“Spontaneous human combustion is for superstitious atheists. I believe in deliberate human combustion.” – Bauvard
Contrary to popular opinion, human beings aren’t all that flammable. Human bodies require prolonged exposure to temperatures in excess of 1400 degrees Fahrenheit to combust, and even then, we only give off a modest 1000 Btu’s per pound of flesh. By way of comparison, wood gives off roughly 6000 Btu’s per pound. In short, we’re a poor excuse for a fuel source. Wood also doesn’t smell as bad when you stack it up in piles behind the garage. Or get you charged with war crimes, for that matter. Yet, occasionally we do seem to spontaneously combust, or at least burn with uncharacteristic efficiency, with some 200 reported cases over the past 300 years, but generally there is a tenuous insinuation that either exceptionally poor personal habits (smoking, alcoholism, obesity), abject stupidity (setting oneself on fire) e.g. “A French chemist, it is said, after drinking a pint of ether during the day, used to amuse himself at evening, by lighting up his breath, directed in a very small stream upon the flame of a lamp” (Mussey, 1829, p8) , or foul play are the catalyst. The simple fact is, every once in a while we run across the odd Homo sapiens that has completely or partially combusted with (1) only questionable or inadequate sources of ignition in the vicinity, (2) little or no damage to other more combustible things nearby, and (3) a disturbing tendency to leave behind intact, unburnt portions of anatomy, even though the rest of the body has been burned to ashes which can be particularly disconcerting depending on the appendage that survives (although usually its hands, feet, or legs, so fingers crossed in case it ever happens to me). Since, as a species, we’re so hard to kindle, when an unfortunate soul spontaneously combusts, somebody is often suspected of plotting an especially devious murder.
Spontaneous human combustion as a serious explanation for a small number of deaths seems to have piqued the curiosity of physicians, forensic investigators, attorneys, and most importantly, insurance underwriters in the early 19th Century. This of course, coincided with the rise of the Temperance Movement (at least in the United States), so much of the early medical literature places the blame directly on alcoholism, as in a report from the American Temperance Society, which stated, “The bodies of some few drinkers have been so thoroughly steeped in spirit, as literally to take fire and consume to ashes. It is said that no case of this spontaneous combustion has ever occurred, except among hard drinkers, and it is altogether probable that in every such case, an inflammable air has exhaled from the lungs or skin, or both, and has been kindled by the too near approach of a lighted taper, or some ignited substance” (American Temperance Society, 1829, p45). Skeptics were quick to point out that not every case of human combustion was alcohol related, and that the evidence was inconclusive. “The similarity in the appearance of the ﬂame in spontaneous human combustion to that of alcohol when ignited, contributes nothing more conclusive in support of this hypothesis; since the combustion of other bodies, such as carhureted and sulphureted hydrogen gas present also the same resemblance in the appearance of the ﬂame. To these objections to the validity of the explication which has been noticed, it may be added with still greater force, that persons have in some instances, as in the case recently occurring in this city, been the subject of spontaneous combustion, whose character was exempt from the slightest imputation in respect to the abusive use of strong drinks of any description” (Overton, 1835, p151). I don’t know about you, but it’s starting to sound like there were a whole lot more people spontaneously combusting in the early 1900’s than we previously suspected. Undoubtedly, it took no time at all, once medical professionals began soberly discussing the merits of spontaneous combustion as an explanation for otherwise inexplicable and fiery deaths, for lawyers to seize on the notion as an awesomely headline-grabbing defense in murder trials. One such disturbing case was that of the apparent spontaneous combustion of Countess Georlitz of the Grand Duchy of Hesse (the independent country where Hessians hailed from, incorporated into the German Empire in 1871) in 1847.
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 (Gould, 1956, p428).
Keeping in mind that the average full blown house fire burns at around 1200 degrees Fahrenheit, unless you’re an avid collector of napalm or white phosphorous, and the fact that most cases of spontaneous human combustion involve the complete, but localized incineration of a human body (a pile of ash remains, and the odd pristine, uncooked appendage), along with very little evidence of the surrounding environment having been subjected to such extreme temperatures, it strains credulity to assume that a perfectly natural explanation such as excessive imbibement of spirits, or an excess of fat is the culprit, and the imprecation of foul play similarly requires a belief in Scooby-Doo levels of nefarious complexity on the part of an evildoer. The death of Countess Goerliz was complicated by (1) the puzzling nature of her apparent combustion, (2) the unhappy relations with her husband, and the fact that he stood to gain quite a bit of money once she shuffled off this mortal coil, and (3) the post-conviction confession of a servant named John Stauff, who was charged with her murder – an account which in no way accorded with the state of the corpse or the room it was found in. Stauff’s defense went with the apparent occurrence of spontaneous human combustion, ultimately rejected as an explanation, when learned physicians assured the court as to the impossibility of such a thing. Learned physicians think they’re so smart. And what they no doubt meant to say in class-conscious 19th Century Europe is that while the unwashed masses of the liquor guzzling proletariat, ne’er-do-wells, and impoverished loners might suddenly find themselves alight, such things certainly did not happen to Countesses.
