The Mott Case




The Mott Case

 The fifth and last of Arnold’s chapter-length cases is that of a fifty-eightyear- old retired fireman named George Mott. He died in 1986 in the bedroom of his home outside Crown Point, New York. His body was largely consumed along with the mattress of the bed on which he had lain. A leg, an implausibly reported shrunken skull, and pieces of the rib cage were all that remained that were recognizably human. Arnold insists that there was no credible source for the ignition.

Whether or not we agree with Arnold’s dismissal of the theories of two fire investigators—first, that an electric arc shot out of an outlet and ignited Mott’s clothing, and second, that an “undetected” gas leak had been responsible—there are other possibilities. Mott was a man who formerly drank alcohol and smoked heavily. The day before he died he had been depressed over his illnesses, which included respiratory problems and high blood pressure. What if, as could easily happen in such a state of mind, he became fatalistic and, shrugging off the consequences, opted for the enjoyment of a cigarette? This possibility gains credence from the fact that he was not wearing his oxygen mask, although he was in bed and his oxygen-enricher unit was running. On top of the unit, next to the mask, was an otherwise puzzling cannister of “barn burner” matches, yet there was no stove or other device in the room they would be used for. (At least Arnold does not mention a stove or other device being in the room. If there was, then we have another possible explanation for the fire, and there are additional potential explanations in any case—each more likely than Spontaneous Human Combustion.) 

Arnold cites the Mott case as a quintessential one of SHC, based on the process of elimination. He does not allow SHC to be eliminated, however, although there is no single instance that proves its existence and no known mechanism by which it could occur. And so he often dismisses what he feels is unlikely in favor of that which the best scientific evidence indicates is impossible. Such thinking has been called “straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel.”

In fact, Arnold’s process-of-elimination approach here as elsewhere is based on a logical fallacy called “arguing from ignorance.” As the great nineteenth-century scientist Justus von Liebig explained, “The opinion that a man can burn of himself is not founded on a knowledge of the circumstances of the death, but on the reverse of knowledge—on complete ignorance of all the causes or conditions which preceded the accident and caused it.”

In his relentless drive to foster any sort of mystery, in this and other cases, Arnold raises many attendant questions. For example, he wonders why extremities, such as a victim’s leg, and nearby combustibles are not burned. The answer is that fire tends to burn upward; it burns laterally (sideways) with some difficulty. Anyone with camping experience has seen a log that was laid across a campfire reduced to ashes by the following morning while the butt ends of the log remain intact. Thus, outside the circle that burned through the carpet covering the concrete floor of Mary Reeser’s apartment was found her slippered foot, because Mrs. Reeser had a stiff leg that she extended when she sat. Beyond the circle, some newspapers did not ignite, while a lamp and table within it did burn. Similarly, Dr.Bentley’s intact lower leg extended outside the edge of the hole that burned through his bathroom floor.

Beyond this matter of proximity, Arnold cites other examples of fire’s “selectivity” that puzzle him. For example, in the Mott case, he wonders why matches near the burning bed did not ignite while objects in other rooms suffered severe heat damage. The answer is one of elevation: heat rises. In Mrs. Reeser’s apartment, due to the accumulation of hot gases, soot had blackened the ceiling and walls above an almost level line some three and a half feet above the floor, there being negligible heat damage below the smoke line but significant damage above it; e.g., plastic electrical switches had melted. Thus, in George Mott’s house, reports Arnold, “On the counter directly beneath the melted towel holder sits an unopened roll of Bounty towels, upright. Ironically, it and its plastic wrapping were undamaged except for a glazed film on the top!”

Other factors relevant to heat-damage “selectivity” include the objects’ composition, density, confinement (e.g., in a cupboard), placement on a surface that either radiates or retains heat, or its placement relative to convective currents, cinders carried aloft, etc., etc. 

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