The Combustible Women


The following article appeared in the October 1954 issue of FATE. 

Is there an explanation for strange cases of spontaneous human combustion such as that of Mrs. Mary H. Reeser, 67, of St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1951? Perhaps there is no single explanation for all the cases which have been reported but the circumstances of many show a definite pattern. First of all, they have been going on for years.

In the Scientific Class-Book or A Familiar Introduction to the Principles of Physical Science, printed in 1836 in Philadelphia, Walter R. Johnson, M.A., cites the then well-known cremation mystery involving the Countess Cornelia Zangari of Cesena. One night the countess, 62, was left asleep in bed by her maid. The next morning she was found on the floor of the room, reduced to a heap of ashes, except for her arms and legs and part of her head. The air of the apartment was reported to be filled with a fine soot which had an unpleasant smell. The bed was not damaged and the bedclothes had been lifted to one side as by a person arising from bed. The blaze apparently was confined entirely to the countess’ body. The floor and furniture were undamaged. The countess was said to bathe her body with “camphorated spirit of wine” when she felt unwell.

Johnson cites another cremation case reported by a Coventry, England, surgeon named Wilmer. Mary Clues, 50, had a reputation locally as an alcoholic. In the year before her death, people said, hardly a day passed without her drinking at least half a pint of rum. Her health declined and in February, 1773, she was attacked by jaundice and confined to bed. She continued drinking every day, however, and smoking a pipe of tobacco.

On the morning of Saturday, March 1, she got out of bed and fell to the floor. She was too weak to rise and remained lying there until she was helped back into bed. At 11 o’clock the following night the woman who was nursing her left, closing and locking the door. That morning at 5:30 smoke was seen issuing from the window and Mary Clues’ door was broken open.

A small fire in the room was quickly extinguished by the rescuers. Between the bed and the fireplace, they found the woman’s burned remains. One leg and thigh was intact, but nothing remained of skin, muscles or intestines. The bones of the skull, body and arms were reduced to whitish ashes. The side of the bedstead next to the fireplace was slightly burned, but the bedclothes were undamaged. The walls and furnishings of the room were blackened and the air was filled with a sickening smell. Only the body was burned seriously.

Johnson points out that in most spontaneous combustion cases immediate death results or at least the victim is dead before his fate is discovered. It appears, however, that death does not always occur in such incidents. He gives an instance, reported by Dr. Charles Claromont in A Treatise on the Climate, Soil, and Rivers of England.

Few Survivors of Spontaneous Human Combustion 

Two citizens of Loudon, France, visited a friend in the country and after a pleasant dinner, during which no excessive drinking was done, they went to bed. They scarcely had settled themselves when one of them screamed that he was on fire. His chest and beard were enveloped in flames which were extinguished only with difficulty. Most of his nightshirt was reduced to ashes and his chest and chin were scorched.

Dr. Claromont expressed the belief that the man would have been destroyed by the blaze if he had not had help in suppressing it. Dr. Claromont saw the man afterward and found that he bore scars from the burns on his chest and face. He learned from careful questioning that the flames could not have been caused by lightning or by contact with fire or burning candles.

Johnson describes another case, recorded in an 18th century German journal, in which the victim survived burning for a few days. Don G. Maria Bertholi, a friar who lived at Mount Volere, retired for the night at the home of relatives in Fenille while visiting a local fair. He went to bed with a handkerchief placed between his shoulders, under his shirt.

A few minutes after he had been left alone cries were heard from his room. His relatives rushed in to find him on the floor enveloped in flames. He was badly burned and died four days later. Again there was no known cause for the blaze.

Several Cases Reported

Several cases of spontaneous human combustion were reported in Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal about 1845. Anne Nelis, wife of a Dublin wine and ale merchant, was long known as an habitual drinker. One night when she and her husband were both intoxicated they had a quarrel and Mrs. Nelis spent the night in an armchair in the parlor. In the morning, while opening the parlor windows, the maid found Mrs. Nelis burned to death in the chair.

The body was seated in the chair some distance from the fireplace with the head leaning on the right hand. The trunk of the body as well as the clothes covering it was burned to ashes, but the region of the pelvis and the upper and lower extremities of the body were unharmed.

The victim’s face appeared scorched, but her hair and paper curlers in it had not been touched by flames. The back and seat of the chair were undamaged but the chair arms were charred on the inner side next to the body. Other furniture in the room was completely undamaged. The room was filled with a pungent, unpleasant smell which lasted several days.

A keeper of an almshouse in Limerick named O’Neil was waked at two o’clock one morning by a knock at his door. The visitor asked O’Neil to witness a strange happening in his room which was directly under a room occupied by a woman named Mrs. Peacock.

