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Spontaneous Human Combustion
By Jenny Randles, Peter Hough
Robert Hale LimitedCopyright © 1992 Jenny Randles and Peter Hough
All rights reserved.
A History of Incineration
The perceived phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion is not a modern mystery. Accounts stretch back many centuries, so it is safe to assume that inexplicable incinerations have always occurred. It is not the purpose of this chapter to list every known instance. The repetition might become tedious, and besides, certain cases will be used later to illustrate relevant points. However, it is necessary to recount a historical sample of the phenomenon to give the reader a fair idea of its spread, and its effect on literature and society in general.
Incidents are recorded as far back as 1613 and may well be found in even earlier form if systematic studies were conducted, but the first case reported in depth occurred in Italy. In Philosophical Transactions, 1745, appears an article headed: 'An Extract, by Mr Paul Rolli, F.R.S. of an Italien Treatise, written by the Rev. Joseph Bianchini, a Prebend in the City of Verona; on the Death of the Countess Cornelia Zangári and Bandi, of Ceséna'.
It recounts how the Countess Cornelia Bandi seemed in normal good health until suppertime on the evening of her death. At the meal she felt 'dull and heavy' and she retired immediately afterwards. Once in bed she talked with her maid for three hours or more, finally falling asleep, the maid closing the bedroom door behind her.
The following morning, when the 62-year-old countess did not rise at her usual hour, the maid entered the bedchamber and called her name. Not receiving a reply, and fearing that illness or an accident had affected her mistress, the maid opened a window and observed the following:
Four feet distance from the bed there was a heap of ashes, two legs untouched, from the foot to the knee, with their stockings on: between them was the lady's head: whose brains, half of the back part of the skull, and the whole chin, were burn't to ashes; among which was found three fingers blackened. All the rest was ashes, which had this percular quality, that they left in the hand, when taken up, a greasy and stinking moisture.
The air in the room was also observed cumbered with soot floating in it: a small oil lamp on the floor was covered with ashes, but no oil in it. Two candles in candlesticks on the table stood upright; the cotton was left in both, but the tallow was gone and vanished. Somewhat of moisture was about the feet of the candlesticks. The bed received no damage; the blankets and sheets were only raised on one side, as when a person rises up from it, or goes in; the whole furniture, as well as the bed, was spread over with moist and ash coloured soot, which had penetrated into the chest of drawers, even to foul the linens; nay the soot was also gone into a neighbouring kitchen, and hung on the walls, moveables, and utensils of it. From the pantry a piece of bread covered with that soot, and brown black, was given to several dogs, which refused to eat it. In the room above it was noticed, that the lower part of the windows trickled down a greasy, loathesome, yellowish liquor; and thereabout they smelt a stink, without knowing of what, and saw the soot fly around.
It was remarkable, that the floor of the chamber was so thickly smeared with a gluish moisture, that it could not be taken off; and the stench spread more and more through the other chambers.
The case was also attested to by one Scipio Maffei, 'a learned contemporary of Bianchini'. This case, more than most, resembles many of the later cases where incineration has taken place indoors. Of particular note is a fire that has the capacity to destroy a human being, yet leaves combustible materials nearby relatively untouched. This latter component has also been noted in draftier locations, and indeed also – but less often – out in the open air.
A Dr Booth reported the following incident in the British Medical Journal of 1888:
On the morning of Sunday, February 19, I was sent for to examine the remains of a man, 65, a pensioner of notoriously intemperate habits. I found the charred remains of the man reclining against the stone wall of the hay loft. The main effects of combustion were limited to the corpse, and only a small piece of the adjacent flooring and the woodwork immediately above the man's head had suffered. The body was almost a cinder, yet retained the form of the face and figure so well that those who had known him in life could readily recognize him.
Both hands and the right foot had been burnt off, and had fallen through the floor into the stable below, among the ashes; and the charred and calcined ends of the right radius and ulna, the left humerus, and the right tibia and fibula, were exposed to view. The hair and scalp were burnt off the forehead, exposing the bare and calcined skull. The tissues of the face were represented by a greasy cinder, retaining the cast of the features, and the incinerated moustache still gave the wonted military expression to the old soldier. The soft tissues were almost entirely consumed.
On my return from other work, later on, I found that the whole had been removed. The bearers told me that the whole body had collapsed when they had tried to move it en masse. From the comfortable recumbent attitude of the body, it was evident that there had been no death struggle, and that, stupified with the whisky within and the smoke without, the man had expired without suffering, the body burning away quietly all the time.
Apparently, highly inflammable hay, both loose and bundled, was not even scorched.
