The strange tale of the Imperial Oil furnace jumper

The tank farm at Imperial Oil in Sarnia as seen in the early part of the 20th century. Photo courtesy, Dave Burwell Collection, Sarnia Historical Society

Phil Egan

The whole, bizarre story began with a tragedy.

On Tuesday morning, July 28, 1925, a man was seen pacing back and forth in front of the furnace of an Imperial Oil boiler room at the Sarnia plant. As he paced, he held a lump of coal in each hand.

When one of the Imperial workers opened a 30-inch fire door on the furnace, the man suddenly leaped headfirst into the seething mass of flame. Frank Nash, an Imperial Oil foreman, seized a fire hook and dragged the man out.

But his clothing was incinerated, his body badly burned. The man managed a couple of grunts and died on the spot.

His former wife identified him from an old axe wound on the foot and an appendicitis incision. His name was Adelard Lebert, 43, a resident of Port Huron. His divorced wife, Victoria, said he had suffered from nervous spells and spoken of suicide.

He had also, she said, expressed an interest in being cremated when he died.

Adelard Lebert was born in Leamington and had married Victoria in 1919. Three years later he disappeared following an argument, and Victoria successfully sued for divorce on the grounds of desertion. Victoria, who was also Canadian-born, then remarried an 80-year-old U.S. Civil War veteran, and became known as Mrs. Manley.

Despite her first husband’s unexplained disappearance, Victoria Manley continued to pay the premiums on two $5,000 life insurance policies on Adelard, held by the Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Co. of New Jersey.

After his badly charred body was recovered from the Imperial Oil furnace, the company paid out the proceeds, and Mrs. Manley used the money to construct the “Adelard Apartments” at 1221 Military St. in Port Huron.

But a nasty surprise was coming.

In April of 1926, Adelard Lebert, very much alive, returned to Port Huron, only to find he was presumed dead and his wife had redeemed his insurance benefits.

When he confronted her, she refused to recognize him as her former husband.

Smelling something fishy, the insurance company filed suit against Mrs. Manley, claiming she hadn’t acted in good faith when she identified the Imperial Oil furnace jumper as her former husband.

Newspapers in Michigan and Ontario couldn’t get enough of the strange story. Lebert said that during his four-year absence he’d drifted through Florida, California and Washington State.

The legal case wound its way through Michigan courts for two years. Finally, Circuit Judge Eugene F. Law dismissed the lawsuit in 1928 when the insurance company failed to appear at trial.

Adelard Lebert rejoined his family members in Ontario, who had no trouble recognizing him.

The mystery of who jumped in the Imperial Oil furnace has never been solved.