One very pervasive and ongoing corner of the world of unexplainable phenomena is that of what is called "spontaneous human combustion," which is when a human being is immolated by a fire that seems to have no discernible cause or eternal source of ignition. In most cases there are strange details surrounding these cases, such as bodies that were charred by extremely high temperatures, yet left the surroundings or even clothing untouched, or of cases in which certain body parts have somehow managed to remain unscathed while everything else is ash. Such cases were particularly widespread and popular during the 19th century, and here we will look at a selection of some of the strangest from that era.
On the evening of January 16, 1811, 48-year-old Ignatius Meyer retired for the evening at his humble home in the village of Woertelfeld, Germany. At the time his nephew and brother noticed nothing strange or unusual about him, and it was all pretty mundane and routine, but the following morning smoke could be seen coming from his room. When the nephew and son opened the door they were apparently deluged with a thick cloud of noxious smoke and they could see through the murk that the bed was burning. After putting out the fire with buckets of water they were met with the grisly sight of Meyers’ corpse lying on his left side with his knees drawn up to his lower abdomen, which was in quite the odd state, indeed.
It was reported that Meyer’s face had been "burnt to charcoal," the hair burned away and the whole head covered with a thick "gleaming crust.” Rather strangely, this horrific burning had ended at the neck, right where the blanket came up to it. The rest of the body was largely undamaged except for his right hand, which was scorched to a crisp while the rest of the arm was pristine, as well the big toe on his right foot, which was poking through a hole in the sock, which was completely undamaged. Although the pillow had been singed, it was not as burned as it should have been considering the head upon it had been completely charred, and the blanket showed no signs of burning, although it was covered with “an oily and tar-like soot.” It was later noticed that the only parts of his body that had been burned were those that had protruded from under the blanket, with everything that had been covered unfazed. Likewise, everything else in the room was completely undamaged by fire. There was also nothing in the room that could have started the fire and the lamp had been unlit. What was going on here?
In March of 1814 there was the case of an unnamed French woman who had been found dead under some rather bizarre circumstances. It started when the woman’s neighbors had noticed a sound “like something frying” coming from the woman’s room, followed by a burning smell. When authorities arrived, they found the woman's body lying on its back, her face entirely black and burnt. The rest of her body seemed unharmed at first, but there was a hole found in her chest that seemed singed around the edges, and when it was examined it was found that the inside of the body cavity had been completely burned out, the ribs brittle from the heat of the fire that had burned within. The woman’s limbs were found to be in a similar state, seeming to be pristine in appearance, but breaking off easily to show charcoaled flesh and ashes beneath. Her clothing and a book she had been reading were completely undamaged. It would be surmised that a fire had started within the woman's body and had burned out her insides while only damaging the places where it had jetted out, those being the hole in the chest and the mouth. How can we explain this?
From February of 1821, we have the case of a man only known as “Vatin,” in Beauvais, France. On the evening of February 21, Vatin had allegedly visited a neighbor and then headed home at around 11:00PM, after which he was seen to enter his room and put his light out. At 8 a.m. the next morning, a neighbor noticed a thick smoke pouring through the cracks of the door, and when he forced the door open he found Vatin's charred remains lying on the floor burning. The fire was put out with “good deal of water,” and a Dr. Tolson and the surgeon Lelarge were called to investigate, and they found a shocking scene, of which one report in the German journal Encyclopadie der gesammten Staatsarzneikunde reads:
Compared to the rest of the room, Vatin's corpse was in shockingly bad shape. His face was puffed-up and blackish-red, as in death by suffocation; his left arm and left upper torso had been reduced to calcined bits of bone, and the back and sides of Vatin's neck had been destroyed down to the vertebra. his right arm rested across his stomach, but the hand and part of the forearm had been destroyed by fire. In his torso, Tolson and Lelarge found Vatin's lungs, heart, and liver, all shrunk, dried, and bloodless... all other innards were gone. Vatin's left thigh was just ashes; his right thigh had been reduced to bone. Other than a vessel with a small amount of half-burned chunks, which had been purchased on the previous evening, nothing else in the room had been consumed by fire.
