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Spontaneous Human Combustion: Combustion of the Entire Body: 19th Century Cases

Cases of human spontaneous combustion in the 19th century in which the entire body was consumed by the fire.

Philadelphia, 1800's, Marie Jeanne Antoinette Bally

Scotland, 1888, A.M.

Philadelphia, 1800's"

 Marie Jeanne Antoinette Bally

"We propose to refer only to such cases of spontaneous combustion as have been reported at a comparatively recent date, and by men of standing and authority. The first which we quote is reported by M. Devergie. A washerwoman named Marie Jeanne Antoinette Bally, fifty years of age, and of intemperate, habits, returned to her lodging one evening in December in a state of drunkenness. Her room was not more than ten feet long by six to seven feet wide, and was lighted by two little windows from a corridor. The only furniture consisted of a chair, a chest in the corner, and muslin window curtains. (Italics his). There was no bed. The next morning at eight o'clock, the neighbors, perceiving a strong smell of smoke, entered her room, and there found the unfortunate woman upon the floor almost completely burned, with her feet turned toward the chimney place in which, however, there was no fire. Under one of her arms there was still a portion of the chair upon which she had been seated, and underneath her an earthen pot such as is used by the poor to hold a few coals to warm their feet. The chair was almost entirely burned, the floor was covered with a black soot, and an exposed beam in the wall of the room was charred upon the surface. The chest, however, was untouched, as were also the muslin curtains, which were only three feet distant from the body. The body was sent to the Morgue, and examined by direction of the judicial authorities. The body was lean; the face and hair, the anterior portion of the neck and upper part of the shoulders were not injured. The skin and muscles of the back were, however, thoroughly burnt, as were also the sides and anterior portion of the trunk. The anus and vulva escaped. Nothing was left of the upper extremities but the bones; there was, however, a portion of the chemise in each armpit still intact. The upper portion of the lower limbs was also burnt. The stockings were entire.'

Source: Wharton, Francis & Still6, Moreton. A Treatise on Medical Jurisprudence, 2nd & Revised Edition, Philadelphia, Kay & Brother, 1860, page 764


Scotland, 1888:


By J. MACKENZIE BOOTH, M.A., M.D., C.M. Aberd.,

Physician to the Aberdeen General Dispensary, and Lecturer on Disease of the Ear and Larynx in the University of Aberdeen.

I WAS lately called to a case which vividly recalled the old tales of spontaneous combustion, and more especially an article that I had read on that subject by our late President, Professor Ogston. The term "spontaneous combustion" has been applied to two conditions : first, spontaneous ignitability, and, secondly, increased combustibility; and I need hardly say that it is to the second category- that the present case belongs. As Dr. Ogston remarks on these cases, the subjects were all found dead, their bodies, their clothes, and the articles in their neighbourhood being partially or entirely destroyed by fire, the only remarkable thing about them being that the bodies were burnt and charred out of all proportion to the neighbouring objects, and to an extent which seems incapable of being accounted for by the heat of the burning clothes and objects in the vicinity.

On the morning of Sunday, February 19th, I was sent for to examine the remains of a man, A. M., aged 65, which were found in a hayloft off Constitution Street. This man, a pensioner, of notoriously intemperate habits, had been seen at 9 o'clock the night before to enter the stable below in an intoxicated condition, and he asked the lad and girl who saw him to shut the stable door after him, which they did. They then heard him ascend the ladder leading to the loft above, and afterwards saw the skylight of the loft lighted, and later still the light put out. Between 8 and 9 o'clock next morning the wife of the proprietor of the stable, living near by happening to look out of the window, observed smoke issuing from a hole in the roof of the loft. She informed her husband of the fact, and he, on entering the stable, was horrified to see through a hole in the loft floor the remains of the old soldier perched on the joists above, and leaning against the wall. The police were at once communicated with, and I was sent for to attest the accident. On arriving I ascended to the loft, and found the charred remains of a man reclining against the stone wall, and kept only by one of the joists and the burnt remnant of the flooring under him from falling through into the stable beneath. What struck me especially at first sight was the fact that, notwithstanding the presence of abundant combustible material around, such as hay and wood, the main effects of combustion; were limited to the corpse, and only a small piece of the adjacent flooring and the woodwork immediately above the man's head had suffered. Several of the slates had fallen in over the corpse, making a small hole in the roof above it, and a small piece of the flooring had fallen through immediately round him into the stable below, leaving the hole through which he had been first seen. The body was almost a cinder, yet retaining the form of the fate and figure so well, that those who had known him in life could readily recognise him. Both hands and the right foot had been burnt off and had fallen through the floor among the ashes into the stables below, and the charred and calcined ends of the right radius and ulna, the left humerus, and the right tibia and fibula were exposed to view. The hair and scalp were burnt off the forehead, exposing the bare and calcined skull. The tissues of the face were represented by a greasy cinder retaining the cast of the features, and the incinerated moustache still gave the wonted military expression to the old soldier. The soft tissues were almost entirely consumed, more especially on the posterior surface of the body, where the clothes were destroyed, and the posterior surfaces of the femora, innominate bones, and ribs exposed to view. This was doubtless in a measure caused by the falling of the slates on the body, and a more perfect cinder would have been found had we arrived earlier on the scene. Part of the trousers on the anterior aspect of the legs that had escaped the impact of the slates was still represented in cinder.

Regarding the condition of the internal organs, I regretted much having been denied the opportunity of investigating their condition, as wishing to have a photograph taken of the remains prevented me at the time, and on my return from other work later on I found that the whole had been removed. The bearers told me that the whole body had collapsed when they tried to remove it en masse. From the comfortably recumbent attitude of the body it was evident that there had been no death struggle, and that, obfuscated by the whisky within and the smoke without, the man had expired without suffering, the body burning away quietly all the time.

So much for the condition of the corpse. The strange fact remains that while round about in close proximity were dry woodwork and hay, loose and in bundles, these had escaped, and the body of the man was thoroughly incinerated. The exceeding stillness of the night (for it was remarked by the policeman on the beat that there was not a breath of wind) would only in part account for the facts.

Source: British Medical Journal, 1888, Vol. 1, page 841-842