1799, December 21: Mrs. Bias’ Fiery Death

According to a report that Officer Neveux sent to the French journal Recueil périodique de la Société de Médecine de Paris [Periodical collection of the Society of Medicine of Paris] in 1800, he had investigated one of the strange fire deaths that was commonly attributed to 'spontaneous human combustion,' the proposed possibility of a person igniting from the inside of their bodies and burning to ashes for unknown reasons.

        On December 21, 1799, Officer Neveux was sent by the commissioner of the Pont Neuf division in Paris, France, to the home of Mrs. Bias, who was the wife of a police inspector... and I do mean was. Bias' remains were on the floor of the home. The trunk of her body was completely converted to a heap of coal that emitted a "fetid and penetrating odor." The muscles of the lower abdomen and the sternum were present but charred. Her head was blistered, and only one foot on the body appeared completely undamaged.

        Within the room, nothing else was burnt except a table near the body; a chair was nearby too, but not reported as damaged. Mrs. Bias had last been seen alive two hours earlier, when some of her neighbors had talked to her.

A Dilly of a Date

        The original report by Officer Neveux was issued during the short period of time that France was using the French Republican Calendar... therefore the date of the occurrence was reported as "30 Frimaire, Year 8 of the Republic," which obviously needs to be converted to a more familiar calendar system. Online conversions set this date as corresponding to December 21, 1799, which is the date I use above... but not the most commonly reported date for this event. Here's why.

        In 1838, well-known French forensic physician and author François-Emmanuel Fodéré re-published the details of this account within a larger study of the topic of spontaneous human combustion... and when he converted the date for the event, he said it was "Le 30 frimaire an 8 (environ le 10 décembre 1799)"... which is December 10, 1799, instead of December 21. Because Fodéré's work on the matter was soon well-known, his detail of the December 10 date was what continued to appear in newer mentions of the case, despite being wrong. Which is why I'm always thrilled to find a different calendar system has been used when researching past events: wheeeeeee.

Two for One?

        A new variation of the account above appeared in Jenny Randles and Peter Hogue's 1992 book Spontaneous Human Combustion, where they -- presumably mistakenly -- state that both Mr. & Mrs. Bias were found in an incinerated state. Randles & Hogue also get the date wrong for this event, claiming it happened in 1779, not 1799. Since they give their sources for this as "historical archives traced and researched" -- which is their way of saying "we're not telling you" -- it's anyone's guess why they got the date wrong.

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