“The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire” – Ferdinand Foch

Hold on there buddy, can we talk about this?

Fire has one job.  Mindlessly burning stuff.  Look it up on Glassdoor.  No other required skill sets.  We prefer that our fires lack even rudimentary reflexes, let alone awareness of our presence, as with fire’s rather narrow oeuvre, it makes avoidance of burns somewhat more a matter of either effectively containing your fires, or simply being somewhere less combustible.  One might want to communicate this to our national forests, but trees sadly lack the gumption to pick up and relocate.  I think they’re being held down by the oppression of the underbrush.  The again, there is the U.S. Forest Reserve Act of 1891.  Maybe trees just have a respect for the law.  Mostly you should just pay attention to what your mother said and never play with fire.  Leave it to the professionals.  You know.  Arsonists.  Obviously this line of thought regarding existential threats led me to peruse the literature on spontaneous human combustion, and I have come to a rather disturbing conclusion.  Spontaneous human combustion may represent instances where fire has become aware of its surroundings, and apparently wishes to murder us.  Stay away from open flames as you consider the October 1776 A.D. case of Italian Friar Don Gio Maria Bertholi.

Friar Don Gio Maria Bertholi was a priest from Mount Volore, in the district of Livizzano, Italy. In October of 1776, he arrived in the town of Filetto, with business to conduct at their local fair.  Once his official affairs were concluded, he journeyed to the home of his brother-in-law in Fenille to rest in the warm embrace of family.  Having traveled extensively, he requested that his host allow him to retire to his bedroom to complete his evening prayers and catch some shut-eye.  He dusted himself off, opened his breviary, placed a handkerchief between his shirt and shoulders (because he took the whole Apostle thing seriously, and handkerchiefs were used to focus faith for healing and deliverance by Paul in Acts 19:12), and got his bad-self going with the Compline devotions (which would normally be recited at 7 PM, prior to the Second Vatican Council).  He just wanted to get his mandatory god on and hit the sack.  This is not the time when one expects things to go sideways. “A few minutes had scarcely elapsed when an extraordinary noise was heard in the chamber, and the cries of the unfortunate man were particularly distinguished” (Macnish, 1828, p144-145).

The numerous accounts of what transpired emphasize that as soon as his relative rushed in to offer aid they noted that he was not only surrounded by a blue flame, but that said flame was “lambent” (glowing with a soft radiance), and that as they approached, the flames seemed to be aware of their presence, and receded in equal measure to their distance from him, ultimately vanishing when they reached his prostrate body.

Perceiving the cries of the priest, they repaired instantly to the apartment; and, on entering it, found him extended on the paved floor, and enveloped in a thin flame, which receded as they approached him, and at length entirely vanished. They placed him, as soon as possible, upon his bed, and administered to him every kind of aid that was at hand (Marc, 1828, p132-133).

Poor Bertholi was badly burned, but in a strange manner.  All that he could report was a phantom strike on his right hand, followed by the eruption of the flames.  What they could see was that he had severe burns on his arm, neck, and face and the “handkerchief, which he had tied round his shoulders, between the shirt and the skin, was intact. His drawers were also sound; but, strange to say, his silk skull cap was burnt, while his hair bore no marks of combustion” (Millingen, 1837, p104-105).

The account which this unfortunate patient gave, was, that he felt a stroke like the blow of a cudgel on the right hand, and at the same time he saw a lambent flame attach itself to his shirt, which was immediately reduced to ashes, his wristband, at the same time, being utterly untouched (Grinrod, 1851, p253-254).

Furthermore, the scene of the crime was not what one would expect given the extent of Bertholi’s grievous injuries.

No empyreumatic or bituminous odour was perceived in the room, which was also free from smoke; there was no vestige of fire, except that the lamp, which had been full of oil, was found dry, and the wick reduced to cinder.” (Paris and Fonblanque, 1824, p604-605).

Clearly, Bertholi merited the attentions of a skilled physician.  On the following morning, Doctor Joseph Battaglia, a surgeon of Ponte Bosio, was called in to examine the patient.  The gruesome details were widely reported “at the time in the German periodicals” (Grant, 1849, p50) – for example, the 1786 edition of Allgemeine Literatur Zeitung. The famous French forensic physician François-Emmanuel Fodéré summarized the report on the case which Battaglia had forwarded to his superiors in Florence, which made it into Paris and Fonblanques’ later treatise on spontaneous human combustion as it related to medical jurisprudence.

