several occasions,
in the presence of Carré de Montgeron and others, stretched
herself on two chairs over a blazing fire, and remained there
for half an hour or more at a time, neither herself nor her
clothing being burnt. On another occasion, however, she thrust
her booted feet into a burning brazier until the soles of both
boots and stockings were reduced to a cinder, her feet remaining
Bernadette Soubirous, the girl who had a vision of the Virgin
Mary at Lourdes, was seen by a Dr. Dozous in prayer in the
grotto. P. J. Boisserie, quoting Dozous in his book Lourdes
(1891), notes
‘‘During her ecstasy, she put her hands together, and her
fingers were loosely crossed above the flame of a taper which
they enveloped in the cavity between the two hands. The taper
burnt; the flame showed its point between the fingers and was
blown about at the time by a rather strong current of air. But
the flame did not seem to produce any alteration in the skin it
touched. Astonished at this strange fact I did not allow anyone
to put a stop to it, and taking out my watch I could observe it
perfectly for a quarter of an hour. Her prayer ended, Bernadette
rose, and prepared to leave the grotto. I kept her back for
a moment and asked her to show me her hand, which I examined
with the greatest care. I could not find the slightest trace
of a burn anywhere. I then tried to place the flame of the taper
beneath her hand without her observing it; but she drew her
hand quickly back, exclaiming ‘You burn me!’’’
The fire ordeal of the Middle Ages to establish the innocence
of a suspected person was performed, according to the
famous jurist Sir William Blackstone, either by taking up in the
hand unhurt a piece of red-hot iron of one, two, or three
pounds weight, or else by walking barefoot and blindfolded
over red-hot ploughshares laid lengthwise at unequal distances.
If the party escaped being hurt he was judged innocent;
if not he was condemned as guilty.
Fire ordeals as a kind of religious ceremony still took place
as late as the 1920s. According to an article by Victor Forbin in
the Revue Aristote, there was a demonstration of fire walking at
Maritzburg, South Africa, in September 1929. Twelve tons of
wood were burned in a ditch 14–15 meters long. Eight Hindus
and four Englishmen walked through this bed of flames with
bare feet. One of the Englishmen, two or three feet from the
edge of the brazier, was seized with feebleness, fell on his knees,
then recovered and finished the course. He fainted when he
was beyond the ditch and was taken to the hospital where the
doctors found the soles of his feet badly burned. When he regained
consciousness he declared to reporters that his misfortune
was because of the shouts of the public, which prevented
him from concentrating on the Supreme Being (see also the
contribution on the fire walk by Victor Forbin in the Journal of
the Society for Psychical Research [SPR], vol. 26, p. 83.).
In 1935 the psychical researcher Harry Price arranged a
scientific investigation of fire walking in Surrey, England, with
the cooperation of Kuda Bux, a Moslem fakir from Kashmir.
The tests were successful, but two other individuals who attempted
the walk suffered blisters on their feet (see Bulletin II
of the University of London Council for Psychical Investigation,
Psychic Immunity to Fire
Among mediums none was more famous for handling fire
with impunity than D. D. Home. In the report of a subcommittee
for the London Dialectical Society (1871), five witnesses
stated that they had seen red-hot coals applied to the hands or
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Fire Immunity
heads of several persons by Home without producing pain or
A Mrs. Honeywood and the Master of Lindsay, the earl of
Crawford, described how in a séance on March 17, 1869, Home
placed a red-hot coal on his hostess’s white muslin dress without
harming it and how he held a spray of white flowers, taken
from a vase on the table, in the fire of the grate. Smoke rose
from the coals, but the flowers remained uninjured and their
pure white color undimmed. In the same séance, intensely hot
lampglass was easily handled by Honeywood and Lindsay while
Home thrust the heated glass (which instantly ignited a match
held to it) into his mouth. Lindsay later reported
‘‘Eight times I myself have held a red-hot coal in my hands
without injury, when it scorched my face on raising my hand.
Once, I wished to see if they really would burn, and I said so,
and touched a coal with the middle finger of my right hand,
and I got a blister as large as a sixpence; I instantly asked him
[Home] to give me the coal, and I held the part that had burnt
me, in the middle of my hand, for three or four minutes, without
the least inconvenience.’’