But the most celebrated case is that of the Countess Goerlitz, whose body was found partly consumed in the midst of articles of furniture still burning. Her servant John Stauff, was arrested for the murder, and tried at Darmstadt in 1850. The defense of spontaneous combustion was set up. Liepig and Bischoff testified that spontaneous combustion of the human body was impossible. The subject was immediately taken up all over the world. Dr. Devergie, a professor of the Prussian School of medicine and medical inspector at the Morgue, was one of their most powerful opponents, and narrated an instance of alleged spontaneous combustion that he had personally investigated. But, unfortunately for the theory of spontaneous combustion, Stauff was convicted, and confessed the crime (Fellows, 1880, p27).
The gory and sensational details surrounding the life and flaming death of Countess Goerlitz have all the makings of either a good murder mystery or anomalous conflagration of nobility. Here’s the fact ma’am. Countess Goerlitz was married to, obviously, Count Goerlitz, Chamberlin and Privy Councilor to the Grand Duke of Hesse. The Count by and Countess married in 1820 and moved into a mansion in Darmstadt with four servants (one of which was John Stauff). The Count had his spiffy title, but pretty much nothing else besides his good reputation to his name. The Countess came from a wealthy merchant family that had been enobled by the Grand Duke, and had received a sizable inheritance, taking perverse pleasure in commenting on the “beggar” aristocracy that invariably needed to find a wealthy trader’s daughter for a wife to maintain their financial liquidity. The marriage was not an especially happy one. They essentially lived in two separate apartments within the house, went childless, and only occasionally dined together. This may not have been such an abnormal state of affairs in early 19th Century Hesse, but the two were reputed to be on rather unfriendly terms. In the grand scheme of the injustice of the universe, it’s important to note that the relative fortune of the Countess would accrue to the Count upon her death.
At 6:30 PM on June 13, 1847, the Count returned from his customary Sunday dinner at the Grand Duke’s palace with a pocketful of macaroons to assuage his wife’s sweet tooth (and perhaps he was looking for a little action). John Stauff (serving as the Lady’s Chamberlin) informed him the Countess was in, but the Count got no response to his knocks on her locked door. Assuming she was taking a nap, he settled in for a quiet evening, sending Stauff at 9 PM to inquire if she would like to join him for a light supper. Stauff informed him that the Countess now appeared to have left the mansion. After a cursory search of the house and inquiries of nearby neighbors, the whereabouts of the Countess had not been ascertained. Having no key to the Countess’ locked rooms, the Count summoned a locksmith. A young locksmith who arrived noted that he smelled smoke, and after another hour and a half of attempting to identify the source, opted to break into the rooms of the Countess with a hammer. The rooms were filled with thick smoke, and at first glance, her writing desk was on fire. Once the fire was extinguished and the smoke cleared, the Countess was discovered on the floor nearby.
The upper portion was burnt to coal; one hand was charred; on the left foot was a shoe, the other was found, later, in another room. More water was brought, and the fire in the parlour was completely quenched. Then only was it possible to examine the place. The fire had, apparently, originated at the writing-desk or secretaire of the Countess; the body had lain before the table, and near it was a chair, thrown over. From the drawing-room a door, which was found open, led into the boudoir. This boudoir had a window that looked into a side street In the ante-room were no traces of fire. In the drawing-room only the secretaire and the floor beneath it had been burnt. On a chiffonier against the wall were candlesticks, the stearine candles in them had been melted by the heat of the room and run over the chiffonier. In this room was also a sofa, opposite the door leading from the ante-chamber, some way from the desk and the seat of the fire. In the middle of the sofa was a hole fourteen inches long by six inches broad, burnt through the cretonne cover, the canvas below, and into the horse hair beneath. A looking-glass hung against the wall above; this glass was broken and covered with a deposit as of smoke. It was apparent, therefore, that a flame had leaped up on the sofa sufficiently high and hot to snap the mirror and obscure it. Left of the entrance-door was a bell-rope, torn down and cast on the ground.
Beyond the parlour was the boudoir. It had a little corner divan. Its cover was burnt through in two places. The cushion at the back was also marked with holes burnt through. Above this seat against the wall hung an oil painting. It was blistered with heat. Near it was an etagere, on which were candles; these also were found melted completely away. In this boudoir was found the slipper from the right foot of the Countess. If the reader will consider what we have described, he will see that something very mysterious must have occurred. There were traces of burning in three distinct places—on the sofa, and at the secretaire in the parlour, and on the corner seat in the boudoir. It was clear also that the Countess had been in both rooms, for her one slipper was in the boudoir, the other on her foot in the drawing-room. Apparently, also, she had rung for assistance, and torn down the bell-rope.
Another very significant and mysterious feature of the case was the fact that the two doors were found locked, and that the key was not found with the body, nor anywhere in the rooms. Consequently, the Countess had not locked herself in. Again:—the appearance of the corpse was peculiar. The head and face were burnt to cinder, especially the face, less so the back of the head. All the upper part of the body had been subjected to fire, as far as the lower ribs, and there the traces of burning ceased absolutely. Also, the floor was burnt in proximity to the corpse, but not where it lay. The body had protected the floor where it lay from fire (Baring-Gould, 1889, p205-207).
