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Dr. John Irving Bentley's inexplicable death: A light-blue smoke of unusual odor or somewhat sweet

In the small town of Coudersport, Pennsylvania, Don E. Gosnell, a meter reader for the North Penn Gas Company, set out on his accustomed rounds on the morning of December 5, 1966. His first call was on Dr. John Irving Bentley, a 92-year-old retired physician, who was a semi-invalid but still able to get around his house with the aid of a walker. Gosnell opened the doctor's front door, yelled, but received no answer. He proceeded downstairs to the basement to read the meter. There he became aware of a “light-blue smoke of unusual odor ... like that of starting up a new central heating system ... somewhat sweet.”

In the corner of the dirt-floored basement was a pile of fine ash about 14 inches in diameter and about 5 inches high, perhaps enough to fill a bucket. Idly, he kicked and scattered the stuff. He did not notice the hole in the ceiling—an irregular area about 2 1/2 feet wide and 4 feet long, charred around the edges—burned clear through the floorboards above. He read the meter and then went upstairs to look in on the doctor. There the smoke was denser, but Dr. Bentley was nowhere in sight. Don Gosnell stuck his head into the bathroom. He was appalled at the sight that greeted him. The doctor's walker was tilted over the burned hole in the floor, and alongside it was all that remained of Dr. Bentley—his right leg from the knee down, browned but not charred. The shoe was still intact. Gosnell ran out of the house, white as a sheet, yelling at the top of his lungs: “Doctor Bentley burnt up!”

The coroner, John Dec, had too many unanswered questions to determine how the accident could have happened. One theory was that the doctor had set his robe on fire in the living room while striking a match to light his pipe, then used his walker to get to the bathroom for water to put out the flames. (His robe was found in the bathtub next to the drain, singed but not badly burned.) But even if the robe had burst into flames, how could it have generated enough heat to set a body on fire? If the fire had started in the living room, why was there no trace of it? And how was it possible for a body to be consumed so completely with so little else being affected?

The coroner's certificate finally gave “asphyxiation and 90 percent burning” as the cause of Dr. Bentley's basically inexplicable death.


I - Francis Hitching, The Mysterious World: An Atlas of the Unexplained, pp. 20 - 21

II - Pursuit, 9: 75 - 79, Fall 1976



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