On one occasion Home knelt down and held his face in the
flames of a bright coal fire. Lord Adare, in Experiences in Spiritualism
with D. D. Home (1869), thus describes the incident
‘‘Having apparently spoken to some spirit, he went back to
the fire, and with his hand stirred the embers into a flame; then
kneeling down, he placed his face right among the burning
coals, moving it about as though bathing it in water. Then, getting
up, he held his finger for some time in the flame of the
Sir William Crookes witnessed Home handling fire on two
or three occasions. In the Proceedings of the SPR (vol. 6) he reports
his experience, also shared by Sir W. Huggins, former
president of the Royal Society, as follows
‘‘Mr. Home then waved the handkerchief about in the air
two or three times, held it above his head and then folded it up
and laid it on his hand like a cushion; putting his other hand
into the fire, took out a large lump of cinder, red-hot at the
lower part, and placed the red-hot part on the handkerchief.
Under ordinary circumstances it would have been in a blaze. In
about half a minute, he took it off the handkerchief with his
hand saying, ‘‘As the power is not strong, if we leave the coal
longer it will burn.’’ He then put it on his hand and brought
it to the table in the front room where all but myself had remained
On this occasion, with another piece of red-hot coal nearly
as big as an orange, Home improvised a furnace in his hand by
covering the coal with his left hand and blowing at it until it was
nearly white-hot. ‘‘Then,’’ continues Crookes, ‘‘he drew my attention
to the lambent flame which was flickering over the coal
and licking round his fingers; he fell on his knees, looked up
in a reverent manner, held up the coal in front, and said, ‘Is not
God good Are not his laws wonderful’’’
William Stainton Moses also saw Home’s strange abilities
with fire
‘‘He then went to the fireplace, removed the guard, and sat
down on the hearth rug. Then he seemed to hold a conversation
by signs with a spirit. He repeatedly bowed, and finally set
to work to mesmerize his head again. He ruffled his bushy hair
until it stood out like a mop, and then deliberately lay down
and put his head in the bright wood fire. The hair was in the
blaze, and must, under ordinary circumstances, have been
singed off. His head was in the grate, and his neck on a level
with the top-bar. This was repeated several times. He also put
his hand into the fire, smoothed away the wood and coal and
picked out a live coal which he held in his hand for a few seconds;
but replaced soon, saying the power was not sufficient.
He tried to give a hot coal to Mr. Crookes, but was unable to
do it. He then came to all of us to satisfy us that there was no
smell of fire on his hair. There was absolutely none.’’
F. W. H. Myers showed this account to Crookes, who declared
that he was unable to explain how it was that Home was
not severely burned. Crookes then told Myers
‘‘I do not believe in the possibility of the ordinary skin of the
hand being so prepared as to enable hot coals to be handled
with impunity. Schoolboys’ books and medieval tales describe
how this can be done with alum or certain other ingredients.
It is possible that the skin may be so hardened and thickened
by such preparations that superficial charring might take place
without the pain becoming great, but the surface of the skin
would certainly suffer severely. After Home had recovered
from the trance I examined his hand with care to see if there
were any signs of burning or of previous preparation. I could
detect no trace of injury to the skin, which was soft and delicate
like a woman’s. Neither were there signs of any preparation
having been previously applied. I have often seen conjurers
and others handle red-hot coals and iron, but there were always
palpable signs of burning.’’
Mrs. S. C. Hall’s testimony of an occurrence on July 5, 1869,
is often quoted. In this case the burning coal was placed on the
head of Mr. Hall. He felt it warm but not hot. Home
‘‘then proceeded to draw up Mr. Hall’s white hair over the
red coal. Mr. Home drew the hair into a sort of pyramid, the
coal, still red, showing beneath the hair; then, after, I think,
four or five minutes, Mr. Home pushed the hair back, and taking
the coal off Mr. Hall’s head, he said . . . addressing Mrs. Y.
‘Will you have it’ She drew back; and I heard him murmur,
‘Little faith, little faith!’ Two or three attempted to touch it, but
it burnt their fingers. I said, ‘Daniel, bring it to me; I do not
fear to take it.’ It was not red all over. . . . but it was still red
in parts. I put out my right hand but he murmured, ‘No, not
that; the other hand.’ He then placed it in my left hand. . . .