Given the bizarre circumstances of her death, and the profit motive, suspicion immediately fell on Count Goerlitz, as the evidence made it highly unlikely that the Countess had set herself on fire, either accidentally or purposefully. Count Goerlitz was an important figure in the Duchy, so they wanted things hushed up pretty quickly. The local press liked such a titillating story too much to let it go. Goerlitz himself, tired of being suspected, asked that the case be reopened on October 6, 1847. Three years later, the courts concluded that Goerlitz had a pretty good set of alibis and dismissed the case. Still, in 1848 the body of the Countess was exhumed and forensic examiners determined that her skull had been fractured and she had been strangled. One has to wonder, given that forensic science wasn’t especially advanced in the 1800’s, about the reliability of digging up a two year old, largely burned corpse and determining cause of death, but the point was that even though Count Goerlitz had been cleared, foul play of some sort was still suspected, with a fire subsequently set to hide evidence. On November 3rd, 1847, Countess Goerlitz servant John Stauff was arrested for attempting to poison the Count (a well known contemporary case in France had the Duke of Praslin murdering his wife, and then committing suicide by poison), and finally on August 28, 1848, Stauff was charged with the murder of Countess Goerlitz. The timeline for the crimes was a bit dubious as the only times Stauff was alone in the house with the Countess were between 3:30 – 4 PM and 4:30 – 5 PM. Most of the evidence was circumstantial, but he was convicted anyway.
It has been supposed that in certain cases the dead human body has been destroyed more than appeared consistent with the fact of ordinary combustion from articles of dress or furniture; but this opinion has arisen from a want of sufficient experience on the effects of heat. Then, as the means by which the dress of a person had become ignited were generally destroyed with the body, it was thought that a human being might, under certain conditions, be consumed by fire spontaneously generated within him. This extravagant hypothesis has, however, found advocates in modern times. In March, 1850, a man named Stauff was tried at Darmstadt for the murder of the Countess of Goerlitz. He had assaulted the deceased in her chamber, and then set fire to the furniture with a view to conceal his crime. The body and dress were partially consumed. As the means by which the fire was applied were not at once apparent, and the assassin had locked the doors of the room, some medical men took up the theory that the deceased had died from spontaneous combustion. The facts of the case were referred to Liebig and Bischoff, and their report was issued in March, 1850, at which date the man Stauff was put on his trial. They found no difficulty in concluding that a murder had been perpetrated, and the body willfully burnt after death for the purpose of concealing the crime. There was some doubt whether the deceased had died from strangulation, or from violence to the head. Stauff was convicted, chiefly on circumstantial evidence. He subsequently confessed that the countess had entered her room as he was in the act of committing a robbery. A struggle took place; he seized her by the throat, strangled her, and afterwards placed the body in a chair, piling around it combustible articles of furniture. He set fire to these, with a view of destroying the proofs of his crime. It was observed that the tongue of the deceased was protruded, as it is in violent strangulation, and that in its charred state it retained the position given to it by the act of murder. Other instances of alleged spontaneous combustion, if properly investigated, would have turned out to be cases of accidental or homicidal burning (Taylor, 1897, p395).
Interestingly, Stauff only “confessed” long after his conviction, when he applied for a pardon from the Grand Duke, and the only grounds upon on which he could appeal after 25 some years in prison were that his crime was “unpremeditated”. Basically, he seems to have cut a deal as many of the details of his confession did not adequately explain the evidence. He was pardoned by the Duke on the condition that he would immediately leave the country and live out the rest of his life in exile in America. Was the Countess Goerlitz a victim of murder or was this a case of spontaneously combusting nobility? We will probably never know for sure. Except for those learned Hessian physicians. They are sure that spontaneous human combustion does not exist. At least when it comes to countesses.
American Temperance Society. 2nd Annual Report. Andover, MA, 1829.
Baring-Gould, S. 1834-1924. Historic Oddities and Strange Events. First series. London: Methuen & co., 1889.
Gould, George M. 1848-1922. Anomalies And Curiosities of Medicine: Being an Encyclopedic Collection of Rare And Extraordinary Cases, And of the Most Striking Instances of Abnormality In All Branches of Medicine And Surgery, Derived From an Exhaustive Research of Medical Literature From Its Origin to the Present Day, Abstracted, Classified, Annotated, And Indexed, 1896. New York: Julian Press, 1956.
Fellows, H.L. “Spontaneous Combustion of the Human Body”. Albany Medical Annals v3. Albany, NY, 1880.
Mussey, R. D. 1780-1866. An Address On Ardent Spirit: Read Before the New Hampshire Medical Society At Their Annual Meeting, June 5, 1827. Boston: Perkins & Marvin, 1829.
Overton, James. “On the Causes of Spontaneous Human Combustion”. The New England Journal of Medicine v.13:10, 1835.
Taylor, Alfred Swaine. A Manual of Medical Jurisprudence. New York, NY: Lea Brothers, 1897.