1788: Chambermaid’s Fiery Death

In 1964, Allan W. Eckert presented the following short account in an article about spontaneous human combustion that he had written for a popular men's magazine:

"A recorded case in point occurred in 1788, when a young English chambermaid began burning vigorously across her back as she swept a kitchen floor, wholly unaware of what was happening. Only when her master entered the room and shouted did she turn her head, see the flames and scream. She died despite his efforts to extinguish the flames."

All modern references to this incident are simply repeats of Eckert's account above.

Did It Happen...?

        With no location given or person named, this brief story is near impossible to confirm. I've searched high and low without finding any reference to it previous to Eckert's work. There is also further reason to suspect the account is not true.

        This account is brought up in the part of the article where Eckert is asserting that in 'true' SHC occurrences, the victim cannot feel the fire and so does not resist the burning; so in context, the account of a woman unaware of being ablaze until it is pointed out to her is a timely example and proof of Eckert's assertion. However, if you ignore the account of the maid, Eckert's reasons for assuming victims don't feel the fire is not based on sound evidence.

        It was noticed right from the start that the remains of victims of the strange fire deaths attributed to SHC generally were found in one spot with little signs that the victim moved from where the fire had started... this was the primary reason that the first author on the matter, Rev. Giuseppe Bianchini, after examining the remains of the Countess Cornelia de Bandi, declared in 1731 that the fires must be near instantaneous combustions: because all of the remains were in one spot.

        A different view of this idea was presented in 1888, when Dr. J. Mackenzie Booth had the rare occasion to examine one of these strange fire deaths that had not destroyed the features of the face of the victim... and he found that the features of the victim, a retired soldier named Alexander Morrison, appeared fully relaxed and not in pain or panic. To Booth this meant that Morrison was likely already dead when the fire started, thus explaining why the victim neither resisted the fire, nor moved from the spot.

        Eckert has taken a different assumption on the matter by claiming the evidence shows that a person can burn to death without feeling it... but he has no evidence that would start to prove this idea without the 1788 maid story. Given that the rest of Eckert's article is full of historically inaccurate and false accounts of fire deaths, it's very likely Eckert simply invented the story of the chambermaid to support his claims, and set it back far enough in history to be hard to double-check.

        Now I've done the due diligence double-check though many older sources regarding SHC specifically, and fire deaths in general, and, having searched many, many, many times for any source earlier than 1964, I'm forced to mark this account as a 'False Lead,' a story that simply never happened.

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