“Catch on fire and people will come for miles to see you burn” – John Wesley
If you wake up one day, say after a radioactive spider bite, and find you have superpowers, I recommend you check and see if they have an expiration date. You don’t want to be web-slinging and unexpectedly run out of web, or using your super-human strength to lift a bus that then crashes down on your head when your arms go limp. All, I’m saying is what every Boy Scout knows. Be prepared. Comic singer Tom Lehrer had a few additions to that motto that I’ve found illuminating, but not always practical, like “Don’t solicit for your sister, it’s not nice, unless you get a fair percentage of her price”. Some people over-prepare. Now, if you happen to be a “human salamander”, you might want to be especially careful, particularly if you’re in the entertainment business. If you burn up while demonstrating your imperviousness to fire, the public can be very unforgiving. Of course, you’ll be a pile of ashes, so accolades may not rate high on the priority list. Personally, I prefer to deliberately combust, rather than spontaneously. Don’t ask. It’s an existential thing.
What is a human salamander? I’m glad you asked. Normal human body temperature ranges from 97-99 degrees Fahrenheit, unless faced with someone who supports an opposing political party. The heat-regulating mechanisms of the body eventually become overwhelmed and unable to deal effectively with the heat somewhere around 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Our cells start to die between 106-113 degrees Fahrenheit, and the upper limit for short-term exposure appears to be about 122 degrees Fahrenheit. And I’m not giving you Celsius conversions because darn it I’m an Ugly American. Above that you basically burn and die. Well you do. Not human salamanders, the name given to folks who seem to be able to endure inhuman levels of heat for long durations with no ill effects.
Why salamanders? Traditionally, salamanders have had a close association with fire, and mythologically, it was said to have no effect on them (Pliny the Elder, Saint Augustine, Pope Alexander III, among other notables). This is not true. Salamanders burn just fine. They are just not a great heat source, so they’ve never become popular as kindling. Yet the name stuck with humans who exhibited the strange ability to endure intense heat for extended periods of time. Not much use for this outside of being a firefighter, or in a carnival, but you’ve got to capitalize on your talents to make a living, and quite a few took up the profession in the 19th century.
There have been exhibitionists who claimed particular ability to endure intense heats without any visible disadvantage. These men are generally styled “human salamanders,” and must not be confounded with the “fire-eaters,” who, as a rule, are simply jugglers. Martinez, the so-called “French Salamander,” was born in Havana. As a baker he had exposed himself from boyhood to very high temperatures, and he subsequently gave public exhibitions of his extraordinary ability to endure heat. He remained in an oven erected in the middle of the Gardens of Tivoli for fourteen minutes when the temperature in the oven was 338° F. His pulse on entering was 76 and on coming out 130. He often duplicated this feat before vast assemblages, though hardly ever attaining the same degree of temperature, the thermometer generally varying from 250° F. upward (Gould, 1896, p424-425).
Skeptics, which do not appear to have changed much over the centuries, pointed out that there were many folks who could endure high temperatures, although the temperatures they cited were far below what your average human salamander was capable of withstanding.
The French papers contain an account of a Spaniard of the name of Francisco Martinez, forty-three years old, who lately, at New Tivoli in Paris, in the presence of a number of witnesses, sustained for several minutes a temperature of 110 degrees of Reaumur (30 degrees above the heat of boiling water); and, on leaving the oven in which he had been shut up, plunged into a cold bath, without experiencing the least inconvenience. This capacity of supporting heat is attributed by them to the circumstance of the air being a bad conductor of heat; as also to the precaution used by Martinez of wrapping himself in woolen cloth, which is also a bad conductor of heat. Various instances are mentioned in which an equal and even a greater degree of heat has been supported by human beings; and among them, that of several females in one of the French provinces, who, by habit, were enabled to remain for ten minutes without injury in an oven in which meat and vegetables were cooking, and the temperature of which was 112 degrees of Reaumur; being two degrees above that endured by Martinez (The Literary Gazette, 1828, p.462).
Dude went into an oven. Get over yourselves. Incidentally, the Réaumur scale is a temperature scale for which the freezing and boiling points of water are defined as 0 and 80 degrees respectively, which would make 112 degrees Réaumur equal to 284 degrees Fahrenheit. This is why we should all convert to Celsius. Wouldn’t want to set the oven wrong and climb in just because you were on vacation in another country. Another Frenchman, known as M. Chabert took it up a notch.