As illustrative of an outdoor instance of suspicious incineration, here is an account by a Dr B.H. Hartwell, of Ayer, Massachusetts, originally published in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal. On 12 May 1890, while making a professional call on the outskirts of the town, Dr Hartwell was summoned into a nearby wood by a girl stating that her mother was 'burned alive'.
Hastily driving to the place indicated a human body was found in the actual state of conflagration. The body was face downwards; the face, arms, upper part of the chest, and left knee only touching the ground; the rest of the body was raised and held from the ground by the rigidity of the muscles of the parts. It was burning at the shoulder, both sides of the abdomen, and both legs. The flames reached from twelve to fifteen inches above the level of the body. The clothing was nearly all consumed.
As I reached the spot the bones of the right leg broke with an audible snap, allowing the foot to hang by the tendons and muscles of one side, those of the other side having burned completely off. Sending my driver for water and assistance, I could only watch the curious and abhorrent spectacle, till a common spading fork was found with which the fire was put out by throwing earth upon it, the flesh was burned from the right shoulder, exposing the joint from the abdomen, allowing the intestines to protrude, and more or less from both legs. The leg bones were partially calcined. The clothing unburned consisted of parts of a calico dress, cotton vest, woollen skirt, and thick, red, woollen undergarment.
The subject of the accident was a woman, forty-nine years of age, about five feet five inches in height, and weighing not far from one hundred and forty pounds of active habits and nervous temperament. A wife and mother she was a strictly temperate person, accustomed through life to hard work, one who, in addition to her household duties, went washing and cleaning, besides doing a good share of the work in a large garden.
On the fatal afternoon she had – as the place showed – been clearing a lot of stumps and roots, and had set fire to a pile of roots, from which it had communicated to her clothing or it had spread into the woodland and had set fire to the clothing during her endeavors to stop it. The body lay about two rods from the burning pile. As proof that the flesh burned of itself and nothing but the clothing set it afire, it may be stated that the accident occurred after a rain; that the fire merely skimmed over the surface of the ground, not burning through the leaves; that there was nothing but charred leaves under the body; that her straw hat which lay several feet distant was simply scorched; that the wooden handle of the spade was only blackened.
The above case is interesting in several particulars. It is the first recorded case in which a human body has been found burning (that is, supporting combustion) by the medical attendant. It differs from nearly all of the recorded cases, in that it occurred in a person in middle life, not very fat, and not addicted to the use of alcohol. It is interesting in a medico-legal sense. It proves that under certain conditions – conditions that exist in the body itself – the human body will burn. We have abundant proof in the many recorded cases of so-called spontaneous combustion (seventy-three are chronicled in medical literature) that the body has been more or less completely destroyed by fire under circumstances that show that it will support combustion, and that this has given rise to the belief in the spontaneous origin of the fire.
Dr Hartwell makes some interesting observations towards the end of his paper, particularly his remarks concerning alcohol. As we shall see, that substance was central to a Victorian explanation for inexplicable human combustion. Note also, that although a source of ignition was close by, the flames seemed to have 'skimmed' over an area of damp leaves, and other combustible materials – a straw hat and spade – were hardly touched. Recently, fire experts have formulated an explanation of how this can happen indoors, but their theory could not possibly apply in these cases.
A typical supposed alcohol-centred conflagration is the classic case of Grace Pett. What is interesting in relating the story here, is the additional information which surfaced just a few years ago through the diligent researches of Peter Christie. It seems there were certain aspects of the case that subsequent reporters chose to suppress! The story as commonly told is this:
Grace Pett was the pipe-smoking wife of an Ipswich fisherman, who met her death on the night of 9 April 1744, aged sixty. An idiosyncrasy of the lady was to come downstairs during the night and sit by the fire smoking her pipe. On that particular night, her daughter, who slept in the same bed with her, did not perceive her rise, and was not aware she had gone until the following morning. After dressing, the daughter went downstairs and found the remains of her mother in the kitchen.
The woman was stretched out on her right side, head nearest the grate, body extended across the hearth, legs beyond on the wooden floor. Apparently the remains had the appearance of a wooden log, baked rather than ravaged with flame, and still glowing. The trunk was incinerated, resembling a heap of coals covered in white ash, and the head and limbs were burned too.
There was no fire in the grate, and a candle, close by, had burned down entirely in its candlestick. Although fat from the body had so penetrated the hearth that 'it could not be scoured out', the floor was not even discoloured. Near to the consumed body were some children's clothes and a paper screen. These had suffered no injury. It is interesting, considering that smoke inhalation is the prime cause of death in fires, that the daughter had not been aware of a conflagration until she actually had sight of her mother. There are indications too that there were other people staying in the house that night, none of whom had been aware of a fire.
