I’ve been a fan of stories of Spontaneous Human Combustion since my Frank Edwards-fueled childhood. This story, which, admittedly does have the complications of chemical embalming agents, and a rather literary tone, was new to me.
HOW A CORPSE VANISHED
A Remarkable Case in Brooklyn Which Puzzles All the Doctors
A Lady Who Died From Hysteria Is Reduced to Ashes by Spontaneous Combustion
Her Embalmed Body First Throws Off a Rosy Glow
[New York Star]
“Spontaneous combustion” is a phrase very frequently used in jest, and many scientific men and most physicians are disinclined to consider the subject seriously. That it is a stern reality has recently been demonstrated in the vicinity of Brooklyn, but the case has been kept a profound secret, through ignorance or misapprehension of its nature. That a case of this character should not come to light is a public misfortune, as science seldom has an opportunity to set right a question of much importance to humanity. Spontaneous combustion, or more correctly, preternatural combustion, as it is designated by some scientists, is the term applied to that phenomenon by which, sometimes, the human body ignites without the application of external fire. The local case now under consideration is in many respects one of the most wonderful of its kind. The story was thus related by a very intelligent nurse a short time ago to an invalid lady on whom she was waiting in the City of Churches:
“I was attending a lady a few months ago,” began Mrs. N___, “who had been a victim of melancholia and occasional hysteria for several years. Though she had the best physicians that money could provide—for she was wealthy—she always manifested a great aversion to medicine, and the doctors taxed their ingenuity to discover something that might be palatable to her. At length one of them succeeded in making a drink from a combination of three powders of different colors, which, when mixed in water, produced a liquid almost the hue of pale claret, and so agreeable to the palate that when once drunk of there was a peculiar desire to imbibe more.”
“That is the case with all stimulants and poisons,” said the invalid, whose medical education had not been totally neglected.
“This was not a stimulant,” replied the nurse, “for it soon produced satiety without the indulgence of repeated draughts. It was more in the nature of a tonic, as I heard the doctor say, and it was productive of sound, but healthy sleep, though its effects in this respect were sometimes apparently remote, and the patient seemed to improve for several weeks after she began to us it.”
“Did it cure her?” impatiently inquired the invalid, who was beginning to imagine some similarity in her own physical condition to that of the lady in question.
“No,” said the nurse, heaving a deep sign and averting her eyes toward the ceiling, at which she gazed steadfastly in silence for a minute, while the invalid eyed her with a feeling of intense curiosity and surprise.
“What happened then?” said the latter, attempting to arouse the nurse from her reverie.
“I don’t like to tell you,” she said, bursting into tears. “I was so deeply attached to the dear lady. It is so mysterious and nobody understands it. The doctors did not understand it themselves, but they were afraid it might be misrepresented, though they had done nothing wrong.
“What happened to the lady? Did she die?”
“Yes, she died and was embalmed; but you must never say that I told you.”
“Why, is there anything wrong in embalming that it should be kept a secret?”
“No; but they didn’t know which it was—the embalming or the draught. I never think of it but it makes me shudder.”
“Don’t be so mysterious, but let me know all about it.”
“Well, she was embalmed, and she never looked more beautiful. She was so handsome and life-like, and the color came again, imparting a rosy tint to her cheeks, such as she used to have before she grew sick. It looked so natural, and yet it was not, for she had been dead several days. She seemed to be in a sweet slumber as she lay in that lovely casket.”
“Well, gracious, what happened!”
“Oh, it is dreadful to think of. Her brother went forward to the casket and raised the veil to have a last look at his beloved sister, when instantly he was enveloped in a purple flame which rose from the casket and ascended to the ceiling. The heat was intense, but the flame did not catch the clothing of those standing beside the casket, though my own dress and that of the sister of the deceased lady were both very light. We thought this very strange, but we were all too much stunned to speak for a few moments, and could only look at the curious blaze. There had been no fire near that could have ignited anything in the casket. When the first shock of surprise had in a measure subside, some one suggested water—I believe it was her husband—and a pitcher was immediately brought and dashed into the flame.” “Did this extinguish it?”
“No; to our consternation, it only acted as fuel, and the flame bulged out on all sides, forcing some of us to leave the room from its intense heat; and some of them were greatly frightened, not knowing what to make of it. The physician who had prepared the powder that seemed to cure her grew pale and was greatly agitated, but he was not to blame, for he did not give it to her until he had a consultation with the others, and we all tasted it. It was delicious, though not sweet. I do not think it could have been the powder.”