On the following morning, the patient was examined by M. Battaglia, who found the integuments of the right arm almost entirely detached and pendant from the flesh; from the shoulders to the thighs the integuments were equally injured; and on the right hand, the part most injured, mortification had already commenced, which notwithstanding immediate scarification rapidly extended itself. The patient complained of burning thirst, and was horribly convulsed, he passed by stool putrid and bilious matter, and was exhausted by continual vomiting accompanied by fever and delirium. On the fourth day, after two hours of comatose insensibility, he expired; during the whole period of his suffering, it was impossible to trace any symptomatic affection. A short time previous to his decease, M. Battaglia observed, with astonishment that putrefaction had made so much progress that the body already exhaled an insufferable odor, worms crawled from it on the bed, and the nails had become detached from the left hand (Paris and Fonblanque, 1824, p604-605).

Not only Bertholi’s surgeon, but also contemporary scientists (and even those discussing the case decades after its occurrence), were at something of a loss to explain this strange phenomenon.  That never prevents folks insisting on a natural explanation from trying, saying things such as it was “more like an electrical attack than an instance of spontaneous combustion” (Brewer, 1896, p29), or “electric fluid was the chief agent in the combustion” (Millingen, 1837, p104-105), or an “electric flash (generated either in his own body, or in the room where he was)” (Tytler, 1799, p182), which are all pretty similar and unsatisfying explanations, but in the 1800’s they were really starting to dig this electricity thing.  None of these adequately address, and in fact completely ignore the fact the eyewitnesses, who were roundly described as “competent observers” noted there was at least some sort of reflexivity, if not volition involved with the flames attacking Bertholi.

An interesting postscript is that what may have been one of the first American Gothic novels, the 1798 Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown, most literary experts agree, borrowed the details of Bertholi’s bizarre demise for the fate of his protagonists’ father. “The parallels between this and the case of the elder Wieland are too close to be accidental” (Clark, 1923, p33).

These days, we already have lots to worry about what with our current pandemic and looming economic chaos, so I figure why not just pile on and warn people not to insult the sisters of any fire elementals, or you could wind up with a target on your back and an extremely curious obituary.  Maybe even a few articles in obscure medical journals.  Gives new meaning to rekindling the inner spirit and lends a sinister edge to what Laura Esquivel wrote in Like Water for Chocolate, “Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by ourselves”

Brewer, Ebenezer Cobham, 1810-1897, and Marion Harland. Character Sketches of Romance, Fiction and the Drama. A revised American ed. of the Readers’ handbook / New York: S. Hess, 1896
Clark, David Lee, 1887-1956. Charles Brockden Brown: a Critical Biography. New York, 1923.
De Marmon, Paluel. “Medico-legal Considerations upon Alcoholism”. Papers Read Before the Medico-legal Society of New York. First series. 3rd illustrated edition. New York: The Medico-legal journal association, 1889.
Frank, Benjamin. De Combustione Spontanea Humani Corporis: Commentatio Historica Physiologica Et Medico-forensis De Setentia Gratiosi Medicorum Ordinis In Certamine Literario Civium Academiae Georgiae Augustae Die IV Iunii MDCCCXLI, Praemio Regio Ornata. Gottingae: Sumtibus Dieterichianis, 184-.
Grant, George. The Panorama of Science: Or, A Guide to Knowledge. Dublin: J. M’Glashan, 1849.
Grindrod, Ralph Barnes, 1811-1883. Bacchus, an Essay on the Nature, Causes, Effects, and Cure for Intemperance. New ed., with copious index. London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1851.
Johnson, Walter R. (Walter Rogers), 1794-1852, and J. M. (John M.) Moffat. The Scientific Class-book, Or, A Familiar Introduction to the Principles of Physical Science: for the Use of Schools And Academies, On the Basis of Mr. J.M. Moffat, With Additions, Emendations, Notes, Questions for Examination, Lists of Works for Reference, Some Additional Illustrations, And an Index. Philadelphia: Key & Biddle, 1835.
Macnish, Robert, 1802-1837. The Anatomy of Drunkenness. 1st American, from the 2d London ed. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea and Carey, 1828.
Marc, M.  “On Human Combustion”. The Western Journal of the Medical & Physical Sciences v2. [Cincinnati, Ohio: Daniel Drake], 1828.
Millingen, J. G. (John Gideon), 1782-1862, and M.D. Rare Book Collection of Rush University Medical Center at the University of Chicago Stanton A. Friedberg. Curiosities of Medical Experience. London: Richard Bentley, 1837.
Paris, John Aryton and J.S.M. Fonblanque. “Paris and Fonblanque on Medical Jurisprudence”. Johnson, Henry James, and James Johnson. The Medico-chirurgical Review, And Journal of Practical Medicine c1 v3. London: published, 1824.
Tytler, James, 1747-1805. A Treatise on the Plague and Yellow Fever: With an Appendix, Containing Histories of the Plague at Athens in the Time of the Peloponnesian War; At Constantinople In the Time of Justinian; At London In 1665; At Marseilles In 1720; &c. Salem: Printed by J. Cushing, for B. B. Macanulty, 1799.