Spontaneous Human Combustion: Possible Cases,1829-1884

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As I said in my initial post on this blog, my talents lie primarily in discovery and collection. Here, with minimal commentary, are several possible cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion from 1829 to 1884. I have always felt that SHC has some relationship to incendiary poltergeists. See my previous post on that subject:  “The Little Match Girls” for more details.

Excessive drinking was often blamed for SHC, usually in elderly, stout, and slightly disreputable women, such as the Frenchwoman in the story below:

 Case of Spontaneous Combustion. A letter from Auriol, in the department of Var, states that during the night from the 23d to the 24th October an empyreumatic odour, like that of burnt horn, was smelt in the neighbourhood of the dwelling-house of Marie Drignan, widow of Ferard. The next day that woman, who inhabited the second floor, was found almost entirely burned, and what remained of her corpse was still burning. No sign of her having caught fire could be perceived; no complaint had been heard; a candlestick only was found near the chair on which she was probably sitting, and which was also half consumed. This woman had been for a long time addicted to spirituous liquors, and the hydrogen, with which her body was impregnated, and which exhaled from all her pores, having come into contact with the flame of the candle the combustion would take place immediately. Excess in drinking spirituous liquors is not the only cause of human combustion. There is reason to believe that the anatomical combustion of individuals who are its victims contain a superabundance of phosphorus. Paris Paper. Morning Journal [London, England] 24 November 1829: p. 3

The prospect of an Awful Death from spontaneous combustion could also be used effectively to frame a memorable Temperance address.

SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION OF A DRUNKARD

Dr. Peter Schofield, in a late address delivered at the formation of a Temperance Society in the township of Bastard, in the District of Johnstown, in the Province of Upper Canada, states a case of spontaneous combustion, which occurred in his practice:

“It is well authenticated, says the Doctor, that many habitual drinkers of ardent spirits are brought to their end by what is called ‘spontaneous combustion.’ By spontaneous combustion I mean when a person takes fire, as by an electric shock, and burns up without external application.—Trotter mentions several such instances—One happened under my own observation. It was the case of a young man, about 25 years old. He had been an habitual drinker for many years. I saw him about nine o’clock in the evening on which it happened. He was then as usual not drunk, but full of liquor. About eleven on the same evening I was called to see him. I found him literally roasted from the crown of his head to the sole of his feet. [sic] He was found in a blacksmith’s shop just across the way from where he had been. The owner all of a sudden discovered an extensive light in his shop, as though the whole building was in one general flame. He ran with the greatest precipitancy, and on flinging open the door discovered a man standing erect in the midst of a widely extended silver coloured blaze, heating [sic] as he described it, exactly the appearance of the wick of a burning candle in the midst of its own flame. He seized him by the shoulder and jerked him to the door, upon which the flame was instantly extinguished. There was no fire in the shop, neither was there any possibility of fire having been communicated to him from any external source—it was purely a case of spontaneous ignition. A general sloughing came on, and a few of the larger blood vessels standing. The blood nevertheless, rallied around the heart, and maintained the vital spark until the 13th when he died, not only the most noisome, ill featured and dreadful picture that was ever presented to human view, but his shrieks, his cries and lamentations were enough to rend a heart of adamant—He complained of no pain of body—his flesh was gone. He said he was suffering torments, and in this frame of mind gave up the ghost. O the death of the drunkard! Well may it be said to beggars of all description. I have seen other drunkards die, but never in a manner so awful and affecting. They usually go off senseless and stupid.” Kingston Gazette, Onondaga [NY] Standard 8 June 1831: p. 1

It has often been remarked in supposed cases of SHC that the extremities are found intact. I have read that the human foot contains little fat and that is why they do not burn.  There is not really enough detail to definitively class this death as SHC, although the unburnt feet and upright position of the body are suggestive of it.

Mysterious Cremation.

New York March 15. The police of Brooklyn are inquiring into the burning to death of Mabel Robinson, of New York, in Tunision’s Hotel on old Coney Island Road. The body was found sitting upright in a chair with all the clothing burned off except shreds of stockings on the feet. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 15 March 1884: p. 1

The following case nearly spelled a death-sentence for the victim’s family, who were accused of his murder and of burning the body to destroy the evidence.

Spontaneous Human Combustion.

