1832 (pre): Anne Nelis’ Fiery Death

In writing his 1832 entry on "Spontaneous Combustion" for the Cyclopædia of Practical Medicine, James Upjohn reported the circumstances around the death of a woman named Anne Nelis. Apjohn doesn't say when the event occurred.

        Nelis was the wife of a wine and porter merchant living in Dublin, Ireland. On the Saturday night in question, Mrs. Nelis had let her husband in between midnight and 1:00AM -- he had been at a party -- and they proceeded to have an argument; both were drunk at the time. Mr. Nelis went upstairs to go to bed, but came back down after some time to ask his wife to join him; she flatly refused. Mr. Nelis responded by taking her candle upstairs with him, stating that if she planned to stay up then she could do that in the dark.

        The next morning the maid servant opened the windows of the back parlour, letting in light, and noticed something in the arm-chair Mrs. Nelis normally sat in. As the Nelis' child came in to try and scare her, the maid went to look at the chair, fully expecting it had something in it left by the child earlier... and that's how Mrs. Nelis' remains were first discovered.

        The chair was near the wall, which was helping to support the remains, and was "at a distance from the fire," which was out. Mrs. Nelis' head was leaning on her right hand; her torso and the clothing there were "burned to a cinder," though her pelvic area, legs, arms, and head, as well as the clothing associated with these areas, were intact. Mrs. Nelis' face had a scorched appearance, but her hair "and the papers she had put in it" were undamaged. The back and seat of the chair were also undamaged, but the arms of it were charred on the inner side that would have been near Mrs. Nelis' body.

        Nothing else in the room was fire damaged, though there was a "penetrating and offensive odour" in the air that lasted for days afterwards. Mrs. Nelis had been about 45 years old, and was described as being short with "a tendency to corpulence." She was also a "confirmed drunkard." There had been no inquest made into the nature of her death at the time; and the family refused a request from a doctor to examine the body, presumably because they wanted to hide the circumstances of the death. Apjohn expressed that he and his researchers "have experienced very considerable difficulty in collecting" the details of the case, though he was confident what he was reporting was accurate.

A Note from Garth

        So here's the line that intrigues me most about this whole matter at the moment:

"Her face had a scorched appearance; but her hair, and the papers she had put in it, had entirely escaped."

By context, it sounds as if the paper was either of decorative purpose or for holding the hair in place... but I'm certainly no expert in this field. So if anyone out there has good knowledge of Victorian hair styling and could shed a historic light on this matter, I'd appreciate it!

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