Tuesday, November 1, 2016
Spontaneous Human Combustion in History by J. G. Millingen 1839
Spontaneous Human Combustion in History by J. G. Millingen M.D., M.A. 1839
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The singular fact of persons, more especially individuals who were in the habit of indulging in the use of spirituous liquors, having taken fire and been consumed, is authenticated beyond the slightest doubt. Little confidence, it is true, can be placed in the reports on this subject which occasionally appear in the newspapers of different countries; but many celebrated practitioners have witnessed and recorded the event, and physiologists have endeavoured to account for its causes. The celebrated Le Cat mentions a woman of Rheims, of the name of Millet, who was found consumed at the distance of two feet from her chimney; the room exhibited no appearance of fire, but of the unfortunate sufferer nothing was found except her skull, the bones of the lower extremities, and some vertebræ. A servant-girl was accused of the murder, and condemned to death; but on her appeal, and a subsequent investigation, her innocence was fully ascertained.
Joseph Battaglia, a surgeon of Ponte Bosio, relates the following case:—Don G. Maria Bertholi, a priest of Mount Valerius, went to the fair of Filetto, and afterwards visited a relation in Fenilo, where he intended to pass the night. Before retiring to rest, he was left reading his breviary; when, shortly afterwards, the family were alarmed by his loud cries and a strange noise in his chamber. On opening the door, he was lying prostrate on the floor, and surrounded by flickering flames. Battaglia was immediately sent for, and on his arrival the unfortunate man was found in a most deplorable state. The integuments of the arms and the back were either consumed or detached in hanging flaps. The sufferer was sufficiently sensible to give an account of himself. He said that he felt all of a sudden as if his arm had received a violent blow from a club, and at the same time he saw scintillations of fire rising from his shirt-sleeves, which were consumed without having burned the wrists; a handkerchief, which he had tied round his shoulders, between the shirt and the skin, was intact. His drawers were also sound; but, strange to say, his silk skull-cap was burnt, while his hair bore no marks of combustion. The unfortunate man only survived the event four days, when mortification of the burnt parts was most extensive, and the body emitted intolerable putrid effluvia. The circumstances which attended this case would seem to warrant the conclusion that the electric fluid was the chief agent in the combustion.
Bianchini relates the death of the Countess of Cornelia Bandi, of Cesena, who was in the habit of using frictions of camphorated spirits. She was found consumed close to her bedside. No traces of fire could be observed in the room—the very lights had been burnt down to their sockets; but the furniture, closets, and linen were covered with a grayish soot, damp and clammy.
The Annual Register mentions two facts of a similar nature which occurred in England, one at Southampton, the other at Coventry. In the transactions of the Royal Society of London, an extraordinary instance of combustion is also recorded. The fact is thus related. Grace Pitt, the wife of a fishmonger of Ipswich, aged about sixty, had contracted a habit, which she continued for several years, of coming down every night from her bedroom, half dressed, to smoke a pipe. On the night of the 9th of April, 1744, she got up from her bed as usual; her daughter who slept with her, did not perceive she was absent till next morning when she awoke; soon after which she put on her clothes, and going down into the kitchen, found her mother stretched out on her right side, with her head near the grate; the body extended on the hearth, with the legs on the floor, which were of deal, having the appearance of a log of wood consumed by a fire without any apparent flames. On beholding this spectacle, the girl run in great haste and poured over her mother’s body some water contained in two large vessels, in order to extinguish the fire, while the fetid odour and smoke that exhaled from the body almost suffocated some of the neighbours who had hastened to the girl’s assistance.
The trunk was in some measure incinerated, and resembled a heap of wood covered with white ashes. The head, the arms, the legs, and the thighs, had also participated in the burning. This woman, it is said, had drank a large quantity of spirituous liquor, in consequence of being overjoyed at hearing of the return of one of her daughters from Gibraltar. There was no fire in the grate, and the candle had burnt down to the socket of the candlestick, which was close to her. Besides, there were found close to the consumed body, the clothes of a child and a paper screen, which had sustained no injury from the fire. The dress of the woman consisted of a cotton gown.
