Spontaneous Human Combustion, from Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine By George Milbry Gould, Walter Lytle Pyle 1901
See also Spontaneous Human Combustion in History by JG Millingen M.D., M.A. 1839
Spontaneous combustion of the human body, although doubted by the medical men of this day, has for many years been the subject of much discussion; only a few years ago, among the writers on this subject, there were as many credulous as there were skeptics. There is, however, no reliable evidence to support the belief in the spontaneous combustion of the body. A few apochryphal cases only have been recorded. The opinion that the tissues of drunkards might be so saturated with alcohol as to render the body combustible is disproved by the simple experiment of placing flesh in spirits for a long time and then trying to burn it. Liebig and others found that flesh soaked in alcohol would burn only until the alcohol was consumed. That various substances ignite spontaneously is explained by chemic phenomena, the conditions of which do not exist in the human frame. Watkins in speaking of the inflammability of the human body remarks that on one occasion he tried to consume the body of a pirate given to him by a U.S. Marshal. He built a rousing fire and piled wood on all night, and had not got the body consumed by the forenoon of the following day. Quite a feasible reason for supposed spontaneous human combustion is to be found in several cases quoted by Taylor, in which persons falling asleep, possibly near a fire, have been accidentally ignited, and becoming first stupefied by the smoke, and then suffocated, have been burned to charcoal without awaking. Drunkenness or great exhaustion may also explain certain cases. In substantiation of the possibility of Taylor's instances several prominent physiologists have remarked that persons have endured severe burns during sleep and have never wakened. There is an account of a man who lay down on the top of a lime kiln, which was fired during his sleep, and one leg was burned entirely off without awaking the man, a fact explained by the very slow and gradual increase of temperature.
The theories advanced by the advocates of spontaneous human combustion are very ingenious and deserve mention here. An old authority has said: "Our blood is of such a nature, as also our lymph and bile: all of which, when dried by art, flame like spirit of wine at the approach of the least fire and burn away to ashes." Lord Bacon mentions spontaneous combustion, and Marcellus Donatus says that in the time of Godefroy of Bouillon there were people of a certain locality who supposed themselves to have been burning of an invisible fire in their entrails, and he adds that some cut off a hand or a foot when the burning began, that it should go no further. What may have been the malady with which these people suffered must be a matter of conjecture.
Overton, in a paper on this subject, remarks that in the "Memoirs of the Royal Society of Paris," 1751, there is related an account of a butcher who, opening a diseased beef, was burned by a flame which issued from the maw of the animal; there was first an explosion which rose to a height of five feet and continued to blaze several minutes with a highly offensive odor. Morton saw a flame emanate from beneath the skin of a hog at the instant of making an incision through it. Ruysch, the famous Dutch physician, remarks that he introduced a hollow bougie into a woman's stomach he had just opened, and he observed a vapor issuing from the mouth of the tube, and this lit on contact with the atmosphere. This is probably an exaggeration of the properties of the hydrogen sulphid found in the stomach. There is an account of a man of forty-three, a gross feeder, who was particularly fond of fats and a victim of psoriasis palmaria, who on going to bed one night, after extinguishing the light in the room, was surprised to find himself enveloped in a phosphorescent halo; this continued for several days and recurred after further indiscretions in diet. It is well known that there are insects and other creatures of the lower animal kingdom which possess the peculiar quality of phosphorescence.
There are numerous cases of spontaneous combustion of the human body reported by the older writers. Bartholinus mentions an instance after the person had drunk too much wine. Fouquet mentions a person ignited by lightning. Schrader speaks of a person from whose mouth and fauces after a debauch issued fire. Schurig tells of flames issuing from the vulva, and Moscati records the same occurrence in parturition; Sinibaldus, Borellus, and Bierling have also written on this subject, and the Ephemerides contains a number of instances.
In 1763 Bianchini, Prebendary of Verona, published an account of the death of Countess Cornelia Bandi of Cesena, who in her sixty-second year was consumed by a fire kindled in her own body. In explanation Bianchini said that the fire was caused in the entrails by the inflamed effluvia of the blood, by the juices and fermentation in the stomach, and, lastly, by fiery evaporations which exhaled from the spirits of wine, brandy, etc. In the Gentleman's Magazine, 1763, there is recorded an account of three noblemen who, in emulation, drank great quantities of strong liquor, and two of them died scorched and suffocated by a flame forcing itself from the stomach. There is an account of a poor woman in Paris in the last century who drank plentifully of spirits, for three years taking virtually nothing else. Her body became so combustible that one night while lying on a straw couch she was spontaneously burned to ashes and smoke. The evident cause of this combustion is too plain to be commented on. In the Lancet, 1845, there are two cases reported in which shortly before death luminous breath has been seen to issue from the mouth.
There is an instance reported of a professor of mathematics of thirty-five years of age and temperate, who, feeling a pain in his left leg, discovered a pale flame about the size of a ten-cent piece issuing therefrom. As recent as March, 1850, in a Court of Assizes in Darmstadt during the trial of John Stauff, accused of the murder of the Countess Goerlitz, the counsel for the defense advanced the theory of spontaneous human combustion, and such eminent doctors as von Siebold, Graff, von Liebig, and other prominent members of the Hessian medical fraternity were called to comment on its possibility; principally on their testimony a conviction and life-imprisonment was secured. In 1870 there was a woman of thirty-seven, addicted to alcoholic liquors, who was found in her room with her viscera and part of her limbs consumed by fire, but the hair and clothes intact. According to Walford, in the Scientific American for 1870, there was a case reported by Flowers of Louisiana of a man, a hard drinker, who was sitting by a fire surrounded by his Christmas guests, when suddenly flames of a bluish tint burst from his mouth and nostrils and he was soon a corpse. Flowers states that the body remained extremely warm for a much longer period than usual.
Statistics.—From an examination of 28 cases of spontaneous combustion, Jacobs makes the following summary:—
(1) It has always occurred in the human living body.
(2) The subjects were generally old persons.
(3) It was noticed more frequently in women than in men.
(4) All the persons were alone at the time of occurrence.
(5) They all led an idle life.
(6) They were all corpulent or intemperate.
(7) Most frequently at the time of occurrence there was a light and some ignitible substance in the room.
(8) The combustion was rapid and was finished in from one to seven hours.
(9) The room where the combustion took place was generally filled with a thick vapor and the walls covered with a thick, carbonaceous substance.
(10) The trunk was usually the part most frequently destroyed; some part of the head and extremities remained.
(11) With but two exceptions, the combustion occurred in winter and in the northern regions.