1811, January 17: Ignatius Meyer’s Fiery Death

In the December 1814 issue of the French Journal de Medecine, Chirurgie, et Pharmacie [Journal of Medecine, Surgery, and Pharmacy], a report from a Dr. Scherf of Dertmold, Germany, was translated and presented detailing the results of his investigation into a strange fire death reported in the village of Woertelfeld, within bailiwick of Schwalenberg, County Lippe, Germany. Dr. Scherf went to the village after he had heard of the event to interview five eyewitnesses of it. Scherf felt the witnesses and matter were credible, even though the family of the victim refused his request to exhume the body for an autopsy.

        On January 17, 1811, in the village of Woertelfeld, 48-year-old Ignace Meyer (or Ignatius Meyer), who had always experienced poor health, met his odd fate. Just after 9:00AM that morning, smoke was seen to be leaving the room Meyer slept in. His nephew and brother opened the door to investigate, only to get a face full of a foul-smelling smoke that forced them to enter the room with their heads near the floor to breath. They soon could see that the bed was burning, and so they threw water at it to douse the fire... it took ten to twelve buckets to do it, after which they discovered Meyer's remains. The two men immediately called in three friends and relatives to witness the matter; and these witnesses, as well as Meyer's nephew and brother, were the five people who Scherf later interviewed.

        Meyer's face had been reduced to charcoal, covered with a thick, "gleaming" crust. His hair was all burned away, and the charring of his head ended at his neck, at the edge of the blanket covering his body. Underneath the remains of his head, Meyer's pillow was scorched and the plain wood bed was charred. Meyer's mouth was tightly closed; the fire that destroyed his face had also tightened the muscles of the jaw so it could not be opened. Meyer's right arm, which was outside of the blanket and folded towards his head, was stiff but undamaged... the right hand, however, was black and "quite burnt;" the fingers permanently stuck in a bent position. The entirety of Meyer's body that was covered by the blanket was undamaged; the only other part of his body that had been burned was the big toe on his right foot, which had been poking through a hole in his stocking.

        Meyer was lying on his left side with his knees drawn up to his lower abdomen, and they were too stiff to move. The pillow was scorched, but the blanket and thin mattress were undamaged by fire, though they were covered by an oily and tar-like soot. Meyer's clothes under the blanket were undamaged. The fire had apparently come from the right side of the bed, and had burned the bed's feet near Meyer's head so bad that the bed was inclined in that direction.

        Due to a prescription a local doctor had given Meyer, he had become addicted to brandy and was on most nights brought to bed drunk. This was true of the night before his death; around 8:00PM that night, his sixteen-year-old nephew had essentially carried Meyer to his bed, where Meyer lay down without undressing, which was not unusual for him. The room had no fire in it; there was a lamp suspended above the table near his bed, but it was unlit, which was confirmed around 9:00PM that night when someone had checked on Meyer and found him sleeping deeply in the dark room. There was a bottle of water on the table by the bed.

        Scherf was quite sure after his questioning that there was nothing in the room that would have normally started the fire -- no candles, charcoal, or tobacco products, and Meyer had not been a smoker. A suggestion had been made to Scherf that Meyer may have belched a flamible gas that had ignited him, but Scherf rejected this because the evidence indicated the fire had started on the right side of the bed while Meyer was facing left. In the room above where Meyer had died, residents had noticed the increase in heat from below. It took a good month before the smell of the horrid smoke could no longer be detected in the room.

        Scherf himself felt the cause of Meyer's death was caused by an "idio-electric state" brought on by the cold of the night which then ignited hydrogen gas in the air, burning the parts of Meyer's body that were exposed to open air.

Do Note

        In later retellings of this matter, having been translated to English by 1817, the fire damage to the legs of the bed fail to be mentioned.

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