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1822, September 5: Renateau’s Burning Hands

In 1822, a Dr. Moulinnié reported a strange event that he had investigated to a French medical journal.

        On September 5, 1822, a 40-year-old blacksmith named Renateau in the village of Loignan, three miles from Bordeaux, France, was walking home with a girl on a hot day. It was around four in the afternoon, and they were within a hundred paces of his home when he felt a sharp pain in the index finger of his right hand; upon looking, he found it crackling with flame. He quickly closed his thumb and middle finger to extinguish the flame, with the result that both digits also caught on fire. In his attempts to extinguish the flames, Renateau burned two finger-sized holes into his pants, and then set his pocket [in this case, a small bag tied to a belt] on fire. As he quickly tried to remove the garment, he then accidentally touched his left hand with his right... and his left hand started to burn also.

        Renateau ran home and asked his wife to fetch him a bucket of water, which she did. He plunged his hands into the water; but when he pulled them out a short time later, his hands were still burning. He next stuck his hands in mud, but it also failed to stop the strange fire. At this point a very devout young lady told him to try holy water; she fetched him a bowl of it, he put his hands in it... and the flames finally ceased.

More to the Story

        The above account is roughly what was translated to English and presented in British and American medical journals reporting the account at the time. Because the fire was stated to have been extinguished by holy water, the account was considered to be a good story... but nothing more. The English translation, however, was missing the rest of Dr. Moulinnié's investigation of the matter. 

        Dr. Moulinnié became involved after the event occurred, having traveled to Loignan to investigate specifically because of his own personal doubt of the story's veracity; but also because he realized that the story might be jumped on as evidence for the existence of spontaneous human combustion, the proposed possibility of people bursting into flames and reducing to ashes from inside their bodies... which was another thing the good doctor doubted was true. 

        Dr. Moulinnié talked to all the witnesses, and examined Renateau's wounds directly... he described them as being blisters of various sizes, some filled with pus. He examined the pants with the two holes in them, and the pocket-bag that had caught fire. Overall, he felt he had no reason to doubt the story as it was told, due to the openess and consistency of the witnesses in describing the event. In fact, his only hesitation was in regards to the statement that holy water saved the day... which is the same detail that made English readers doubt the story. 

        Upon being questioned, Renateau cleared up this last problem. The fire, he said, had largely been dowsed before the holy water was brought in; so it ended the flames, but only because dipping them into any water at that point probably would have extinguished them. 

        But what started the flames? How did they keep burning? Dr. Moulinnié felt the case wasn't related to spontaneous human combustion because the burns were only 2nd degree burns, and they were only on the extremities. He instead guessed that the event could have been caused by either "electrical phenomena," or by combustibles of one sort or another in the atmosphere that ignited Renateau's hands.