“Success is not the result of spontaneous combustion. You must first set yourself on fire” – Fred Shero
I’m fairly certain I don’t want to spontaneously combust. It makes an awful mess, and one invariably gets accused of all sorts of poor lifestyle choices from smoking in bed to overindulgence in alcohol. Over the centuries, spontaneous human combustion has reared its head as an explanation for mysterious deaths far too many times for my comfort. The good and puzzling news about spontaneous combustion is that even if you do find yourself surprisingly set alight, it’s usually only the unfortunate individual that suffers the consequences. Hence in reputed photos (of which there are a disturbing number) we often just see a little patch of ashes on a burned piece of furniture, and the occasional remaining leg. Sadly, in an odd case from June 26, 1613, not only did a certain Southampton resident (some sources have him as a resident of Christchurch in Hampshire) John Hitchell appear to spontaneously combust and smolder noticeably for three days, but his personal conflagration both burned his family, and was considered a foreshadowing of a massive fire that burned nearby Dorchester one month later. It’s not entirely clear that we lay the Dorchester calamity at the feet of John Hitchell, but his own story is strange enough to merit a little attention, one because he combusted, and two, that it was blamed on lightning even though he was indoors.
Hitchell, who was a carpenter, had been at work at the house of John Deane, of Tarty Court, and after returning home on the Saturday evening, went to bed with his wife and her young child. About midnight there happened a great and sudden lightning, which came on so fiercely, that an old woman, named Agnes Russell, his wife’s mother, having, by undiscernible means, received a terrible blow upon her cheek, was therewithal awakened and amazed, and cried out to her daughter and son-in-law to come and help her; but they not answering, she started up and went into their bed, and awoke her daughter, who was upon the sudden very grievously burned all the one side of her, and her husband and child lay dead close by her — Thus far the narrative is consistent with natural causes, and involves no contradiction ; but now comes the marvel ! The afflicted wife drew her husband out of bed, and perceiving that he still burned inwardly, she brought him into the open street, where through the vehemency of the fire she was constrained to forsake him, and there he lay burning upon the earth for the space of almost three days; you shall understand that there was no outward appearance of fire about him, but only a kind of smoke and glowing heat ascending from his body, until it was quite consumed to ashes, except only some small pieces of his bones, which some of the sad beholders cast into a pit made near the place (Ferrey, 1834, Appendix XIII).
One hopes a roof is a fairly good bulwark against lightning, otherwise there’s no point in coming in out of a storm. And while roofs themselves are fairly good at burning (at least before we started using lightning rods and happened upon the concept of “grounding”), usually the house has to burn before you do, unless of course some very selective smiting was afoot. I never like to rule out smiting, since it does seem to be the favored form of direct action among the celestial crowd, although the fact that John Hitchell was also a carpenter introduces a wee bit of irony into the smiting hypothesis. Hitchell was also a notorious drunkard, which is another commonly cited character flaw of those who combust, although honestly it seems like you would probably either die of alcohol poisoning or a failed liver, and rot, long before you reached some sort of critical flash point. Personally, I prefer the late Middle English version of the story. Read it in your best Shakespearean imitation.
The Manner of the Accident is as followeth: John Hitchell having been, on Saturday the 26th of June last, at Work at the House of one John Deane of Tarty Court, where he truly and painfully laboured at his Trade,’ being a Carpenter, and having ended his Day’s Work, went home to his House; and, after his coming home, betook himself to his rest and, being in Bed with his Wife and Child, in the Deep of the Night, the Lightning came on so fiercely, that an old Woman, named Agnes Ruffell, Mother to the Wife of the said John Hitchell, having received a terrible Blow on her Cheek (by what means I know not), was therewith awakened, and cry’d to the said John Hitchell and his Wife to help her: But they not answering, the poor old Woman started out of her Bed, and went unto the Bed where they lay, and awakened her Daughter, who was, upon the sudden, most lamentably burnt all on one Side of her, and her Husband and Child dead by her Side. Yet nevertheless his poor Wife, when she saw her Husband and Child had thus strangely finished their Days, she (as it seemeth) thought not so much of the Hurt she had received herself, as she was careful to have preserved the Life of her Husband, if by any means possibly she could; and therefore (notwithstanding all her grievous Wounds) she dragg’d him out of the Bed into the Street; and there, by reason of the Vehemency of the Fire, she was in forced, to her no small Grief, to forsake him; where he lay burning upon the Ground for the Space of three Days after, or thereabouts. Not that there was any Appearance of Fire outwardly to be seen on him, but only a kind of Smoke ascending upwards from his Carcase, until it was consumed to Ashes, except only some small Shew of Part of his Bones, which were cast into a Pit made by the Place (Hilliard, 1745, p462-463).
Sounds more sophisticated that way, doesn’t it? An anonymous member of Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society unearthed some fascinating documents in the British Museum in 1891 relating to John Hitchell in the form of a set of two 17th Century pamphlets entitled “Fire from Heaven” detailing not only the Great Fire of Dorchester in August 1613, but connecting it with the spontaneous combustion of Hitchell in June 1613.
