1821, February 22: Vatin's Fiery Death

In an 1870 article on the topic of spontaneous human combustion, Alexander Ogston summarized an odd fire death that he claimed was reported in 1821.

        On February 22, 1821, Dr. Tolson and the surgeon Lelarge were ordered by the magistracy to go to the home of a man named Vatin, in Beauvais, France, to ascertain the cause of this man's death. Tolson and Lelarge arrived at 9:00AM, shortly after Vatin's remains had been found.

        Vatin was over sixty years old, "tall and very fat," and a former beer-brewer. He wasn't very active, and alcoholic; he had a sore on the left side of his head which often bled and apparently couldn't be cured. He had once previously attempted suicide by means of burning charcoal -- though exactly how isn't mentioned -- and he had spoken to neighbors about the possibility of trying again.

        On the evening of February 21, Vatin had visited a neighbor; he headed home at 11:00PM. A woman who lived in the same house as Vatin saw him put his light out and go to bed at midnight. The following morning at 8:00AM, a thick smoke was found coming from the cracks around the door to Vatin's room; neighbors forced the door open, and discovered Vatin's remains lying on the floor burning. We are told "it took a good deal of water to extinguish."

        When Tolson and Lelarge arrived, the room was still full of thick, unpleasant smelling smoke... Vatin's body was on the floor, several steps away from the bed. The water used to extinguish the flames "contained a good deal of fat." A chair which had fallen in the direction of the body was partly burnt; near this was a vessel for coal, with a small amount of half-burned chunks.

        Compared to the rest of the room, Vatin's corpse was in shockingly bad shape. His face was puffed-up and blackish-red, "as in death by suffocation;" his left arm and left upper torso had been reduced to calcined bits of bone, and the back and sides of Vatin's neck had been destroyed down to the vertebra. his right arm rested across his stomach, but the hand and part of the forearm had been destroyed by fire. In his torso, Tolson and Lelarge found Vatin's lungs, heart, and liver, all shrunk, dried, and bloodless... all other innards were gone. Vatin's left thigh was just ashes; his right thigh had been reduced to bone.

        Other than the coals in the vessel, which had been purchased on the previous evening, nothing else in the room had been consumed by fire. Tolson and Lelarge could only conclude that Vatin had been killed by suffocation, after which the embers from the vessel of coal must have ignited him body... but given the "extensive destruction of the body in so short a time," they also concluded that Vatin must have been unusually flammable, a proposed condition known as 'preternatural combustibility.'

        Personally speaking, I'm not sure how an eight-hour stretch -- from midnight to 8:00AM, remember -- counts as "so short a time." I imagine it's quite enough time for much of the destruction to have occurred; so the real problem facing Tolson and Lelarge was just how a few coal embers could have so completely destroyed Vatin.

My Source's Source

        Ogston claimed the story above was from the German journal Encyclopadie der gesammten Staatsarzneikunde, which I can't yet track down to double-check the details of this account. So, while intriguing, I have to treat this account as 'Unreliable' as evidence of the paranormal until I can find the earlier source.

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