In the late 1800’s, in a small city, in Michigan a man named A.W. Underwood shocked crowds by setting things on fire… not with matches but with his breath. The abilities of Underwood were championed by Dr. L.C. Woodman, a practicing physician and veteran cavalry surgeon. The claim being made was that Underwood could breath upon handkerchiefs, tufts of tinder, scraps of paper, etc. and set them ablaze. This feat was often performed in front of groups of interested people and even “learned” men and women of “science”. Underwood’s abilities were never fully explained.
With the rise of spiritualism spreading across America there were, with good reason, many people who believed the young man to be faking his “supernatural abilities”. Criticism and annoyance came from every direction even the spiritualist community itself proto-trolled Dr. Woodman; a magnetic healer once wrote to the doctor,
“Much controversy her some claming that it is All humbug others holding that it is only a freeak in natur and I feel a Deep interest in the Matter and Desir yo to Give Me on Reception of this.” (Spelling errors have to the original have been kept intact – J. Tenney)
Letters such as these were commonly sent to Dr. Woodman, who it is thought, for good reason, found them annoying.
Due to increasing press-coverage of the young man’s “power” Dr. Woodman allowed Underwood to be subjected to repeated tests by almost anyone who wanted to figure out how the man generated fire by breathing. In January of 1883, Underwood performed his “fire-breathing” at Rush Medical College in Illinois; to those in attendance the conclusion reached was,
“that he actually produces the flame with his breath, and that there is no trick about the matter”.
There were many who attempted to explain Underwood’s “power” as a parlour trick which resulted in a fiery exchange between believers and skeptics via newspapers in and around Michigan.
Underwood’s abilities were typically similar each time he performed. A description of one of Underwood’s performances, in front of a small group of people and under the supervision of Dr. C.S. Maynard was reported on February, 16th 1883.
“Before commencing operations Mr. Underwood thoroughly bathed his hands and face, rinsed his mouth and drank a goblet of water. This was done under the direction and supervision of Dr. C. S. Maynard, and after the bathing and drinking, the hands of the operator were kept extended until the handkerchiefs he was to burn were placed in his hanels, when bringing them to his mouth he breathed upon them, apparently in a struggling kind of way, for perhaps a minute and a half, when a blue smoke appeared and the handkerchiefs, four in number, were burned through. After the feat he appeared much exhausted, and Dr. Maynard, after an examination, said his pulse was 104 beats per minute. Mr. Underwood was quite ill and apparently it was harder work for him than usual and took him a longer time. The handkerchiefs were such as wrro olTereil by the spectators, one of them belonging to Mrs. Cal. LaGrave, one to Mr. Aaron Hathaway, one to Justice Warner, and the other to Sheriff Van Auken. We stood near Mr. Underwood daring all the time he was breathing upon the handkerchiefs, watching him closely, but we have no explanation to give of the matter, no theory to advance in regard to it. If it is a trick is a very neat one indeed, and is not easily detected. We know that he was once offered $200, and the money placed in the hands of a third party, if he would instruct the person who offered such money how to do the same thing, but he insisted then, as he ever has, that he could not, and that his power was as mysterious to himself as to other?
As read in the above article an offer of $200, currently adjusted value approx. $5000.00, to reveal his “trick” was rejected; curious for a day laborer who charged nothing for his “performances” and earned about $250 a year, but perhaps he was holding out for more money.
Less than a week later Underwood performed again at the home of a Prof. McLouth. The story is recounted as follows.
As had been previously announced, Underwood tho “fire-blower” was on hand, to give an exhibition of his mysterious faculty of producing flame with his breath. Quite a number of our citizens had never witnessed this feat, and a good deal of interest was manifested. At the appointed time he made his appearance on the platform, and Elder Cole announced to the audience that the exhibition would be under charge of the lecturer, Prof. McLouth, of the State Normal School, (Ed Note: Eastern Michigan University), and Dr. C. S. Maynard, of this village. It is wholly unnecessary to enter into the details of a performance, which has been so often described. Suffice it to say, that after performing his usual ablutions, rinsing his mouth and thoroughly brushing his teeth, to convince the audience that there was no trickery, five handkerchiefs were collected from the audience and handed to him. These he placed to his mouth and after breathing upon them for two and a quarter minutes, a curl of blue smoke issued from them, which, an instant later, burst into flame. An examination showed that the handkerchiefs had all been burned through. Prof. McLouth announced to the audience that before beginning the feat Mr. Underwood’s pulse was eighty beats per minute, and at its conclusion it was one hundred and twenty-four. He said he was convinced that there was no jugglery or trickery in reference to the matter, that it was a wonderful phenomenon, and wholly unexplainable by him. He thought he could detect the odor of phosphine on the burned handkerchiefs, but might to mistaken, and, if that were so, it did not help him any, the manner in which this could be generated within the lungs or chest of the performer was a mystery he could not explain. He thought that when the matter was thoroughly understood and investigated, it would be found susceptible of a scientific solution. The Professor then proceeded with his lecture which was extremely interesting.
So here we find the first, of what came to be, the scientific explanation of how Underwood performed his trick; the smell of phosphine. The argument has been made by many that Underwood used phosphorus material hidden in his mouth to perform the “trickery”. Indeed magicians have performed such tricks and they can be, now, readily found in numerous magical explanatory tracts. And though magicians and illusionists have done similar tricks it can be seen as somewhat odd that a laborer somehow cracked the secret codes which magicians hold, to themselves, so closely. A trick for creating fire by breathing was printed in Fortunes in Formulas, by G.D.Hiscox & Prof. Sloane in 1939, ( fifty-years after Underwood’s performances) but even the author of that journal wrote, “This secret seems little known to conjurers,” and the trick itself was coating paper with phosphorus and blowing on it until it ignited.
Also, curious is the fact that Underwood’s mouth was inspected, rinsed, washed and in some cases the trick was even performed while he was in water. Mr. J. P. Coonley, who was in charge of Underwood while visiting Atlantic City, New Jersey wrote in a letter back home that,
“Underwood performed his feat while in the water during the bathing hours, and in the presence of hundreds of bathers and spectators.”
As it it all couldn’t be more obtuse we find a letter from R. Thomas in Volume One of 1883’s Medical Age; who also seems to explain the workings of Underwood in their totality and yet himself doubts that his own reasoning is correct. He states in his letter,
“Underwood is an ignorant mulatto, and knows nothing evidently of the solvent powers of the bisulphide of carbon or the use of capsules… I have never seen Underwood it is true…but my son has.”
Thomas then sets about a lengthy description of how he himself used to perform almost the exact same feat as Underwood more than fifty year before. His account is almost verbatim in description to Underwood’s feats and yet, later in the letter, he concludes with the following statement.
“While I do not claim that Underwood uses any such method and would not deny that there many be many forces and mysteries in nature that cannot be accounted for or explained, still I give the above for what it is worth.”
Eventually Underwood stopped performing and settled in as the front desk clerk at a local hotel. We can only assume they had fire insurance.
The True Northerner, Various Dates January-August, 1883
Medical Age, Volume One, 1883
Fortunes in Formulas, by G.D.Hiscox & Prof. Sloane, 1938