“But you have not told me how the flame from the lady’s body was extinguished. Finish that, will you? “ said the invalid, with increasing irritation.
“Oh, it burned out; the doctors were at their wits’ end, when the water made it worse.
“Burned out; what do you mean?”
“I mean that the body of the dear lady was reduced to ashes. Other doctors were called in, and they could only gaze hopelessly at the burning body. It did not take more than half an hour to consume it. It was alarming to see how quickly it was done. They only sprinkled a disinfectant on the floor to prevent the odor, which was very disagreeable at first.”
“The body was reduced to ashes, you say?”
“Oh, the doctors were not so much surprised when it was over and they came to think of it. There have been other cases of the kind, but this lady never used stimulants. She was strictly temperate. Yes, all the soft parts of the body and most of the bones were left in ashes, but the head and hair, except a portion of the neck remained whole and almost as handsome as ever. It was a shocking sight, and her sister swooned.”
“Was there no explanation about it? What did the doctors do? Who was the embalmer?”
“”He was sent for—the embalmer—and examined by the physicians. They wrote down everything he said, but he had used nothing more in the material with which he embalmed than for other persons, except that he had put in a larger quantity of the ingredient, whatever it is that preserves the color and freshness of the skin and complexion, as she had to be sent a great distance out West.”
“Did they live in Brooklyn?”
“No, they were not permanent residents of Brooklyn. They had been there several months with relatives, and her husband was engaged in some business in New York while they were here.”
“What did the doctors think?” “They did not know what to think, but they were very anxious, as was also the embalmer, that their names should not be mentioned in connection with the mysterious affair.” “Had they anything to fear, do you think?”
“No; how could they? I should think the publicity would have done them more good than otherwise in their position; but they wished to keep it a secret, and I was bound to secrecy, too, but I know that telling you will not matter.”
“How then do you account for the secrecy about it?”
“Well, it was on account of the family, I believe. They did not want to have their name in the papers, and her family were a little superstitious. Besides, they thought it would make them too conspicuous, and they didn’t like that.”
Having his mind filled with the story as related by the lady whom the eye witness of the mysterious occurrence unfolded it as above described, a reporter for the Star called on a number of physicians and scientific men to find out what is known about the phenomena of spontaneous combustion. The personal experience of the physicians in such cases is not sufficient to enable them to recognize the phenomena as resting on a scientific basis. Some of them are so skeptical that they will hardly believe some of the well-authenticated cases in their own books. It would seem, however, that science, and especially medico-legal science, can no longer afford to disregard the phenomena, since to do so may be fraught with the most serious consequences. A careful consideration of a few of the best authenticated cases accepted by scientific men will make this point clear. The case of Millet’s wife is strongly illustrative:
Nicole Millet, the wife of Jean Millet of Rheims, was in the habit of daily intoxication. The domestic economy of the house was managed by a young woman, a relative, of prepossessing appearance, and her looks proved very unfortunate for Millet. The remains of Mrs. Millet were found one morning in her kitchen thoroughly cremated, with the exception of the head (the hair being undisturbed, as is usual in such cases) portions of the lower extremities and vertebrae. Her husband testified that she had risen shortly after retiring at night and had gone to the kitchen to warm herself. About two o’clock he was awakened by a strong, disagreeable odor, and when he reached the kitchen he found the remains of his wife, calcined. The case was taken to court and the young lady’s good looks excited the suspicion of the virtuous judges, though there was no other evidence on this head, but being unable to account for the peculiarity of the cremation, they arrived at the conclusion that the woman had been murdered and the body burn t to conceal the crime. Millet was sentenced to death; but he appealed to a higher court and scientific experts were called in who pronounced the cause of madam Millet’s death spontaneous combustion. Poor Millet, however, did not survive the shock occasioned by the ignorant judgment of the Court below and the ordeal of the trial. He died shortly afterward in a hospital.
The article goes on to add several other curious cases of apparent SHC. The story of Father Bartholi is highly unusual in that the priest survived for several days and could describe his sensations. Another version of this story suggests that he was the victim of a lightning strike; although yet another version says the night was clear and cool.
