1825, January 25: The Seamstress' Flaming Finger

In an 1870 article on the topic of spontaneous human combustion, Alexander Ogston summarized an odd fire that he claimed was reported in 1825.

        On February 25, 1825, a 17-year-old seamstress was checked into the Hamburg General Infirmary in Hamburg, Germany, with the palm of her left hand studded with blisters, and complaining of a painful burning sensation in her left forearm... and she had an interesting story to go with it. The problem had begun, she said, on January 21. She was busy sewing that evening when she felt her body quickly increasing in temperature, which soon became focused in the index finger of her left hand. As she was removing wax from a window, she felt a "violent sensation of burning" in her finger... which was now surrounded by a blue flame, between an inch to an inch-and-a-half, and smelled of sulfer.

         She tried to douse this strange fire in water, and wrapped a wet towel around it... but neither extinguished the flame. In fact, when she dipped her finger in water, the whole of her hand then appeared to be aflame. Alarmed, she hurried home from work with her hand wrapped in her apron; the apron and her clothes caught on fire, but the flames from these were only visible when she was in the dark. Once home, she spent the rest of the night applying milk to the flaming finger, which eventually made the flame go out, but the painful burning sensation remained, and the smell of sulfer frequently came from her hand. After a month of trying to treat the problem herself, she finally checked into the Hamburg General Infirmary.

        When she was checked in with the blisters on her left hand, her middle finger had the largest one; and over the new few days a new blister developed on the tip of her ring finger, along with a further feeling of burning. In addition to the blisters and burning sensation, the seamtress had "some gastric symptoms," and she was said to have "shrunk frequently together"... which Ogston interpreted as meaning she was either passing out, or having chills and thus holding her body together to warm up.

        Whatever may be said of the seamtress' condition and complaints, there was actual evidence that her left arm had a higher temperature than her right arm, as a thermometer showed "on the 27th February the left hand was at 25°, the right hand, on the contrary, only 17° (88° and 70°, Fahrenheit)." The seamstress' odd condition gradually diminished over time, vanishing completely by the end of March.

        Having passed on this strange report, Ogston then shared his opinion that the seamstress had probably created "an imaginary history" to explain the blisters on her hand... which is a gentlemanly way of accusing her of lying.

My Source's Source

        Ogston claimed the story above was from the German journal Literarische Annalen der gesammten Heilkunde Vol. 2, which was published in 1825, which would be wonderful... as a source, it would be less than a year after the event is said to have happened. At the moment, however, I only have access to Vol. 1 and Vol. 3, both of which were also published in 1825; so I still have to find a copy of Vol. 2 before I can double-check the details of this account.

        So, while intriguing, I have yet to confirm that Ogston is reporting the event correctly.

        Having said that, however, it's impossible to not note that around the same period of time there were other reports of people with flaming hands... whether they are all related is a guess, but their occurrences close in time is interesting. Follow the 'See Also' link below for more!