It is possible that this accident may be attributed to the escape of hydrogen gas; the presence of this inflammable body in animals is evident, and it is also proved that it is liable to ignite. Morton saw flames coming from the body of a pig. Bonami and Ruysh, with a lighted candle, set fire to the vapour arising from the stomach of a woman whom they were opening. In the Memoirs of the Academy of Science of Paris, of 1751, we find the case of a butcher, who, on opening the body of an ox that had died after a malady which had swollen him considerably, was severely burnt by an explosion and a flame which rose to the height of about five feet. Sturm, Bartholini, and Gaubius record fiery eructations in which, no doubt, phosphurated hydrogen had been generated in the stomach, from some combination of alcohol and animal substances, and inflamed upon coming into contact with atmospheric air; the fetid odour which invariably accompanies these combustions appears to warrant the conclusion. Fodéré remarks that hydrogen gas is developed in certain cases of disease even in the living body, and he agrees with Mere in attributing spontaneous combustion to the united action of hydrogen and electricity. The case of a Bohemian peasant is narrated, who lost his life in consequence of ignited inflammable air issuing from his mouth which could not be extinguished. It seems evident that this accident only occurs under certain conditions of the body; generally in aged persons upwards of sixty years old; more frequently in women than in men, and chiefly when of indolent habits, a debilitated frame, and intemperate in their mode of living. That the body has been usually consumed long before the head and the extremities is evident, since these parts have been more commonly found than the trunk. It also has been ascertained by observation that this strange accident seldom occurs in summer, but principally during severe cold and frosty weather. It appears that some experiments have been recently made in the United States, when the blood flowing from the arm of a man addicted to spirituous liquors actually took fire, being placed in contact with a lighted taper!
Medical observers differ in opinion on this singular yet well-authenticated phenomenon. Lair, Vicy d’Argou, and Dupuytren maintain that to produce it, the contact of fire is necessary. Le Cat and Kopp, on the contrary, affirm that this combustion may be spontaneous without the intervention of any external agent, and resulting from some peculiar predisposition. According to Le Cat animals contain inflammable substances which ignite of themselves. De Castro relates the cases of several individuals from whom friction could draw sparks. Daniel Horstius mentions a gouty patient, from whose limbs, on being rubbed, vivid sparks arose. These physicians consider that these electric sparks are sufficient to ignite the spirituous liquor which may have saturated any organic tissue of the body, the combustion being afterwards fed by animal oil.
This theory is, however, subject to many objections. It is difficult to imagine that any substance introduced into the organ of digestion should retain its former principles of inflammability. Although Cuvier and Dumeril relate, that in opening the body of a man who died from excess of drinking, the effluvia of the liquor arose from every cavity.
On this subject, fraught with much interest, nothing positive has been ascertained, despite the late progress of chemical investigation. This combustion indeed differs widely from all other burning; sometimes a flickering and bluish flame arises; at other times a smothered heat or fire, without visible flames, is the consuming agent. Water increases the combustion instead of allaying it. It is moreover a well-known fact, that a considerable quantity of fuel is required to consume a dead body, whereas in this combustion, incineration is most rapid. The human body, indeed, is not easily consumed; a case is related of a baker-boy, named Renaud, who was sentenced to be burnt at Caen; two large cart-loads of fagots were required to consume the body, and at the end of more than ten hours, some remains were still visible.
The extreme incombustibility of the body was singularly exemplified in the case of Mrs. King, whose murderer was engaged for several weeks in endeavouring to burn her remains without effecting his purpose.
It has also been affirmed by various medical observers, that the human body will occasionally secrete an inflammable matter emitted by perspiration. Thus, it is stated, that the perspiration of the wife of a physician of the Archbishop of Toledo was of such a combustible nature, that a ribbon which she had worn, being exposed to the air, took fire. Borelli relates the case of a peasant, whose linen would ignite in a similar manner, whether it was laid up in a chest or hung up to dry. Amongst the many curious stories of the kind, we quote De Castro, who affirms that he knew a physician, from whose back-bone fire issued so vividly as to dazzle the eyes of the beholders. Krautius informs us, that certain people of the territory of Nivers (?) were burning with an invisible fire, and that some of them lopped off a foot or a hand to cut off the conflagration!
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