1820, January 13: Two Fiery Deaths in Nevers

On the morning of January 13, 1820, a young woman who acted as an assistant servant for an 90-year-old woman, identified as "Mrs. P--", and her 66-year-old servant in Nevers, France, unlocked the door to the woman's house to enter for the day... only to be met by an offensively odorous smoke that threatened to suffocate her. She called for help, and soon neighbors to investigate the matter as the smoke dissipated enough to allow them to enter the house.

        Once they could see, it was found that one of the two beds in the house, the one belonging to Mrs. P-- (the other being the servant's), had been completely converted to ashes... though it still held it's original shape. When touched by one of the investigators, the entirety of the bed collapsed into a mere pile of ash. Some of them checked the fireplace and found there was nothing burning in it; it appeared to have burned itself out some time earlier for want of wood. They looked closer at the strange ash-bed... and found a foot.

        It was a right foot, still wearing a stocking and shoe, quickly identified as belonging to the 66-year-old servant of whom no other trace was evident. The position of the foot implied the servant had been lying across Mrs. P--'s bed. In the ashes they found the skull of Mrs. P--, in a place corresponding to where her head would have been had she been lying on the bed. A bit of the flesh of her neck remained, apparently protected by a red kerchief that she had been wearing, which had also been near consumed.

        Furniture near the ashed bed -- the servant's bed, a table and chairs, and other furniture -- were undamaged. A wooden clock that hung on the wall beside Mrs. P--'s bed had also been converted to ashes, and also fell apart at the merest touch. The room had no ceiling, but the beams and rafters immediately above Mrs. P--'s bed were not burned; but they were colored black and very hot.

        Many of the neighbors recalled having detected an obnoxious odor in the neighborhood the previous evening around 10:00PM... but since no one saw smoke coming from any buildings, and they knew a Carmelite nun had died in the neighborhood that morning, it was assumed that the odor was the remains of the nun being burned so no one investigated further. This would seem to mean that the mysterious fire likely started around 10:00PM on the 12th, then had the whole of the night to work it's horrific magic.

Theories!

        Dr. Charpentier, who reported on the above incident to the Society of the College of Physicians of Paris, noted many factors that he felt added up to a cause of death in this unusual case. First he pointed out that despite the fact that Mrs. P-- was reasonably well off (she had an income of 6000 francs per month), she and the servant ate very little food and instead relied heavily on 'eau de Cologne', brandy, and wine (served hot and well-sugared!) as sustenance. Also, and not surprisingly, the 90-year-old and 66-year-old alcoholics were not in good health.

        Charpentier then noted that the night of the 12th was extremely cold: it was 14 degrees Fahrenheit outside (water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit). The night was calm, and the air dry. With all of this on the record, Charpentier then shared his unique opinion that the alcoholism of the two women had led them to a state of 'Preternatural Combustibility' -- a proposed state of being far easier to burn than normal people -- and that they were then ignited by electric activity in the air caused by the weather.

        Of course, being drunk on an extremely cold day could also have led to the women having trouble while starting a fire, which is something to consider.