The journey that brought me to Galeton on this trip started while talking a to friend after a presentation on Pennsylvania folklore. “You mentioned Mary Reeser, but have you ever heard of Dr. Bentley?”
“Of course, who hasn’t?”
“You know he’s buried in Galeton?”
“No, he’s not.”
“Yes, yes he is, look it up.”
“Are you sure it’s the same man? I’ve never read anywhere he was actually buried.”
“He’s buried there.”
“Are you sure?” I questioned, not wanting to get my hopes up in tracking down the grave of a man who suffered one of the strangest deaths in Pennsylvania’s history that remains a hotly debated issue.
“I stumbled upon his name while doing research. The dates match up. It’s him.”
A couple days later I was wandering among the stones of West Hill Cemetery, in Galeton. With crude directions to where the doctor rested I searched the cemetery for the doctor’s resting place. Somehow, I managed to walk past it on my first pass. Disappointed, I was headed back to the vehicle when I noticed the stone that marked the grave of Dr. J. I. Bentley. The doctor rests between Ester and Susan. Note: Ester is listed as his wife and I’m assuming due to the dates that this was a second wife, but I’m not one hundred percent sure.
I stood there in silence as I paid my respects to a doctor I never knew, but had become a part of the folklore of the region – his bizarre death did more to immortalize him than all of the good things he did during his lifetime.
“So who is Dr. Bentley?” and “Why is important?” are the two questions you’re probably asking right now. I can only sum up Dr. Bentley’s death in three words: Spontaneous Human Combustion. Note: for the rest of this article Spontaneous Human Combustion will be abbreviated as SHC. SHC is used to describe cases where a living – or very recently deceased – human catches fire without an apparent cause. An external source for the fire cannot be determined in SHC cases and is thought to have come from a chemical reaction within the human body.
Dr. John Irving Bentley – who was known as J. Irving – lived a normal life and had it not been for his manner of death he would have probably been forgotten by all but his own descendants. He was a family doctor who served the region from 1925 to 1953.
On December 5, 1966 the remains of the doctor were discovered in his home by Don Gosnell, a meter reader for the North Penn Gas Company. Upon entering the house, he noticed a strange smell and a light blue smoke that lingered in the basement air. Curious, Gosnell went to investigate and was shocked by what he discovered.
The doctor, who had been seen alive by visiting friends at nine the night before, was dead. All that remained of Dr. Bentley was his lower leg with the slipper still on it and the walker he used to get around – the rest of the doctor was a pile of ash. Despite the doctor burning to a pile of ash, his house was still standing. A quick search of cremation says to cremate a human body it takes 2-2.5 hours between 1400-1800 degrees. If his body burned at this temperature, then his wooden house should have been engulfed in flames.
Note: Without meaning to sound morbid, there seems to be differing opinions concerning how much of the doctor remained. The vast majority of sources state that only the lower leg remained. However, I have read in a number of places that Dr. Bentley’s shrunken skull was also discovered at the scene. This piece of information appears in a couple places, but I have not been able to determine this to be fact or not.
“So what happened to the doctor?” is something that many have attempted to answer since his strange death. The answers of what happened to the doctor have been as interesting as his death is bizarre. Note: I am not an expert in SHC, and none of the following theories are what I believe caused the death of the doctor. I’m merely presenting some of the theories that exist regarding his death.
SHC theory: Something within the doctor caused him to catch fire and burn up. The theory is favored heavily upon by many due to the fire that consumed him was confined to only to his bathroom and only seemed to have affected the doctor and the floor immediately under him. Those who have studied the phenomenon of SHC state that this is common among those who are believed to be victims of SHC. Comparing it to a number of possible cases of SHC, Dr. Bentley’s death does seem to fit into a pattern of strange death by fire cases. In cases of SHC – and in the case of Dr. Bentley – the area around the deceased is barely affected. The fire that consumed the doctor neither darkened the tub beside the remains nor melted the rubber tips of his walker that lay nearby.
The theory of falling ashes: This theory states the doctor was a victim of his smoking because Dr. Bentley was known to have smoked a pipe. The belief is that ash fell from his pipe and ignited his robe, setting him on fire. He attempted to get to the bathroom to put it out, but fell and was burned to death while he lay on the floor. Deputy Coroner John Dec, in his official report, states that this was the official cause of death – Dr. Bentley accidentally set himself on fire due to ashes falling on his robe.
Wick Theory: This theory does not explain how the person catches fire, but attempts to explain why they burn up quickly. The theory maintains that the fat in the human body acts as a wick that causes the fire to spread and quickly destroy the human body. Think of the human as a candle with body fat being the flammable substance. Once all the fat is gone, the fire puts itself out. Again, the theory does not explain the cause of the fire, but attempts to explain why it does not spread to objects around the body.
Lightning Theory: This theory states that Dr. Bentley was either struck by lightning or was hit by a ball lightning. While in the bathroom that evening, the doctor was hit by either a stray bolt of lightning or a ball of lightning that came through the window. The weather in Coudersport was described as freezing, but I found no mention of storms in the area at the time of Dr. Bentley’s death.
Methane: This theory states that SHC is caused by a build-up of methane in the stomach and intestines. When the amount of methane gets to a critical level, it reacts to enzymes and explodes, setting the person on fire. The only thing against this theory is: why doesn’t this happen in cows which produce more methane than humans?
Aliens: Note: I absolutely DO NOT believe this theory. I’m only including it because I have stumbled upon this as an explanation. Early December of 1966 there were a number of reports from the region concerning UFO sightings. Supposedly Dr. Bentley was a victim of either 1) an alien experiment gone wrong or 2) was shot and killed by an alien weapon. The only problem with this theory is…well, aliens.
“So what happened to the doctor?”
Standing at his grave I found myself asking that question again. Looking at other supposed cases of SHC, Dr. Bentley fits the “typical” victim. He was old. He was living alone. He only had a foot remaining (most victims of SHC only have legs and arms remaining). The area surrounding the body has little damage despite the body being burned. The report of a strange odor and smoke noticed by those who find the victim. Despite having all the “signs” of SHC, the doctor was a known smoker, which explains the cause of the fire, but not the end result.
As I left Dr. Bentley’s grave I realized there may never be a definite answer to what exactly happened. The evidence at the scene leaves a mystery that creates more questions, though it maintains this truth: the doctor somehow caught on fire, burned up, and in the process became a mystery that still echoes in Pennsylvania’s history.