Chabert, “the human salamander,” as he was called boasted that he could swallow phosphorus, and wash it down with arsenic and oxalic acid. These were to be supplied by the spectators, but as few go prepared with life-destroying compounds, we may naturally suspect those who handed the articles to him of being confederates, who gave some substance and liquids resembling the above. No one would venture to test their genuineness by tasting, we may be certain! Chabert appeared at the ‘White Conduit Gardens in June, 1826, and on the 8th of that month a notice of his performance was inserted in the “Times,” headed—“Hot, Hot, Hot!” Upon this occasion, it seems, the juggler, besides other feats, entered an oven that had been heated for an hour and a half with faggots. “Oh, for the muse of ﬁre,” continues the narrative, “to describe what followed. Monsieur Chabert, who seems to be a piece of living asbestos, entered this stove, accompanied by a rump-steak and a leg of lamb, when the heat was about 220°. He remained there for ten minutes, until the steak was properly done, conversing all the time with, the company through a tin tube, placed in an oriﬁce in the sheet-iron door of the oven. Then, having swallowed a cup of tea, and having seen that the company had done justice to the meat he had already cooked, he returned to his ﬁery den, and continued there until the lamb was properly done. This joint was devoured with such avidity by the spectators, as leads us to believe that had Monsieur Chabert himself been properly baked, they would have proceeded to a cannibal banquet (Maskelyne, 1878, p77).
Along came the famed “Russian Salamander” Chamouni, who seemed to delight in going even more extreme than his other noted human salamander contemporaries.
He was insensible, for a given time, to the effects of heat. He was remarkable for the simplicity and singleness of his character, as well as for that idiosyncrasy in his constitution, which enabled him for so many years, not merely to brave the effects of fire, but to take a delight in an element where other men find destruction. He was above all artifice, and would often entreat his visitors to melt their own lead, or boil their own mercury, that they might be perfectly satisfied of the gratification he derived from drinking these preparations. He would also present his tongue in the most obliging manner to all who wished, to pour melted lead upon it and stamp an impression of their seals.” (Houdini, 1920, p52).
Chamouni was happy to sit in ovens like any respectable human salamander, but he never banked on the expiration date of his particular gifts. During his last performance, sitting with a leg of mutton in an oven, he burned to a crisp.
Chamouni was the celebrated “Russian Salamander,” assuming the title of “The Incombustible.” His great feat was to enter an oven with a raw leg of mutton, not retiring until the meat was well baked. This person eventually lost his life in the performance of this feat; his ashes were conveyed to his native town [Mojaisk, Russia], where a monument was erected over them. (Gould, 1896, p424-425).
Just because you are incombustible today doesn’t mean you will be incombustible tomorrow. Another thought. Just stay out of ovens. Yet, human beings will always have a fascination with fire, even if it means watching some poor guy with failing superpowers climbing into an oven with a slice of meat. I guess George Carlin had it right when he said, “The very existence of flame-throwers proves that some time, somewhere, someone said to themselves, You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I’m just not close enough to get the job done”.
Byrne, Wm. Pitt, Mrs., 1819-1894. Social Hours With Celebrities: Being the Third And Fourth Volumes of “Gossip of the Century,”. London: Ward & Downey, 1898.
Eve, Paul F. (Paul Fitzsimmons), 1806-1877. A Collection of Remarkable Cases In Surgery. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott and co., 1857.
Gould, George M. (George Milbry), 1848-1922, and Walter L. (Walter Lytle) Pyle. 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.
Houdini, Harry, 1874-1926. Miracle Mongers And Their Methods: a Complete Exposé of the Modus Operandi of Fire Eaters, Heat Resisters, Poison Eaters, Venomous Reptile Defiers, Sword Swallowers, Human Ostriches, Strong Men, Etc.. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1920.
The Literary Gazette: A Weekly Journal of Literature, Science, And the Fine Arts v12. London [etc]: H. Colburn, 1828.
Maskelyne, John. “Natural Magic”. The Leisure Hour Monthly Library v27. London: [W. Stevens, printer], 1878.
“The Fire-Proof Man”. The Lancet v2. London: J. Onwhyn, 1828
Wilson, Henry, d. 1810. The Book of Wonderful Characters: Memoirs And Anecdotes of Remarkable And Eccentric Persons In All Ages And Countries. London: J. C. Hotten, 1869.
Just how does one first discover this ability?
Unsuspected survival abilities are revealed through the efforts of an older sister who wanted to remain an only child (if personal experience is any guide).