The case of the priest Bartholi is, perhaps, the most singular on record. In some respects it is even more so than the Brooklyn case. It occurred in Paris about a century ago. The father was traveling about the country and one evening arrived at the house of his brother-in-law and immediately desired to be shown to a private room. He requested someone to place a handkerchief between his shirt and shoulders. This was done, and he was left to his devotions. In a few minutes a noise was heard in the room, and the cries of the priest were particularly distinct. He was found extended on the floor and surrounded by a light flame, which receded as the people approached him, and the flame finally vanished. On the next morning the integuments of his right arm were almost detached from the flesh, and below the shoulders the integuments were considerably injured. There was mortification of the right hand, and this, in spite of scarification, rapidly extended itself. The patient was greatly convulsed, and was exhausted with continual vomiting, accompanied by fever and delirium. On the fourth day, after two hours of comatose insensibility, he expired, and a short time previous to his death the body exhaled an insufferable odor; worms crawled from his body, and the nails became detached from his left hand. At the time he was seized with a strange sensation of burning he said that he felt a stroke like the blow of a large stick over his head and shoulders. At the same instant he saw a bluish flame attack his shirt, which was soon reduced to ashes, the wrist bands in the meantime, remaining totally untouched. The handkerchief which he had ordered placed between his shoulders and shirt, through some unaccountable instinct, was entirely free from any trace of burning. His trousers were also uninjured, and though not a hair on his head was burned, yet his cap was entirely consumed. There had been no fire in the room, and there was no combustible matter that he knew of on his person. He was a man of strictly temperate habits….
The various theories of the causes constitute one of the most interesting studies in chemistry and electricity, especially when it is considered that the lives of innocent people may be sacrificed through ignorance of scientific facts. The distinctions between this kind of combustion and that of the exterior and ordinary nature are so well marked that with careful scientific investigation there need never be a fatal miscarriage of justice in a civilized county, yet the danger still exists, if counsel for the defense is not something of a scientist, at least so far as is necessary in his own profession and where a jury may be inclined to concentrate their minds on the circumstantial evidence which now has such weight in the courts and ignore or perhaps ridicule the idea of spontaneous combustion. The necessity of attending to these distinctions then, is obvious.
In the history of martys and others burned to death it is well known that large quantities of fuel are required to convert the body to ashes. The operation is slow, and the heat being high would extend itself to surrounding circumstances. The combustion in ordinary cases is always incomplete, and particularly so in reference to the bones. Another, and the most remarkable difference is that the hair, which under the influence of ordinary external fire is the most combustible part of the body, is never burned, while the liver and spleen are always so, except in the very few instances where the intestines have totally escaped. There are many other minute distinctions, but the application of these in medico-legal cases is manifest, and the wife of Millet and others are cases in point showing that the distinctions should never be lost sight of by lawyers and judges.
Regarding the theories of the case, Lair, a French authority, says: “The phenomena occur through alcoholic impregnation or saturation and actual contact of fire, which may be very slight, is necessary.” “Meffei, Le Cat, Kopp and others attribute the cause to electricity; Marc thinks it is the result of inflammable gases accumulating in the cellular tissue, and in a body charged with ideo-electricity the slightest thing may cause ignition. The gas, he thinks, is hydrogen and its compounds, and explains why water often not only fails to extinguish the fire, but seems to add fuel to it. It also explains why substances contiguous to the body are so seldom burned, the heat required being low. It is difficult, however, on this theory to account for the rapidity of the combustion in some cases, and a new theory is wanting which will show that the combustion, though powerful in its own domain, is by some peculiar law restricted thereto, and does not ignite other substances….
The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 9 October 1882: p. 2
The curious detail that water did not extinguish the Brooklyn corpse-blaze, but fueled it is a near-constant in stories of SHC. The theme of intoxication is also a common one–the Temperance movement actually used the threat of spontaneous combustion as one of their deterrent talking-points. I also find it interesting that the author seems so concerned over the legal aspects of SHC and the potential for accusations of murder and miscarriages of justice.
Lair–Pierre-Aimé Lair–an agronomist, naturalist, and scientific and civic philanthropist, was the author of Essai sur les combustions humaines produites par un long abus des liqueurs spiritueuses, 1800. LeCat was Claude-Nicolas LeCat, a surgeon who testified in the Millet affair. Kopp was chemist Hermann Kopp, author of a treatise on spontaneous combustion. Meffei is Francesco Scipione, Marquis de Maffei, who performed lightning-rod experiments with Benjamin Franklin and believed that the human body could generate lightning within. I’m embarrassed to say that while I’ve read accounts of Dr. Marc lighting off gases from the intestines of corpses, I don’t know his first name.
Thoughts on hydrogen, legal aspects of SHC, interior lightning or Dr Marc’s first name? Send with a tonic the hue of pale claret to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com.
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.