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1731, April: Countess Cornelia di Bandi’s Fiery Death

Sometime before April 4, 1731, when an account of the event was published, the remains of the 62-year-old Countess Cornelia di Bandi of Cesena, Italy, were found on the floor of her bedroom by her maid. The Countess had been described as being "heavy and dull" the night previous, and had last been seen by her maid, who talked with her for three hours before the Countess said her prayers and fell asleep. The maid shut the door, and no one disturbed the lady until morning. When the Countess did not arise at her usual hour, the maid entered the room to check on her; hearing no answer to her call, the maid opened the window to let in light... and so discovered the Countess' mortal remains on the floor of the room. 

        The Countess' body had been reduced to a circle of ashes, three blackened fingers, two stockinged legs (from about the knee down) and, on the floor between the legs, a large and calcined portion of her skull which was missing the back, the chin, and the brain. The ashes left a "greasy and stinking moisture" on the skin when picked up. The air in the room was full of soot, yet the Countess' bed, with the covers raised up on one side showing that the Countess had calmly risen from it, was unburned. A small oil-lamp on the floor nearby was covered by the ashes from the Countess' body, and empty of oil. On a table in the room, two candles had completely melted and lost their tallow, leaving just their unburned wicks behind. All the furniture in the room was covered with the moist soot which had even penetrated a chest of drawers, ruining the clothing, and into a neighboring kitchen, where the soot coated most everything. A piece of bread that had been covered with this soot was offered to the dogs, who refused to eat it. In addition to this soot, the Countess' bedroom had a stinking, greasy, yellowish fluid trickling down the lower part of the windows.


Since the Countess' remains were found on the floor four feet away from the bed and between the bed and the window, it was assumed that the Countess had risen from bed and been struck down suddenly while walking to the window. The first theory proposed to explain the baffling circumstances of her death was that the Countess, on her way to the window, had been struck by a lightning bolt that had either snuck down the chimney or between the cracks in the window. It was further proposed that either everyone else in the house was sleeping too deeply to hear the thunder, or this was a rare case of a silent lightning bolt -- which is a unique idea I havn't seen proposed anywhere else.

        Nine years later in 1745, a completely different theory to explain the Countess death was proposed by a man named Paul Rolli. Since the Countess' head was found incinerated, yet lying on the floor between her two non-incinerated legs, Rolli assumed that she had been suddenly consumed by fire after she had arisen from bed, the whole event occurring so fast that the Countess' head fell down through the space her body used to occupy, and landed on the floor between her unburned legs. This fire, therefore, had to have started from a spot somewhere within the woman's torso, perhaps caused by a gastro-intestinal imbalance of some sort... in short, an event that would be labeled as spontaneous human combustion. Rolli also offered a new piece of evidence to consider: since a going belief at the time was that spontaneous human combustion was caused by alcoholism and it was well known that the Countess did not drink alcohol, Rolli mentions that she was in the habit of bathing in "camphorated spirit of wine" when she was feeling poorly... which implies she may have done so the night of her death, adding the flammability of alcohol to her body prior to the incident.

        These two theories have one thing in common... they both assume that the oil lamp found on the scene could not possibly have been involved in the Countess' death, as made clear by the author of the original Italian account, Bianchini: "It is impossible that, by any accident, the lamp should have caused such a conflagration." But, given that the lamp was covered by ash -- not just soot -- then it's likely that at least part of the Countess' body had covered the lamp at some point. This fact has led some modern authors to propose that the Countess had collapsed on top of the lit lamp due to illness or death, and that then the lamp had ignited her clothing and body, the resulting fire reducing her body largely to ash and airborn fat-saturated soot, a situation commonly know as the "wick effect." But a question still exists; since the Countess' burned skull was found lying between her unburned legs, how did it get to that position if she started off in a heap on top of an oil-lamp "found nearby"?