“Insurance – an ingenious modern game of chance in which the player is permitted to enjoy the comfortable conviction that he is beating the man who keeps the table” – Ambrose Bierce
Nobody expects the insurance company. Their chief weapon is surprise… surprise and fear…fear and surprise…their two weapons are fear and surprise… and ruthless efficiency…Their three weapons are fear, surprise, and ruthless efficiency…and an almost fanatical devotion to skepticism…Their four…no… amongst their weapons….amongst their weaponry…are such elements as fear, surprise….I’ll come in again. When it comes to anomalistic phenomena, insurance companies rarely get involved if they can avoid it. By their very anomalistic nature, they are unpredictable and thus bad insurance risks. Not a lot of underwriting is done for say, alien abduction, faerie kidnapping, or property loss due to poltergeists. The insurance premiums for the average untrained pyrokinetic are ludicrous, and it’s hard to find gainful employment when things keep burning down around you. Young Willie Brough (11 years old in 1885) of Turlock, Madison County, California in the San Joaquin Valley faced just such a conundrum. You see, poor Willie would inadvertently set things aflame just by looking at them. Now this may seem like a pretty cool superpower, assuming you have it under control, but Willie did not. Hijinks ensued.
Fortean Godfather, Charles Hoy Fort in his interminable search through the newspapers of the world for unexplained phenomena, ran across the story of Willie Brough in the December 9th, 1886 edition of the New Zealand Times (copied from the San Francisco Bulletin of October 14, 1886), and found that Willie was credited with the ability of “setting things afire by his glance, and had been expelled from his Turlock school, because of his freaks” (Fort, 1974, p920). Well, not only was Willie expelled from school, but the local insurance companies laid down the law.
Willie Brough, a boy living with his parents near Turlock, California, is reported to be so charged with electricity that the snapping of his fingers causes sparks to fly. It is also stated that hay, straw, wall-paper, and other light substances burst into flame at a mere gaze from the boy, and that he had to be sent away from school owing to fires breaking out in the structure in a mysterious manner. An insurance agent will take no further risks on property in the neighborhood as long as Willie remains. (The Review and Herald, October 26, 1886, p670).
This of course made the neighbors unhappy, and the Brough family sought refuge at a relatives on the other side of the San Joaquin River. Nothing brings down property values like a rogue pyrokinetic in the neighborhood.
Popular excitement has been so great since the story of the sinister power of Master Brough was circulated, that the father has felt impelled to move away, and has gone to reside on the other side of the San Joaquin River, taking refuge with his family in a cottage in the cotton wood timber, a long way from village or railroad. A correspondent found him there. He denied that his son had caused fires, but admitted that he had told him that when lying in bed at night he saw Sparks flying about him. Willie is an extremely nervous boy, eleven years old, with a largely developed head. In a melancholy way he told the correspondent that he did not know how the mysterious fires occurred, but said he saw sparks about his own body at night. M. A. Kuhlman, who keeps a School in Mercer County, in which the alarm first began, describes how five fires broke out in one afternoon in different parts of the School-house, being caused by no visible agency. Other scholars were hastily dismissed, but Willie Brough was detained. A few minutes later he fixed his eyes on a hay shed a few yards distant and called the teacher’s attention to the fact that smoke issued from the same. Very soon it was in a blaze. The teacher forbade him to come to school any more. He does not believe him guilty of arson, but is inclined to think he is a victim of Supernatural agencies. On the previous Sunday eleven mysterious blazes occurred in the house of William’s father. One broke out at a corner of the roof, another in some bedding in the middle of the floor and the third charred grain sacks in the barn. Willie looked at a straw stack nearby, and flames issued out of the top. The mother of the boy is prostrated with excitement and anxiety (Electrical Review, October 30, 1886. p8)
While insurance companies wouldn’t offer homeowners insurance to folks residing in the vicinity of Willie Brough, they nonetheless offered up the skeptical viewpoint, after he was expelled from a second school due to unexplained conflagrations in his presence, that he was merely a talented mischief-maker headed for a life of crime (or at best, a circus). An insurance–oriented periodical called the Baltimore Underwriter took a grim view of the goings on in California.
California’s latest sensation a boy of 12 who has an eye that sets fire to every object he looks upon is a very dangerous product It is not surprising to learn that this incendiary optic caused his occurred expulsion from a Stockton school but it is queer in this age to find rather than mischief the accepted explanation of the tricks of a bad youngster. Mysterious fires have sometimes puzzled Eastern cities but have finally been traced to a boy’s hands rather than to his visional organs The poet speaks metaphorically of fire in each eye but Master Willie Brough’s exploits will land him sooner in jail than in a dime museum (Baltimore Underwriter, November 5, 1886, p205).
Willie Brough was persona non-grata with the neighbors, the insurance companies, all the local schools, and even his parents (who suspected satanic influence, as one might when an excessive amount of flames are involved). Willie understandably decided it was time to get out of Dodge. Or Turlock, as the case may be, and despite notoriety in newspapers, managed to disappear off the radar.
As a curious post-script to the story of Willie Brough, Tim Christensen, an anthropologist and naturalist with the Sequoia Parks Conservancy was gathering local oral history in the 1960’s, and interviewed an old gentleman named Roy in the Masonic Lodge of Wilsonia about his days in the Sierra logging camps. Roy claimed to have worked with Willie Brough in the Southern Sierra Nevada lumber camps, where Brough secretly confessed his history of inadvertently starting fires through no fault of his own. According to Roy, Willie worked for several years in Millwood as a logger until June 2, 1905. On that day, an unexplained explosion destroyed the black powder storage building of Camp Four of the Sanger Lumber Company. Willie didn’t show up for work the next day, and was never to be heard from again.
Fort, Charles Hoy. The Complete Books of the Damned. New York: Dover, 1974.
Worthington, George ed. Electrical Review v9. New York, etc.: McGraw-Hill Pub. Co., 1886.
The Baltimore Underwriter: a Monthly Publication Devoted to the Interests of Insurance. Baltimore, Md.: Sherwood & Co., 1886.
“News of the Week”. The Advent Review and Sabbath Herald v.63, no.42. Battle Creek, MI: Seventh Day Adventist Publishing Association, 1886.