What happened to this man and how could his body have been so badly burned without damaging the room around it? Our next case comes from Christmas of 1829, when neighbors of a Marie Jeanne Antoinette Bally, or Paris, France, smelled smoke coming from her room and went to check on her. Sitting in a chair in the corner of the room was the shocking sight of Bally’s corpse, which was in quite the gruesome and mysterious state. While her lower legs, head, the front of her neck, and upper shoulders were intact; her back from her buttocks up to the rear of her neck and her loins had been entirely destroyed by fire, incinerated to charcoal. The chair was also badly burned, and the floor was covered with a thick black soot, but everything else in the room was unburned, including the muslin curtains that were only three feet away from the body. Strange, indeed. A few years later, in 1932 there is the mysterious death of a woman named Anne Nelis, who lived with her husband in Dublin, Ireland. One evening the two got into a drunken argument and Anne stormed off upstairs to go to bed. The following morning, the maid entered the room to find Mrs. Nelis’ dead body sitting in an armchair. One report says of it:
The chair was near the wall, which was helping to support the remains, and was at a distance from the fire" which was out. Mrs. Nelis' head was leaning on her right hand; her torso and the clothing there were burned to a cinder, though her pelvic area, legs, arms, and head, as well as the clothing associated with these areas, were intact. Mrs. Nelis' face had a scorched appearance, but her hair and the papers she had put in it were undamaged. The back and seat of the chair were also undamaged, but the arms of it were charred on the inner side that would have been near Mrs. Nelis' body. Nothing else in the room was fire damaged, though there was a penetrating and offensive odour in the air that lasted for days afterwards. It was claimed that she had carried a candle to her room that evening, and so the main theory was that she had been so inebriated with alcohol that the fire had easily set her alight, after which the overweight woman’s fat had acted as a sort of wick, like a candle, although why nothing else was burned has never been explained.
From 1852 we have the equally bizarre case of John Anderson, of Nairn, in Scotland. On July 29 of that year, Anderson was seen hauling a load of hay, and at some point the cart was spotted by the side of the road spewing smoke. As a nearby witness approached, Anderson was seen to emerge from the smoke, and then keel over to fall to the ground, after which smoke began rising from him. When the witness drew closer, he found Anderson “lifeless, black, disfigured, and burning. The witness called for help and the fire was put out to reveal a horrifying sight. The man’s entire face had been incinerated to the point that the eyes, nose, and ears had all been completely burned away to nothing, but oddly the burning was not nearly as bad anywhere else on his body, and had stopped midway between his knees and feet. His clothes had mostly been singed except the lower leg parts of his trousers. A pipe was found nearby, but it was closed and unlit, and it could not be determined how a pipe could have possibly started a fire fierce enough to burn his so catastrophically in such a short span of time to begin with. Also, rather oddly the hay in the wagon was undamaged. However, the official stance was that the pipe had caused it, fueled by alcohol since it was found that Anderson had been drinking liberally that day. Is that what happened here or was it something far stranger?
From 1869 is the strange case from Aberdeen, Scotland. On March 14, 1869, a Dr. Alexander Ogston and his father, Dr. Francis Ogston, were called in to examine the mysterious death of a 60-year-old woman known only as “Mrs. Warrack,” and they were in for quite the grim surprise. Upon entering the home at 11 a.m. they were immediately assailed by a smell like “a mix of burning straw and burning animal matter,” and they soon saw the probable cause. Lying on her side in her bedroom, Mrs. Warrack’s face and the front soft tissue of her head were described as “completely gone, with the skull a charred out husk," and the rest of her body was said to be "greasy charcoal to a depth of about an inch,” from which protruded exposed bones, and her abdomen was open and also a burned out shell, while her legs were mostly a “fragile greasy mass.” As to the condition of the room itself, one report would say:
Compared to the destruction of Warrack's body, the rest of the room seemed to have done well. The wooden stairs under Warrack's body, and immediately around it, were charred to a depth of about a quarter of an inch. One bar of the stair near Warrack was similarly charred on the bottom twelve inches, and the wall and remaining rail above that was blackened by smoke. A room Warrack normally inhabited, which was next to where she lay, had a chair in the middle of it which had a burned back, and arms which had been completely destroyed by fire... the seat only showed minor traces of burning. The bed, about two feet from the chair, had a straw mattress that was only slightly burnt where it was near the chair. A mahogany table, about two feet from the chair, showed no damage, nor did anything else in the room. The chair was about four feet from the fireplace. An empty beer bottle, "smelling of whiskey," was on the table.
The doctors were unable to find any source of a flame anywhere near her, with the only fire in the house being some charcoal smoldering away in the kitchen, and her son insisted that she had gone to her room at 10 a.m. in good health and with no problems. So how could she have combusted like that and how could she be so completely obliterated by flame in such a short span of time while leaving the rest of the room relatively unscathed? The only explanation they could come up with was that she had indeed brought into her room with her an ash from the kitchen fire, and that she was “far more flammable than an average human.” We will probably never know what really happened here.