The body was still incinerating. When the daughter threw water over the remains, a fetid odour filled the air, which almost suffocated her and several neighbours, who by this time had arrived to assist the girl. Once again, in later reports, much was made over the 'fact' that Mrs Pett had consumed 'a large quantity of spirituous liquor' that night to celebrate the return of another daughter from Gibraltar.
Peter Christie, reading an account of the case in Michael Harrison's book Fire From Heaven, thought he would track down its source. One of Harrison's sources was Sir David Brewster's Letters on Natural Magic addressed to Sir Walter Scott, dated 1832. Peter, having an 1842 fifth edition copy of this book, found that the details agreed with contemporary accounts of the affair. However, he was determined to track back as far as he could and discover where Brewster had found the report to begin with.
In a branch of the Suffolk Record Office, he looked through back copies of the Ipswich Journal for the relevant date, and found the following item: 'On Tuesday Morning (April 10) a Woman in St Clement's Parish was found burnt to Death in her own House. This unhappy Affair was attended with several extraordinary circumstances, but they are so variously related, that we cannot at present give our Readers any particular Account of them.'
Strangely, Peter Christie could find no follow-up story in subsequent editions of the newspaper. He did however check parish records and found that the Pett family was labelled as 'Poor'. Then, through a nineteenth-century local history book, he learned of a short-lived publication called the Ipswich Magazine. It contained two references to the case. The first of these was a letter to the editor by one 'J.S.', with additional comments by someone signing themselves 'B'. After giving the story as recounted by Brewster, J.S. then continued with a narrative every bit as strange.
According to J.S., Grace Pett had a reputation of being a witch, 'among some of her ignorant neighbours'. A local farmer called Garnham was convinced some of his sheep, taken ill, were bewitched. He was advised by a 'white magician' called Mr Winter to burn one of them, presumably to break the spell. The farmer thought the whole idea was a nonsense, but his wife decided to try the experiment.
Mrs Garnham made one of her employees bring a diseased sheep into the backhouse. There its four legs were bound and it was laid in the hearth. Still alive, it was set on fire. J.S. then recounts how the bandages tying the poor beast's legs burned through in the flames, at which the animal tried to escape but was forced with a pitchfork in its side to remain in the fire until dead.
According to these accounts, the sheep was burned on the same night that Mrs Pett, allegedly responsible for its illness, met her fiery death.
Subsequent commentators ignored this aspect of the case, no doubt of the belief that spontaneous combustion was enough to swallow at one sitting, without adding witchcraft and sympathetic magic! But does this detract from the SHC aspect of the case, or simply add to its bewilderment? Superstitious nonsense, or does it demonstrate, as some believe, a supernatural component to spontaneous fires?
In its day, the witchcraft dimension was well established. Peter was able to procure a book published around 1875, entitled Grace Pett. A tale of witchcraft by Elizabeth Cotton. The narrative included a series of verses recounting the tale from beginning to end. According to these, after Grace Pett died 'on the Unscorched ground', the disease afflicting Garnham's sheep abruptly ceased.
Peter Christie dug deeper, and discovered more letters, published even earlier. One of the letter writers, a Mr Gibbons, had actually interviewed Grace Pett's daughter, and two other people who had been in the house at the time of the incident, one of whom was named as 'Boyden'. Peter was pleased to receive a copy, from the Royal Society of Great Britain, of a letter by a Mr R. Love – apparently the earliest documentation on the case, dated 28 June 1744. Details of this letter are given in the aforementioned Philosophical Transactions which we had the good fortune to track down.
Mr Love attended the inquest and learnt that the women retired at about 10 p.m. and the body was found at 6 a.m. The letter stated there was no fire in the grate, and, contrary to some subsequent reports, Mrs Pett 'was not in liquor nor addicted to drink Gin'. It confirmed that the extremities and parts of the head were not burned, neither was the wooden floor even scorched. The bones were calcined so completely that the remains were easily shovelled into a coffin.
Despite all of these anomalies, the jury brought about a verdict of accidental death.
A study of eighteenth-and nineteenth-century documents illustrates that rare abnormal fire deaths and injuries were as prevalent then as they are now. The phenomenon also attracted the serious attention of individuals in the medical sciences. Not believing in the supernatural, they sought a logical explanation, and looked for a common denominator. The common denominator seemed to be drink.
Excerpted from Spontaneous Human Combustion by Jenny Randles, Peter Hough. Copyright © 1992 Jenny Randles and Peter Hough. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale Limited.
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