“Although our intellect always longs for clarity and certainty, our nature often finds uncertainty fascinating” – Carl von Clausewitz
It’s important to have hopes and dreams. I, for one, really hope I don’t spontaneously combust. Luckily there are checklists of the common characteristics of the average individual who spontaneously combusted that make me feel a little better about my prospects. Evidently, the people most at risk for spontaneous combustion are women over 60 who are overweight, lead inactive lives, are devoted alcoholics, and loiter about an external ignition source like a candle, fireplace, or cigarette. Or that’s the prevailing theory, if one is willing to give any credence to the possibility of spontaneous human combustion. I feel a little safer. Only a little bit, though. I’m not an overweight woman older than 60, at least by most physiological standards.
Now, the learned set have been busy debunking spontaneous human combustion for a few centuries, often by concocting a Rube Goldbergesque chain of unusual events to explain any given case that requires an equally implausible set of circumstances and coincidences to justify why a person might up and partially melt to ashes without the required 1600 degrees Fahrenheit temperature burning the rest of the building down, and sometimes not even scorching the furniture they were sitting on. As the Industrial Age dawned in Europe (around 1760), temperance movements were popping up among the sober and churchgoing classes, and since those stodgy pre-Victorians were already getting a little radical about the whole abstinence from alcohol thing, excessive alcohol consumption as a precursor to spontaneous combustion seemed like a handy explanation. Those grubby lower class folks tend to get unruly after a few drinks and make terrible employees, demanding unreasonable stuff like humane working hours, decent pay, and workplace safety. Plus, if you emphasize that hard drinkers who are overweight and idle run the risk of bursting into flames, it really smacks of a “just desserts” species of moral superiority. Go look up any website for alcohol rehabilitation, and oddly today many still talk about the relation of alcohol to spontaneous human combustion (check out http://alcoholrehab.com/alcoholism/spontaneous-human-combustion-and-alcoholism/, for an example). Of course, they’re trying to sell you something.
In 2013, Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer helpfully pointed out that spontaneous combustion doesn’t exist, for if it did, in a world of 7 billion people (many of them heavy drinkers) we should see it more frequently, and it seems to always happen to a single person alone without witnesses. Furthermore, he reasoned, if humans can combust, why not animals? To the best of my knowledge nobody has actually investigated spontaneous animal combustion, and I’m given to understand that most livestock are devoted teetotalers, but it does beg the question – if a human being is capable of combusting, why aren’t we seeing more human torches wandering around. The skeptic answer is that the phenomenon does not exist, as there really is no explanation that fits what we currently understand about physics, chemistry, and human biology, with the caveat that the person was probably an absent-minded smoker and heavy drinker. As I lean towards paranoia, the most obvious explanation is that human combustion is rarely spontaneous, rather it is preternatural and deliberate. After all, you don’t want any witnesses to your occult experiments. I’m not pointing any fingers. Yet.
Sadly, the nature of logical scientific explanations for the phenomena have not changed in their essential absurdity since at least 1745, easily discernible in the extensively documented (for an 18th Century arson investigation) spontaneous combustion case of the Countess Cornelia Bandi of Cesena. The matter was investigated and reported in detail in the Parere sopra la Cagione della morte della Comtessa Cornelia Zangari, ne’ Bandi Casenate by Italian oratorian, biblical, historical, and liturgical scholar and sometimes scientific advisor to Popes Clement XII and Benedict XIV, Giuseppe Bianchini (1704-1764), a report widely circulated among physicians, historians, and other learned luminaries of the age.
The Countess Cornelia Bandi, in the 62nd Year of her Age, was all day as well as she used to be; but at night was observed, when at supper, dull and heavy. She retired, was put to Bed, where she passed three Hours and more in familiar discourses with her maid, and in some Prayers; at last, falling asleep, the door was shut. In the morning, the maid, taking notice that her Mistress did not awake at the usual hour, went into the bed-chamber, and called her, but not being answered, doubting of some ill accident, opened the window, and saw the corpse of her mistress in this deplorable condition. Four feet distance from the bed there was a heap of ashes, two legs untouched, from the foot to the knee, with their stockings on; between them was the Lady’s head; whose brains, half of the back part of the skull, and the whole chin, were burnt to ashes; amongst which were found three fingers blackened. All the rest was ashes, which had this particular quality, that they left in the hand, when taken up, a greasy and stinking moisture. The air in the room was also observed encumbered with Soot floating in it. A small oil-lamp on the floor was covered with ashes, but no oil in. Two candles in candlesticks upon a table stood upright; the cotton was left in both, but the tallow was gone and vanished. Somewhat of moisture was about the feet of the candlesticks. The bed received no damage; the blankets and sheets were only raised on one side, as when a Person rises up from it, or goes in. The whole of the furniture, as well as the bed, was spread over with moist and ash color soot, which had penetrated into the chest-of-drawers, even to foul the linens: Nay the soot was also gone into a neighboring kitchen, and hung on the walls, moveables, and utensils of it. From the pantry a piece of bread covered with that soot, and grown black, was given to several Dogs, all which refused to eat it. In the room above it was moreover taken notice, that from the lower part of the windows trickled down a greasy, loathsome, yellowish liquor and thereabout they smelt a stink, without knowing of what; and saw the soot fly around. It was remarkable, that the floor of the chamber was so thick smeared with a gluish moisture, that it could not be taken off and the stink spread more and more through the other chambers. It is impossible, that, by any accident, the lamp should have caused such a conflagration (Real Colegio, 1745, p447-448)
Certainly, we have to give Giuseppe a break, since it was the 18th Century, but his conclusions suggested that give or take a few hundred years he would have made a perfect Skeptical Inquirer consultant (excepting the whole getting jiggy with biblical truth thing). A version of his self-assured explanation for the bizarre scene can be found in any anti-combustion writing today. Not that I’m pro-combustion, just suspicious about it. Giuseppe was pretty darn sure it was lightning.