I felt it. . . . ‘warm’; yet when I stooped down to examine the
coal my face felt the heat so much that I was obliged to withdraw
The source usually cited for this incident is S. C. Hall’s Retrospect
of a Long Life. It does not appear in that work, however,
and may simply be an apocryphal tale.
Another fire test was reported by Frank Podmore from a letter
written to him by Mrs. William Tebb in June 1882
‘‘Only on Friday I was in a circle with five others when one
fell apparently in deep trance and put his hands over a flame
and held them for some time without apparent injury. He also
held the flame close to his eyes, to our horror, and we had to
beg for the fire test to be dropped. It seemed too much to risk
the eyesight in such a way. The burning of the hands we had
been able to bear. The man afterwards was apparently no
An American woman named Suydam handled hot iron and
live coals and lamp chimneys at their most intense heat in public
séances. ‘‘While she is under the control of the ‘Fire
Queen’,’’ reported the Religio Philosophical Journal of Chicago,
‘‘her hands are cold and clammy; as cold as ice.’’
James Robertson, in his book Spiritualism, an Open Door to the
Unseen Universe (1908) describes a séance with John Hopcroft,
a London shoemaker, in his own house in Glasgow in which ‘‘he
placed his hands amidst the ruddy coals in the fireplace, and
lifting a piece which was perfectly red, he walked through the
room so that its glow was reflected by the pictures on the wall.’’
The New York Herald of September 7, 1871, published the
remarkable case of Nathan Coker, a 58-year-old African blacksmith
of Easton, Maryland, who in the presence of a committee
placed an iron shovel heated to a white heat upon the soles of
his feet and kept it there until the shovel became black. When
it was again red hot he laid it on his tongue and licked it until
it became cooled. He poured a large handful of melted squirrel
shot into the palm of his hand and then put it into his mouth,
allowing it to run all around his teeth and gums. He repeated
the operation several times, each time keeping the molten lead
in his mouth until it solidified. After each operation he was
carefully examined by physicians and was found unhurt.
Fire Immunity Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
The British newspaper Daily Express published a story in
1917 about an interesting experience Rose de Crespigny had
with the medium Annie Hunter, in the presence of the paper’s
correspondent. The control of the medium was said to be a Persian
fire worshiper. A log that the reporter brought up from the
cellar when red hot was lifted out of the fire by the entranced
medium. Talking in an excited way in a foreign language, she
carried it about the room. The reporter shrank away. His hair
was singed. De Crespigny also held the log across her arms for
some seconds without the least harm. Another man, encouraged
by what he had seen, allowed her to put the log near his
head without any bad results.
There are a variety of different explanations of fire immunity
and a variety of conjuring tricks that include apparent fire
immunity. A substance called Mallot’s metal melts at very low
temperatures and can be handled safely for relatively brief periods.
It has been noted that under hypnosis, a person can be
made to produce a blister on his body after being touched by
a pencil and told that it is a lit cigarette. In various altered states
of consciousness the body reacts differently to its environment
and can, for example, develop an immunity to pain. Few today
attempt such feats, except for the well-documented fire-eating
by circus performers, and from the sketchy descriptions of reporters
it is often difficult to discern exactly what occurred in
past generations.
Boisserie, P. J. Lourdes. Paris, 1891.
Carrington, Hereward. ‘‘Psychical Phenomena Among
Primitive Peoples.’’ Psychic Research (October 1930).
Lang, Andrew. ‘‘The Fire Walk.’’ Proceedings of the Society
for Psychical Research 15, p. 36.
Leroy, Oliver. Les hommes salamandres Recherches et réflexions
sur l’incombustibilité du corps humain. Paris, 1932.
Michell, John, and Robert J. M. Rickard. Phenomena A Book
of Wonders. London Thames and Hudson, 1977. Reprint, New
York Pantheon Books, 1977.
Price, Harry, and E. J. Dingwall, eds. Revelations of a Spirit
Medium. London Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1922.
Rickard, Robert, and Richard Kelly. Photographs of the Unknown.
London Book Club Associates, 1980.
Stein, Gordon. Encyclopedia of Hoaxes. Detroit Gale Research,