Jumping into the 1880s, on December 24, 1885, a Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Rooney enjoyed a Christmas Eve dinner with their son at their home in Seneca, Illinois, USA, after which the son had left them to go upstairs to bed at around 8 p.m. He would claim that when he had gone upstairs his parents had still been drinking in the kitchen and there was nothing out of the ordinary at all, but the next morning a hired hand working for the Rooney’s by the name of John Larson was alerted to a thick and ominous smoke coming from the kitchen. When he went to investigate, he would find quite the scene, of which a report in the Therapeutic Gazette would read:
Upon entering, the body of Mr. Rooney was found lying on the floor next to his bed. The bedroom was next to the kitchen, and the door was ajar. In the kitchen, a partly burned candle stood on the table... and next to the table was a hole burned through the floor measuring two and a half feet by three feet, through which the ground under the house could be seen. In that hole was a heap of ashes, which was found to also contain a skull, a cervical bone, some dorsal vertebrae and part of an ilium -- the vertebrae and ilium were nearly reduced to a cinder -- six inches of the right femur, and two human feet, still in their shoes... and both charcoaled. In all, Mrs. Rooney's formerly one-hundred and sixty-pound body had been reduced to just twelve pounds’ worth of remains. Nothing else in the kitchen was damaged by fire directly, but most of the house's interior walls and furniture were coated with a "dirty, greasy, sooty substance.
It was thought that Mrs. Rooney had been consumed by fire and that the smoke had then asphyxiated Mr. Rooney, but how this came to pass and how it had so completely incinerated the woman while leaving the house in one piece and the son alive upstairs was anyone’s guess. Police considered that it might have been foul play, and that Larson had set her on fire, but there was found the outline of soot on his pillow upstairs, which seemed to prove that he had been sleeping at the time. It never was determined what caused the conflagration or why it did so much damage to Mrs. Rooney while sparing everyone else, and so it remains a mystery.
On February 18, 1888, 65-year-old Alexander Morrison, of Aberdeen, Scotland, had some drinks and went to go sleep in a stable. This was not so unusual in and of itself because he was known to often sleep in the stable, but what is weird is what would happen next. Between 8 and 9 a.m. the following morning, the wife of the proprietor of the stables saw smoke coming from a hole in the roof, and when they investigated they found a scene so horrible that police and a doctor were immediately notified. When they arrived they found Morrison dead, his body “almost entirely a cinder,” and burned so badly that it was nearly impossible to recognize him, his limbs having fallen off and his bones exposed, yet oddly the hay around him had not ignited. The medical professional at the scene, a Dr. J. Mackenzie Booth, would speculate that since there were no signs of a struggle or distress, that the old man had likely died quietly either before or after the fire started, after which the body fat had become like a candle wick and the flames had done their work, however no source of a flame could be found and the very flammable hay itself was unburned, making it very mysterious, indeed.
Our last case here comes from May of 1890. On May 12 of that year, a Dr. B.H. Hartwell of the town of Ayer, Massachusetts, USA, was called in by a woman who said her mother was out in the woods being burned alive. Curious, he immediately rushed off to see what had happened, but when he arrived at the scene, things were much stranger than he had ever imagined. He would say:
The woman's mother was in a state of full conflagration, lying face down but with only the face, arms, upper part of the chest, and the left knee touching the ground... the rest of the body was lifted into the air by the muscles that had turned rigid under the assault of the fire. The clothing had been nearly all consumed. The flames were coming from the mother's shoulders, both sides of her abdomen, and both of her legs, and radiated from twelve to fifteen inches from the body. As Hartwell approached the corpse, there was an audible snap as the bones of the right leg broke; this left the right foot hanging by the remaining tendons and muscle, as half of those had already been destroyed.
Some locals in the area were called in to help extinguish the flames before they started a full-blown forest fire. When the fire was finally put out, the body was nothing but a charred mess of melted fat, scorched flesh, and protruding bones. The only thing that seemed to have escaped the fire’s wrath was the woman’s straw hat, which was lying near her in pristine condition, and the leaves below her had been only slightly singed. When the daughter was questioned on what had happened, she explained that they had simply been out there clearing stumps and roots from the land, and that at some point her mother had simply exploded into flame. Although there was a small fire to burn the stumps, it was some distance away from the body and the woman claimed that her mother had not been near it when she had been engulfed by flames. The case is notable for several reasons. The first is that the woman was of a slight frame and did not drink, two factors at the time that were thought to be inextricably linked to spontaneous human combustion. Also, this seems to be one of the only cases out there in which a medical professional actually witnessed the combustion in action. Hartwell was never able to explain how it had happened, and would consider it a genuine medical mystery.
Is there anything to all of this? What was going on in the cases we have looked at here? There have been all manner of explanations posited for why spontaneous human combustion might happen, ranging from the mundane and practical to the truly outlandish, and although it has all been discussed and debated for a very long time, there seems to be no firm agreement on the matter. The fact is, the human body is not that easy to completely obliterate with fire. After all, we are mostly composed of water, and even dedicated cremetoriums take 3 to 5 hours to incinerate a corpse with concerted effort. So how can we explain cases like these? Whatever the case might be, there is no denying that some of the more outlandish cases occured in the 19th century, and why this might be I will leave to you, the reader, to decide.