1780~1781: Unknown Woman’s Fiery Death

In 1813, François-Emmanuel Fodéré, as part of a larger article on Spontaneous Human Combustion -- the proposed possibility of a human igniting from inside their body and burning to ashes -- shared a few details a friend of his had told him regarding just such a strange incident.

        According to Fodéré, sometime in 1780~1781 his "learned colleague" Louis Valentin was in the town of Caen, France, when a 60-year-old woman was discovered reduced to just a skull, two undamaged feet, and a small quantity of ashes. Valentin reported that the whole house smelt of burnt fat... in fact, he stated it was 'crowded' with the smell. The woman's remains had been found "at some distance" from the fireplace, which had a small fire in it. Only the floor under the remains "was a little burnt," with no other damage reported. The woman was "addicted to strong liquors" and had a passion for looking after or caring for animals... it's unclear if she just liked pets, or if she actively treated illnesses.

A Spin in 1838

        Twenty-five years later, the account above was translated from its original French to English and included in an article in the October 27 edition of The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction which listed off several cases attributed to spontaneous combustion... but some of the translation went wonky. Whereas Valentin had originally reported the house was "crowded with the smell of burnt fat," this 1838 article stated "people flocked in crowds to the house, which exhaled an odour of burnt fat," thus creating a new detail that didn't exist before.

        Another strangely amusing mistranslation came around the description of the woman's interests in animals, which I've pointed out is unclear as to her actual intent. The 1838 article bypassed the vaguary by stating she had "a fancy for petting animals," which sounds a bit questionable, really.

        Because this 1838 article appears to be the first translation of the original publication to English, most English language articles and books on SHC that mention this case now also report these incorrect details.

        Of course, a bigger problem for this account is the simple fact that Fodéré's reporting of it comes around thirty-three years after the event would have happened; even if Valentin was a direct witness, that's a lot of time for details to get jumbled. It's possible that an earlier report exists in local French newspapers, but until I can find such it's up to you individually to decide what to think of this particular account.

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