The “Gazette Medicale” quotes from the “Union Medicale ” the following case of alleged spontaneous combustion. On the morning of the 6th of January, 1847, the body of a man named Ch___ was found on fire in bed. A dense smoke filled the room. One who was present affirmed that he saw on the body of the deceased, a small, lambent, whitish flame. All the bedclothes and clothes of the deceased were almost entirely destroyed. The bedstead was only partly burnt; there were no ashes,,and very little vegetable charcoal, but some portions of animal charcoal having evidently belonged to the articulations. The other materials surrounding the body were scorched. It is said that M. C____ carried in his waistcoat pocket some chemical matches, and in the evening he had, as usual, placed at his feet a heated brick, which, before being wrapped in linen, had been slowly cooled by water thrown over it twice. He went to his room between six and seven o’clock in the evening. Two hours later, his son and daughter-in-law, passing his door, perceived nothing unusual; and it was not till the next morning, that his grandson found him in the state which we have described. He was 71 years of age, and was neither very fat, nor given to drunkenness. The weather had been very cold for some time, but there were no signs of an excess of atmospheric electricity. The body was found in its usual position during sleep. His son and daughter were suspected of having first murdered him, and then burnt the body, in order to conceal all traces of the crime. Dr. Masson, who was ordered by the authorities to make the necessary examination, had the body exhumed. The coffin was found half filled. The body was folded in a white shroud. A cravat, nearly destroyed by the fire, and a fragment of a shirt collar, remained round the neck. The hands, burnt to a cinder, were attached to the forearm merely by some carbonized tendons, which gave way at the least.touch. Lastly, the thighs were so completely separated, that, had it not been for fragments of animal charcoal, the separation might have been attributed to a knife.

From the examination of these facts, it was concluded that, as it was impossible to attribute the phenomena to the action of the combustibles with which the body had been in contact, they must be ascribed to a cause inherent in the individual, put in action, perhaps, by the heat of the brick applied to the feet, but which must have found fuel in the tissues which it destroyed; that, in a word, it must be classed among cases of spontaneous combustion. This opinion of M. Easson being fully confirmed by that of M. Orfila, the accused were acquitted.—Ranking’s Abs. The North-western Medical and Surgical Journal, Volume 5, 1849 p. 250-1

This next article is ambiguous about whether there really was a “ball of fire” that hit the young boy or if his sister was merely describing the conflagration around her brother.

Struck by a Ball of Fire

[From the San Antonio (Texas) Express]

Yesterday afternoon, Fred Balder, 11 years old, son of Constable Balder, went home from school, and finding his parents gone, went to the cupboard and sliced off a piece of bread, buttered it, and then went to the front of the house and sat down on the gate-post and began eating. In a few seconds he was enveloped in a flame which passed around the house to an irrigation ditch and was then lost Freddie’s sister, nearby, saw the flame, and describes it as a ball of fire. Freddie’s hat was burned, also his shirt-bosom, and his eyebrows were singed off, and the hair where not protected by the hat. He is unable to see, and can scarcely hear. His face is swollen and ridged as if by a sharp instrument. The boy is in great pain, and may lose both sight and hearing. There was no one near except his little nine-year-old sister at the time. The burning is said by physicians to have been produced by an electric fire. It is the occasion of universal wonder and comment there, being an extraordinary case. Titusville [PA] Herald 20 November 1880: p. 3

Spontaneous Kindling Of Fire In The Human Body.—The Courier de I’Eure communicates to the world an account of spontaneous kindling, though no combustion, in the person of a mantua-maker. This young lady was sewing one night by the light of a candle, when she felt an undue heat all over her body. She noticed at the same time that her forefinger was on fire. The flame was bluish, and emitted a sulphurous smell. She plunged her hand into cold water, and wrapped it in moistened cloths, but the burning still continued, and spread over her hand. Her apron caught fire, and she was obliged to take it off. The flame was only visible in the dark. The girl spent the night in efforts to extinguish the flame, and only succeeded at daybreak. Spiritual Telegraph Vol. 3 p. 471- 472

The apron catching fire is echoed in the story of Minnie Markle, “Haunted by Fire,” in The Face in the Window. Minnie had inherited money which had been frittered away by her guardians and was forced to work in a boarding house in Springfield, Ohio where, suddenly, mysterious fires began to break out. One day as she was ironing, the damp laundry at her feet and her apron, both blazed up. Her apron strings burned through and her apron fell to the floor—could there be a more obvious symbol of the young woman wishing to escape her servitude?

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.