Thursday, March 10, 2005

Playing with fire

A common demonstration of paranormal abilities involves walking on fire or handling fire. The 19th century medium Daniel Dunglas Home was known for his ability to hold red-hot coals in the palms of his hands, astonishing observers who swore that the coals glowed and that Home's hands were unprotected. And of course we all know about demonstrations by shamans of their ability to walk barefoot over embers without injury to the soles of their feet.

There may, however, be a non-paranormal explanation. Recently I've been reading a rather grim but interesting book called The History of Torture by Daniel P. Mannix. (This is the same Mannix who wrote the book about the Roman gladiatorial games that I discussed a short while ago.) On pp. 90-91 he describes ordeals by fire, in which a person's guilt or innocence was determined by whether or not he could come into contact with fire and emerge unscathed. Mannix writes:

The accused might have to carry a red-hot piece of iron a certain distance, walk over several red-hot plowshares (unsually nine), or dip his hand into a cauldron of boiling water, lead, or oil.... In all such tests, everything depends on whether the accused's body is damp. When the human body is brought into sudden contact with extreme heat, the moisture on the skin turns to steam. A common example of this phenomenon is dropping a drop of water on a hot flatiron. If the iron is not too hot, the water will spread over the surface and evaporate, but if the iron is red-hot, the drop will keep its shape and roll about on the iron. If the drop is tilted off on the hand, it will be found to be quite cool. It never actually touches the iron but is supported by a cushion of vapor. This is known as Leiderfrost's phenomenon.

Bechmann in his History of Inventions, Vol. II, page 122, says: "In the month of September 1765 when I visited the copper works at Awested, one of the workmen put his hand under his armpit for a few minutes to make it sweat, as he said, and taking it out again, drew it over a ladle filled with melted copper, some of which he skimmed off."

I have seen steelworkers wash their hands in molten steel as it was poured from a crucible and Dr. Mayne Coe of Riviera Beach, Florida, has heated cast iron to a molten state (2,795 degrees) and handled it with moist hands. He has also walked on red-hot plates of sheet metal. As professional fire-eaters know, a white-hot spoon can be touched to the tongue without burning it (provided the tongue is damp) but if the spoon is only red-hot, it will burn. The theory, then, behind all such ordeals is that the guilty person in an agony of fear will have a dry mouth and dry hands, while the innocent who perspires naturally will not be harmed.
Mannix was probably in a position to know. The bio on the book's back cover says that after college he "joined a circus, working as a sword-swallower, mind-reader, escapologist and lock-picker." Presumably he knew some fire-eaters and learned the tricks of their trade.

Assuming Mannix's account is accurate, it could explain firewalking, handling hot coals, and similar effects often ascribed to paranormal powers.


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