1644, January 22 (pre): French Woman’s Fiery Stomach

It took some digging and translating, but an interesting story was told by two different writers around four-hundred years ago.

Fiery Stomach!
[Larger version here]

Sometime previous to January 22, 1644, doctors in Lyons, France, were examining a woman's body to try and determine the cause of her death when they were startled by a large plume of flame bursting from the dead woman's stomach which quickly extinguished itself. Upon closer examination, the doctors could see the fire had effected the entirety of the insides of the woman's stomach in its brief existence. There was a general belief that the fire had been caused by either an excess of wine on the part of the dead woman, or an excess of 'theriaces' [a medicine meant to battle poison or poisonous bites] that the woman may have been taking despite doctors' advice against it.

        The most likely cause of the incident is that the doctors had cut the dead woman's stomach open and somehow ignited the gases that rushed out. The fire probably used up all the oxygen available within the stomach cavity and then extinguished itself, leading to a brief big flame. As such, this report makes sense for the time when, medically speaking, it had been discovered that the gases in stomachs were flammable and many doctors were watching for instances suggestive of said gases igniting and making note of them.

The Sources

        The details of this incident were reported in three sources published near the time of the event, one being a letter written by Dr. René Moreau in 1644 and the other two being notes in Thomas Bartholin's Historiarum anatomicarum rariorum [Accounts of Rare Anatomy], Vols. I & III (in 1654 and 1657).

        Moreau's letter, dated January 22, 1644, was published in a 1786 edition of the French Journal de Medecine. Moreau's letter only briefly mentioned the incident above, essentially just guessing the flame from the woman's stomach might be related to Ignis Lambens, which are incidents of people with glowing skin (which was a going topic at the time... I'll research it someday). So, essentially, Moreau's letter is only useful in two ways: it confirms he had heard of this incident, and it shows it happened before January 22, 1644. The person who sent the letter to the journal, a Monsieur Devillier, had found Moreau's letter in a volume called Curieux de la nature [Curios of Nature], from 1670, which I don't believe anyone has seen since.

        Thomas Bartholin first mentions this event in volume I of his Historiarum anatomicarum rariorum, published in 1654; and because for many this was the first place they saw a note of this event, and Bartholin gave no date for the occurence, authors started to claim this event happened in 1654 -- the date Bartholin's book was published.

        Ignoring that problem, Bartholin handles the matter in a single paragraph, titled "Flamma ex Ventriculo" -- Latin for "Flame from the Stomach" -- quickly relating that in Lyons, France, while doctors were investigating the cause of death for a certain woman, they were surprised as a huge flame exploded from the dead woman's stomach and quickly extinguished itself. Bartholin states that upon closer examination, the doctors could see it had effected the entirety of the insides of the woman's stomach in its brief existence... and it's Bartholin who mentions the theries of either excess alcohol or overuse of the 'theriaces'. And, finally, Bartholin mentions he got this report straight from 'Renato Moraeum' of the School of Paris... which seems to be a Latinization of René Moreau, who wrote the 1644 letter!

Spontaneous Human Combustion?

        So in 1644, 1654, and 1657, when the accounts above were written, nobody felt this was a case of 'spontaneous human combustion', the proposed possibility of the human body igniting itself from the inside and quickly burning to ashes. This is because, as a proposed phenomena, SHC didn't exist until 1731... so it was only after 1731 that the incident of the flaming stomach was mentioned in works on SHC.

        The first published connection of the stomach fire and SHC (that I've found) is in François-Emmanuel Fodéré's 1813 volume, Traité de Médecine Légale et d'Hygiène Publique [Treaty of Forensic Medicine and Public Hygiene] (second volume). The general idea was that the incident might be a clue as to how SHC happened, as opposed to an actual case of it. In this vein the story has been passed down off and on in the literature of SHC... until 1995.

And Now For Something Completely Different

Here's a story for you. According to Larry Arnold in his 1995 book Ablaze!: "Dr. Rene Moreau described for the Ancien Journal de Medecine (1786) an incident from 1644 when mourners were astonished, perhaps appalled, to see 'flames from stomach' of a dead Frenchwoman in Lyon who was being buried."

        It's undoubtedly the same story as above, but changed.

        There is no Ancien Journal de Medecine... there is the Journal de Medecine [Journal of Medicine], which was followed by the Nouveau Journal de Medecine [New Journal of Medicine]. In following this odd title, though, I found the reference to this whole incident in Fodéré's 1813 book Traité de Médecine Légale et d'Hygiène Publique mentioned above:

"In a note supplied by M. Devilliers, doctor of Paris, in the old journal of medicine, relative to the observation of which I will speak below, entitled 'Burning by an unknown cause, followed by death,' he is a question, independently of other ancient works, of a letter of 1644 from Rene Moreau, doctor of Paris, who speaks of a flame that came out of the stomach of a woman who died in Lyons, and who says that this The flame is properly what we call Ignis Iambens..."

The reference to the 'old journal of medicine,' in French reads 'l'ancien journal de médecine'... which makes this brief reference above appear to be the origin of Arnold's "Ancien Journal de Medecine."

        Given that we've seen the references Arnold claims tell his 'incident at a funeral' story, and they don't have that story, why did he claim that happened? We can be generous, and say Arnold mistranslated the French... because the alternative is that he just plain made up the story.