1731, April 4 (pre.): Countess Cornelia di Bandi’s Fiery Death

Sometime before April 4, 1731 -- when an account of the event was first 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 not burned. A small oil-lamp on the floor was covered with ashes, and empty of oil. On a table in the room, two candles had completely melted and lost their tallow, leaving just their undamaged 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, and the whole of the floor was "smear'd with a gluish Moisture."

        Since the Countess' remains were found on the floor four feet away 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. At the time, the best theory proposed to explain the baffling circumstances of the Countess' death was that she, 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 haven't seen proposed anywhere else!

The Start of Spontaneous Human Combustion

        The scene of her death was examined by a well-known Reverend of Verona, Giuseppe Bianchini (sometimes called Joseph Bianchini). Bianchini reasoned that since the Countess' remaining partial skull had been found incinerated and lying on the floor between the Countess' two non-incinerated legs that the Countess had been suddenly consumed by fire after she had arisen from bed, with the whole event occurring so fast that her skull literally fell straight down through the space her body used to occupy and landing on the floor between her undamaged lower legs.

       This strange fire, therefore, had to have started from a spot somewhere within the Countess' lower torso, Bianchini claimed, perhaps caused by a gastro-intestinal imbalance of some sort... in short, a spontaneous internal combustion of a human body with near instantaneous destruction from the knees up.

        Binachini further proposed that alcohol was a contributing factor to the fire, for the Countess was said to be in the habit of bathing in a "camphorated spirit of wine" when she was feeling poorly, as she had been the night before. The idea proposed was basically that alcohol burns if a flame is introduced, therefore a person saturated with alcohol must also pick up that easy flammability... though most would acquire it through drinking, not bathing.

        Do note that Bianchini was not the first person to propose such a theory, but he was the first person to argue for thought-out scientific criteria that could be tested (however crude that criteria may seem now); and he commited to his theories by publishing a small booklet explaining the incident and his theory about it, as well as giving many examples of which he felt supported his conjectures.

        Nine years later, in an 1745 issue of the Philosophical Transactions magazine, a correspondant named Paul Rolli presented a copy of Bianchini's study, translated from Italian to English, and combined it with two more accounts of strange fire deaths. This shared Bianchini's theory regarding internal combustions to the majority grouping of European professors, scientists, and doctors, who were the main audience of the Philosophical Transactions. From there, said European scholars started to actively collect more accounts of strange fire deaths and tried to test Bianchini's ideas... thus starting what we now consider the history of "Spontaneous Human Combustion" as a scientific, and later paranormal, topic.

An Obvious Possibility?

        Bianchini, and those who proposed alternative theories regarding the Countess' death, all ignored the presense of the oil-lamp as a source for the possible fire; in fact, Bianchini stated: "It is impossible that, by any accident, the lamp should have caused such a conflagration." This, of course, is if you assume the idea of an instantaneous destruction is true.

        Given that the lamp was covered by ash -- and not just soot -- 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 air-born fat-saturated soot, a situation now commonly called the "wick effect."

        But a question still exists; since the Countess' burned skull was found lying between her un-burned legs, how did it get to that position if she started off in a heap on top of an oil-lamp found nearby? And Bianchini does not state exactly where the lamp was located in relation to the rest of the remains, just that it was covered with ashes; while this implies it was in the area of the Countess' remains, it's not clear. Still, it does exist as a possible starter of a fire, despite the beliefs expressed around three hundred years ago.