There is no room to suppose any supernatural cause. The likeliest cause then is a flash of lightning; which according to the most common opinion, being but a sulphurous and nitrous exhalation from the Earth, having been kindled in the air, did penetrate either through the chimney, or through the chinks of the windows, and did the operation. All the above mentioned effects prove the assertion; for those remaining foul particles are the grossest parts of the fulmen, either burnt to ashes, or thickened into a viscous bituminous matter. Hence no wonder the dogs would not eat of the bread, because of the bitterness of the soot, and stink of the Sulphur that lodged on it. The impalpable ashes of the Lady’s corpse are also a demonstration; for nothing but a fulmen could produce such an effect. They say that there was not any noise; but maybe there was, and they heard it not, being in a sound sleep: Besides, there have been seen lightnings and fulmina without noise as one may very often observe (Real Colegio, 1745, p449).
Well, by the time the 19th Century rolled around, they were still talking about the fiery death of Countess Cordelia, and since any 19th Century fool could tell you that lightning just doesn’t work like that, they fished around for alternative explanations and fixated upon a small detail recorded by Bianchini. The countess was rumored to bathe in camphorated wine when feeling under the weather. Hey, the Royal Society confirmed it.
The Annual Register states, that the Countess Cesena was accustomed to bathe all her body in camphorated spirit of wine. Bianchini caused the detail of this deplorable event to be published at the time when it took place, and no one contradicted it. It was also attested by Scipio Maﬂei, a learned cotemporary of Bianchini, who was far from being credulous; and, in the last place, this surprising fact was conﬁrmed to the Royal Society of London by Paul Rolli (Trotter, 1813, p72).
And further, more detailed explanations were forthcoming, all in an effort to explain how a Countess (who incidentally was known not to drink) turned into a flaming torso, leaving only her head and legs. They really like the camphorated spirit of wine theory. Yeah, I had to look it up too. It’s basically some concoction equivalent to mixing wine and Vicks Vapor Rub. Sounds really dangerous, right? The wise men of the early 19th Century figured they had locked down the scenario. There were still some who doubted that the explanation was so solid, given the other evidence.
From an examination of all the circumstances of this case, it has been generally supposed that an internal combustion had taken place; that the lady had risen from her bed to cool herself, and that, in her way to open the window, the combustion had overpowered her, and consumed her body by a process in which no flame was produced which could set fire to the furniture or the floor (Bewster, 1824, p324).
That’s pretty much a shrug of the shoulders. Yeah, she burned. We can’t explain it. Let’s have a drink. No matter how many gruesome pictures of spontaneously combusted people emerge, or credible reports surface suggesting that the standard explanations are dubious, this is yet another strange phenomena with a proud history, that we are told can’t exist. The conclusion I’ve come to is that skeptics, scientists, and physicians simply “hope” spontaneous human combustion doesn’t exist rather than feeling optimistic that science will one day explain how these things happen, for as Vaclav Havel said, “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out”. In this case, the hope is that when you go to bed tonight you won’t burst into flames. Fingers crossed.
Brewster, David, Sir, 1781-1868. Letters On Natural Magic, Addressed to Sir Walter Scott, Bart. 5th ed. London: John Murray, 1842.
Real Colegio de Cirugía de San Carlos (Madrid), et al. “An Extract by Mr. Paul Rolli, F.R.S. of an Italian Treatise, written by the Reverend Joseph Bianchini, a Prebend in the City of Verona; upon the Death of the Countess Cornelia Zangari & Bandi, of Cesena”. Philosophical Transactions, Giving Some Account of the Present Undertakings, Studies And Labors of the Ingenious In Many Considerable Parts of the World v43(2). London: printed by T. N. for John Martyn … and James Allestry, printers to the Royal-Society, 1745.
Trotter, Thomas, 1760-1832. An Essay, Medical, Philosophical, And Chemical, On Drunkenness. 1st Philadelphia ed. Philadelphia: Published by Anthony Finley, 1813.
Vieth, Gerhard Ulrich Anton, 1763-1836. The Pleasing Preceptor; Or Familiar Instructions In Natural History And Physics,: Adapted to the Capacities of Youth, And Calculated Equally to Inform And Amuse Their Minds During the Intervals of More Dry And Severe Study:. London:: Printed for G.G. and J. Robinson … by George Woodfall …, 1800.