A Case of Spontaneous Human Combustion in 1731

Screen Shot 2014-07-22 at 11.16.02 AMBy Lisa Smith (Regular Contributor)

The Case of “A Lady of Quality”

A strange case from Italy was reported in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1731 (vol. 1, June, p. 263): the body of a “Lady of Quality” was found burned to ashes in her bedchamber. Possibly, she had knocked over “a Lighted Lamp” during a fit. This account doesn’t seem particularly odd, but the brief report hinted at more interesting matters: a letter describing the death had been read before the Royal Society. And for years after, people speculated about how the woman’s body burned with no apparent external cause.

In 1736, The Gentleman’s Magazine (vol. 6, November, pp. 647-648) provided more detail. The sixty-two year old woman regularly applied spirit of camphor to prevent coughs and colds. After the fire, only the woman’s shins, feet, (three) finger bones and pile of ash remained. Although the bedroom hadn’t burned, it was covered in ashes that were “clammy, and stunk intolerable”. A “common fire can hardly reduce so large a body to Ashes”, the author argued, especially without burning the rest of the room.

The author proposed that the fire had been caused by the combination of spirit of camphor and fermentation of bodily juices. In the right circumstances, the first could cause heating and chafing, while the second could cause a flash of flame. The body was a bit like a powder magazine. When put into violent motion, gunpowder could blow up a magazine without any spark. According to the author, the human body had similar characteristics, with its fatty and saline particles. (After all, some people’s sweat even smelled like brimstone.) The result of mixing camphor and bodily fermentation? “Kindled at once in the Veins and the most minute Vessels of the Body”, the fire “consum’d [the body] in a Moment”.

A Repeat Occurrence, Another Case

Ten years later, the case appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine (vol. 16, July 1746, pp. 368-371), this time as a summary of a recent article in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (vol. 43, 1744-1745, pp. 447-465). Reverend Joseph Bianchini and his translator Paul Rolli named the victim, the Countess Cornelia Zangari & Bandi. The Countess felt “dull and heavy” before bed, but spent three hours talking with her maid and praying. The maid later discovered the remains, located four feet from the bed. The blankets and sheets on the bed were tossed aside “as when a Person rises up from it”. Close observation was crucial in Bianchini’s account; every detail had potential meaning.

Bianchini dismissed the supernatural, lightening flash (the “most common Opinion”), and spirit of camphor as causes. To support his analysis, Bianchini provided examples from medicine and chemistry. For example, since mixing two cold liquors together could produce flame and the human body was a mixture of acid and oil, “What Wonder then, if they may kindle?” It was common, too, for observers to see “Sparkles of Light” when women combed their hair. Normally, such sparkles were harmless, “but it is only for want of proper Fuel”. In one case, sparkles had burned the hair from a young man’s head.

Interior “sparkles” were even more dangerous. Not only had animal vivisection experiments shown that flames could be created inside bodies, but in several cases, people who drank too much had burned up from the inside. Women had it worst. “A feverish Fermentation, or a very strong Motion of combustible Matters” could easily arise in their wombs “with such an ingenious Strength that can reduce to Ashes the Bones”. One woman even had fire shooting out of her “privy Parts”!

Bianchini concluded that the Countess’ dullness came from “too much Heat concentrated in her Breast”, which prevented her from sweating normally. Her body was outside the bed because she had needed to cool down. Her internal heat also explained the burn pattern, with the fire starting in the torso, then burning upwards as fire usually does.

Possible Causes

What interests me about this case is the way that people tried to make sense of it. Was it caused by a lamp, lightening, camphor oil or the body itself? The accounts also reveal a complicated chemical understanding of bodies, with their mix of fermentation and fire. The Countess’ death may have been unusual, but it was entirely explicable in natural terms.

But then so were the sparkles shooting out of women’s privy parts, which—unlike spontaneous human combustion—still seems a mystery to me.

  • Rachael

    Found this via Twitter. Nice article, and interesting to me as a scholar of Dickens as the Gentleman’s Magazine’s description of the room chimes with Dickens’s compelling description of Krook’s room after his death.

    • Lisa Smith

      Thanks! Yes, Krook’s room was a rather gory scene. The Phil. Trans. goes into even more detail about the quality of ash and grease coating the Countess’ room, which reads a bit like a novel in its description at
      times. Certainly the people who happened into these scenes were
      unnerved. And according to the Phil. Trans. dogs wouldn’t even eat bread that had been covered in the ashes!

  • David St. Hubbins

    Dozens of people spontaneously combust each year. It’s just not really widely reported.

    • Dimitri Ledkovsky

      Name two… with references, please. Thank you.

      • Wildfrei

        Peter “James” Bond (1977) and Mick Shrimpton (1982). Both spontaneously combusted on stage in front of an audience. there is video evidence of the Bond incident.