1779, February: Marie-Anne Jauffret’s Fiery Death

In May 1783, the Journal de Medecine in France received a letter from Mr. Muraire, who was the master of surgery in the province of Aix, which was a repose to a letter they had published earlier in the year regarding a very strange fire death in Caen [follow the 'See Also' link below for more]. Muraire had another strange death to share... and a ground-breaking theory.

        According to Muraire, the remains of Marie-Anne Jauffret were discovered sometime in February 1779. Jauffret was about sixty, the widow of shoemaker N. Gravier, and was graciously described by Muraire as 'small, very fat, and inclined to drink.' Muraire's friend, Mr. Roccas, investigated the death scene and then discussed the matter with Muraire.

        Jauffret was just a mass of ashes, with only a part of her skull, one hand, and one foot surviving the fire. Some other bones could be seen in the ashes, but these disintegrated at the slightest touch. The floor under the remains was saturated with fat. "Two paces" away from the remains was an 'intaglio table' set for supper; beneath this was a small hob for holding a fire, apparently to warm Jauffret as she sat at the table. The hob, however, had some obvious holes due to long use. One chair at the table was the only other object in the room displaying any fire damage; the seat and front feet were burned. Jauffret had last been seen alive about seven or eight hours previously.

Muraire's Theory

         Fire deaths similar to Jauffret's were an oft-discussed medical mystery at the time Muraire sent his letter to the journal; in fact, Muraire's letter was in response to a previous report of such a death that was requesting an explanation for what could have caused such an extreme, localized fire. Muraire had a few thoughts on the matter, which proved to be a mix of then-current theory, and an insight of his own.

        First off, a practical observation. Given the damaged hob under the table set for a meal, the fire damage to the front of the chair, and Jauffret's remains just a short distance away, Muraire was fairly sure that Jauffret's clothing had caught fire under the table while she was sitting at the meal, and that she had died while trying to get away from the table.

        And now Muraire's interesting thought: he felt that the effect of the fire could be explained by a combination of flammable human fat -- which Jauffret had much of -- and her clothing acting like the wick of a candle to maintain a burn. In candles, the wick maintains the flame by carrying molten wax up to the flame to feed it; the wick itself only burns when it can no longer transfer enough wax up to the flame, but as the wick grows shorter it's ability to transfer more wax is re-established... and this keeps going until all of the wax, and then what's left of the wick, are consumed.

       Muraire believed this was what was happening in these strange fire deaths as well. As clothing on fire caused the body facts of the victim to liquify, these flammable fats were then carried by the clothing to the fire, acting as a wick, and allowing a relatively slow flame to systematically break down the human body, ending by destroying the last remnants of the clothing. Limbs left behind were simply positioned where the clothing had not effectively transferred the flame to them. In Jauffret's case, Muraire stated she "was sensitive to the cold and overloaded with petticoats," which hopefully was reported by someone who had seen her the previous day.

        Muraire also believed that since Jauffret and Mlle. Thaurs -- who was subject of the earlier letter to the journal -- had both been known alcoholics, that it was likely they had also made themselves more prone to burning as alcohol itself was highly flammable. This was a common medical belief at the time, long since proven false... but Muraire's theory of the clothing and fat has since been proven to be an actual occurrence, commonly called the "Wick Effect" now.

        Unfortunately, Muraire's idea didn't catch on at the time; it wasn't until 1999 that the Wick Effect was fully tested and proven. And between 1779 and 1999, a LOT of strange ideas were put forward trying to explain and/or further mystify strange fire deaths such as Jauffret's, collectively known as "Spontaneous Human Combustion."