Have People Died Making Flash Paper?

What harm can flash paper actually do? Is it really dangerous? Well, not surprisingly — yes it is dangerous if not handled correctly. In fact, a couple of people have even died, perhaps causing one magic book author to write a poem about the dangers of it:

There was a young man from Green Bay
Who was making flash paper one day
He dropped a live match
Upon the whole batch
The WAS a young man from Green Bay.

We know of two flash paper manufacturers who have died from improper practices over the years:

Walter Prince, the Chemical Expert

We know of several people killed from flash paper making injuries. Flash paper manufacturer Walter Prince died in 1947. Prince was an advocate of performing tricks with Flash Bills and manufactured his own. For example, his torn and restored bill can be described easily in just a few sentences:

Have a flash bill crumpled, up and concealed in the right hand. Borrow a genuine bill. Crumple this up slightly and hold in the left hand. Now with a quick motion bringing the right hand up to the genuine bill and pretend to tear it. Show the two bills in each hand as the two parts of the torn bill. Make several more tears and then put all the “pieces" in the right hand with the flash bill in front. Ignite the fake bill with a match and toss into the air. Reach toward the flame and snap out the genuine bill held in the right hand.

Sadly, shortly after publishing that trick, Walter Prince died. Prince worked in the army as a Captain in the Chemical Warfare Division in Los Angeles. Shortly before his death, he wrote in a magic magazine that, “My experiments with one powder indicate that my new paper has a variable speed and the flame increases in rapidity as the flash compresses. It leaves no ash. Even my mother-in-law says that I am a good chemist because there apparently is no danger manufacturing it. In the beginning, I did take chances to get some spectacular effects with chemicals, but I am sure now that I have taken out all the bugs." One month later, he and his wife were killed when a batch of chemicals being prepared for impregnation of the paper ignited. When Price's clothing caught fire, his wife, Margaret, ran to him and sought to put out the flames, which soon enveloped her and she too was killed. The fire destroyed part of their home.

Though burned, Walter’s condition at first appeared stable. Margaret did not fare as well. Walter rode to hospital in the front seat; his wife was secured in the back. She died from her burns three hours later. While Walter’s burns weren’t lethal, the fumes he inhaled during the accident were. His condition worsened and he died the next day, tragically leaving their daughter an orphan.

In a 1993 Genii magazine, James Swooger wrote about Prince: “I used to order flash paper from Walter Price, who made it in his Florida basement. Walt had shelves just full of paper. He also would smoke down there as he made it. A friend of mine who was a neighbor would visit him and always ask why he smoked down there. Walt would simply answer "no danger, I know what I'm doing".

Murray Sobel’s Car Accident

Dealers, like Murray Sobel of Cleveland, find a source that can supply them with large sheets. They then repackage the paper into small pads and packages for resale. In the late 1980s, Murray’s Magic Shop was a leading distributor of flash pads across the United States.

Murray sold a lot of flash paper, due in part to an enticing (and illegal) service he offered his clients. He shipped flash paper dry. Selling damp flash paper is less appealing to buyers because it must be dried thoroughly before it will burn properly. For shop owners who didn’t have the time or desire to hang their flash paper from the rafters, Murray was perfectly willing to ship the product to them pre-dried.

On May 26, 1992, Murray left his home in Mentor, Ohio, and pulled onto Route 306, heading south. He was on his way to the local UPS office to fulfill several mail orders. There were a few boxes of flash paper in the backseat of his car, and one more resting on the passenger seat. As was customary in a non-computerized mail-order business, all the boxes were left unsealed so that when shipping was tabulated on site, Murray could write in the exact shipping charge on the recipient’s bill.

Murray smoked while he drove.

Precisely what took place in Murray Sobel’s car is only conjecture. Whether Murray swerved to avoid collision or merely lost his grip on his cigarette is unknown. But somehow, the box next to him caught fire. Officials determined that the fire started in the box next to him because, in a moment of impulsive behavior, Murray reached back into the box to retrieve the cigarette. This we know because his right side and hand were the most severely burned.

Murray pulled his car over, unable to release the seat belt that (presumably) had melted closed. Fire spread to the other boxes of flash paper, and eventually the car, too, caught fire. Finally Murray emerged from the car, on fire, and rolled on the ground until the flames were extinguished.

Murray Sobel was airlifted to Cleveland Metro Hospitals Burn Unit where he was diagnosed with third-degree burns on eighty percent of his body and fourth-degree burns (to the muscle tissue) on his back and chest. Murray survived forty days in the intensive care unit before his heart gave out due to the trauma his body had incurred.

Murray Sobel’s Car Accident

Near Misses

There were also plenty of near misses where thankfully nobody was injured. For example, Morris Fox (Owner of Royal Magic at about that time) would make flash paper in his apartment and would keep the paper in his closet. Once he came home and smelled smoke upon opening the closet and discovered to his amazement that everything was burned. At that point, he stopped making the paper.

In more recent times, magician Kostya Kimlat stored his flash paper floor-to-ceiling in a Florida storage unit (70,000 sheets) and a thunderstorm caused static electricity to move through the pipes and create a spark big enough to ignore the entire thing. Kostya said, “The Sheriff arrived and suspiciously questioned me. They must have thought I was cooking meth. I presented my insurance certificate, stating explicitly that I had been storing nitrocellulose paper. I couldn’t believe that the worst possible thing that could have happened, did. I had kept the paper stored safely for two years.”

So, is flash paper safe?

The answer is simple: flash paper (or flash cotton) is safe if you store it properly, learn how to use it properly and only keep a little of it. 70,000 sheets is too many. And don’t ever smoke near it.