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1776: Don G. Maria Bertholi’s Strange Death

In 1776, Don G. Maria Bertholi, a priest, traveled to a fair in the town of Filetto, Italy, and spent the day traveling about the area doing various jobs. As evening approached, Bertholi walked to the house of one of his brothers-in-law who lived in Fenille to spend the night. He retired to his given room immediately, put a handkerchief between his shoulders and shirt, then settled down to prayer as the rest of the household also retired for the night. A few minutes later, a loud noise was heard to issue from the priest's room, followed by his cries of pain and alarm.

        The family all rushed to investigate, and found Bertholi extended on the floor and surrounded by a faint flame which "retired to a greater distance in proportion as it was approached," disappearing entirely after a short time. Bertholi was moved to bed and given what help the family could manage, and in the morning Dr. Joseph Battaglia was summoned. Battaglia was astounded by what he found and at a loss to explain it.

       Much of the upper skin of Bertholli's right arm was almost entirely detached from the underlying muscles and hanging loose on his arm; the same seemed to be true from his shoulder to his thigh (though Dr. Battaglia didn't specify if this effected one or both sides of Bertholi's body). This loose skin was removed. Bertholi's right hand, which seemed to have received the greatest damage, was already showing signs of decomposition... Battaglia amputated it immediately to prevent gangrene (poisoning of the body from a rotting section). Unfortunately, all the wounded areas were showing signs of decomposition within the next day, and Bertholi was extremely sick, constantly thirsty, convulsing, vomiting, feverish and delusional. The priest died the fourth day after the strange occurrence. By this time, the decomposition of the damaged areas of his body was advanced enough to smell of rot, and was already infested with 'worms' [likely maggots] which issued forth onto the bed.

        During his visits with Bertholi, Dr. Battaglia tried to extract as much of what the priest could tell him of what had actually happened. All Bertholi could say was that initially he had felt as if somebody had struck him on the right arm with a large club, and that at the same moment he had seen a "spark of fire" attach itself to his shirt and reduce it to ashes, leaving the wristbands undamaged. When his family found him on the floor, the handkerchief he had placed between his shoulders and shirt was intact and undamaged, as was his underwear. His night-cap had been destroyed, but none of his hair was damaged.

        Dr. Battaglia stated that the damage he saw was consistent with "severe burning." The room had no trace of fire in it other than the strange flame described above; there was no smell of smoke or burning. A lamp in the room that had been full of oil was found to be dry, with the wick almost all ashes. Battaglia found that the only cause he could suggest was the old supposition that sometimes lightning could be kindled within a human body... in short, Spontaneous Human Combustion... though given the strange advance of the rot, this matter seems to be entirely stranger.