Accompanying his caller, O’Neil found Mrs. Peacock’s body on the floor, burning and “red as copper.” In the ceiling of the room a large hole the size of the body had been burned through the boards. It appeared that the body had dropped through this hole from the room above.

O’Neil ran upstairs and broke open Mrs. Peacock’s door. He saw in the middle of her room the burned hole through which her body had faIIen. Assisted by the man who had waked him, O’Neil extinguished the flames around the hole in the floor, then tried to determine how Mrs. Peacock’s body had caught fire.

There was no candle or candlestand near the hole and no fire in the grate. The only part of the room that showed any signs of a blaze was the hole in the floor through which Mrs. Peacock had fallen. A small basket of twigs and wood near the hole had not been touched by fire. Mrs. Peacock’s death remained a mystery.

One morning in 1808 an Irish woman named Mrs. Stout, 60, was found burned to a cinder on the floor of her bedroom. An inveterate drinker, she had gone to bed in apparent health the night before.

When Mrs. Stout was discovered smoke was seen issuing from her mouth and nostrils. Upon being moved, parts of her body crumbled into ashes, yet her chemise and nightcap had not been burned.

Another Irish woman of 60 who lived in the county of Down retired one night in a state of intoxication as was her constant habit. Shortly before dawn the next morning members of the family were waked by a foul-smelling smoke which filled the house. They traced the smoke to the old woman’s bedroom and found her burning “with an internal fire.” Her body was said to be as black as charcoal and smoke issued from every part of it. The blaze was quenched with difficulty but the woman was dead. Her daughter, sleeping in the same bed, had not been burned, nor did the blaze extend to the bed or bedclothes. Members of the family said there was no fire of any kind in the room.

No Answers, Only Theories

These cases show, Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal says, “that the human body may be so impregnated with inflammable matter (or gas) as to take fire spontaneously; or that, in certain conditions, the human body is capable of generating a gas, which, the moment it comes in contact with air, takes  fire. The gas thus generated is a compound of hydrogen and phosphorous. This combustion has happened (always, we believe) to those addicted to the excessive use of ardent spirits; that is, to those whose bodies have become, from excessive drinking of spirits, saturated and filled with alcohol. It is not therefore necessary to apply a spark or flame to the body, which is thus ignited, and only those parts may be destroyed which present the requisite proportion of phosphorous: accordingly, the clothes of the persons are not consumed.”

In the Scientific Classbook, Johnson discusses a paper on spontaneous human combustion read before the French Academy in 1833 by M. J. Fontenelle. This scientific investigator drew the following conclusions from a review of the evidence on record: (1) Spontaneous human combustion general1y happens to those who are accustomed to indulge immoderately in the use of vinous or spiritous liquors. (2) Old women are the most frequent victims of such catastrophes. (3) The combustion is sometimes partial, but more frequently general: and the parts which most commonly escape destruction are the feet, hands and upper portion of the head. (4) This kind of combustion often does not extend to inflammable substances in contact with the burning body. (5) Water, instead of quenching the fire, adds to its violence.

Johnson notes, “To the circumstances thus stated as the result of the researches of M. J. Fontenelle, it may be added that in most of the cases which have been related the combustion appears to have commenced when the subjects of it were in bed.”

Fontenelle states in his paper, “As to the causes of the spontaneous combustion of the human body, though many feasible conjectures might be advanced, the phenomena by no means admit of complete explanation. It has been alleged that the intemperate use of liquors containing alcohol may cause the production of inflammable gases within the body, and that the solids and fluids composing it may also become impregnated with undecomposed spirit. There can be no doubt that sulphuretted hydrogen gas is frequently formed in the intestinal canal, and under some circumstances other inflammable compounds of hydrogen may be accumulated in the internal cavities; spirits when swallowed in considerable quantities may possibly be interspersed in the cellular membrane and though dram-drinkers generally become emaciated and their bodies are thus deprived of the adipose or fatty matter proper to healthy bodies, yet oleose and therefore inflammable particles must be contained in some of the fluids. Hence it may in some measure be conceived how the human body may become so much impregnated with combustible matter as, when once kindled, to be partially or wholly consumed without the addition of extraneous fuel.”

Tremendous advances in understanding the chemistry of combustion have been made since these early studies. Modern chemists cannot agree with the theories advanced by M. Fontenelle, Chambers’ Edinburg Journal and other early authorities. But they seem no nearer the real truth of the matter than were the scientists of a century ago. It is high time that some scientific body, with the new evidence of recent years, conducted a new investigation into these recurring and mysterious tragedies.