The first pamphlet is headed:
“Fire from Heaven or a Trumpet sounding to judgement calling us to repentance by the fearful and lamentable burning of John Hitchell Carpenter to ashes together with his house and one child and the grievous scorching of his wife by lightning, as also by the burning of another house since, and the birth of a monster, all within the Towne and Parish of Christchurch in Hampshire.
The second pamphlet is headed:
Here into is annexed the lamentable and fearful burning of the towne of Dorchester, upon the 6 of August last 1613.
“If this dolorous discourse aforesaid of God’s fiery judgement (written by Master Hilliard) late happening in Hampshire, have any whit penetrated the reader with remorse I am here presumingly bolde (without disparagement to the author) to add unto his book a second sorrow to our country, a sudden calamity late befallen upon the towne of Dorchester in the west of England; the heavy news whereof, even strikes trembling hearts of people, that so famous a towne, and the only storehouse of those parts for merchantly commodities should in less than four and twentie hours be ruinated by this great commanding element, consuming fire (Dorset, 1891, p76-78).
Obviously, the author was leaning heavily towards the idea that this was all part and parcel of a general smiting. Curiously, from the 17th to 19th Century, scholarly fellows at the Royal Society in London were terribly concerned with collecting stories of spontaneous combustion, and although Hitchell didn’t precisely fit the typical pattern, he got included into their observations since there were an oddly disproportionate number of women who seemed to be combusting versus men, then again, as comedian Dave Attell said, “You know, men and women are a lot alike in certain situations. Like when they’re both on fire – they’re exactly alike”. The idea that lightning may have set Hitchell on a slow burn no doubt was trumped by the fascinatingly macabre fact that he slowly melted over three days.
Only two men seem to have suffered a fate even remotely comparable to that of the women whose habits and longevity were a source of considerable annoyance to family and neighbors alike. One was John Hitchell of Southampton, and his story dates not from the 18th century, but from 1613. And in truth, Hitchell had an entirely different claim to fame in that his corpse was supposed to have continued to burn for three days after having been hit by lightning. His was not, strictly speaking, a case of sudden combustion, although the members of the Royal Society of London chose to classify it as such, being otherwise at a loss to account for why a man’s body might seemingly smolder for three days. (See Rolli’s account in the Philosophical Transactions for the year 1745.) Three other twists set the story apart from those that would appear in the 18th century. First, Hitchell does not seem to have been drinking or drunk at the time. Second, Hitchell’s wife and daughter were also burned to death. And finally, the sole survivor was in fact Hitchell’s aging mother-in-law, who was also the first person to discover the three burned bodies (Warner, 1996, p197).
Now there’s a slight discrepancy in this more modern interpretation in so far as Hitchell’s wife was said to have burned to death, when in fact most sources insist she was scorched, but survived at least long enough to drag him out into the street and watch him smolder for a few days. Perhaps she died of her wound, which would make mother-in-law Agnes the only true survivor. I see no reason to nitpick since the relevant problem is that John Hitchell was burned, and with no apparent internal source, continued to burn from the inside out until he was nothing but a pile of ashes, self-cremated so to speak.
I’m not sure we’ve adequately explored the possibility that all the folks who spontaneously combust are just really, really angry, as suggested by Criss Jami when she said, “Lingering, bottled-up anger never reveals the ‘true colors’ of an individual. It, on the contrary, becomes all mixed up, rotten, confused, forms a highly combustible, chemical compound then explodes as something foreign, something very different than one’s natural self.” Just hedge your bets. If you feel rage coming on, stay away from an ignition source.
Ewell, James, 1773-1832. The Medical Companion: … With a Dispensatory And Glossary ; to Which Are Added a Brief Anatomy of the Human Body ; an Essay On Hygieine ; Or the Art of Preserving Health And Prolonging Life ; And an American Materia Medica ; Instructing Country Gentlemen In the Very Important Knowledge of the Virtues And Doses of Our Medicinal Plants …. The 5th ed., greatly improved. Philadelphia: Printed for the author, 1819.
Ferrey, Benjamin, 1810-1880. The Antiquities of the Priory of Christ-church, Hants.: Consisting of Plans, Sections, Elevations, Details, And Perspective Views, Accompanied by Historical And Descriptive Accounts of the Priory Church : Together With Some General Particulars of the Castle And Borough. London: Printed for the proprietor, Benjamin Ferrey …, and sold by J. Weale …, Calkin and Budd …, J. Williams …, C. Tucker and Son, Hants., 1834.
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Wesley, John, 1703-1791. A Survey of the Wisdom of God In the Creation: Or, A Compendium of Natural Philosophy … A new edition, rev. and cor. London: W. Flint, 1809.
Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society. Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History And Antiquarian Field Club v13. Dorchester: The Club, 1891.
Warner, Jessica. “Old and in the Way: Widows, Witches, and Spontaneous Combustion in the Age of Reason.” Contemporary Drug Problems 23.2, 1996.