1836, October 1 (pre): Aunay Woman’s Fiery Death

A report concerning a strange death that was circulating in newspapers at the time was published in the French journal Medico-Chirurgical Review [Medical-Surgical Review] for October 1, 1836.

        The death occurred in the town of Aunay, in the department of Avalon, France. The victim, not named, was described as "a very fat woman, aged 74 years, and addicted to drinking brandy at 27 degrees." She lived alone. One evening she had returned home as usual; but, as her neighbors didn't see her appear the next morning as was usual for her, some knocked at her door to check up on her. There was no answer and, becoming alarmed, the neighbors eventually summoned the mayor. The mayor forced the door open.

        The room possessed "an extraordinary smell." The woman's remains, largely burnt to cinders, were lying near the chimney. At one end of this cinder pile was the upper part of the woman's body with one arm, and her head... at the other end of the cinder pile was one leg up to and including some of her "lower parts." The leg was wearing a "very clean" stocking and shoe. A "long train of grease" seeped from the location of the remains, and flickered with a blue flame. There was no other fire damage in the room.

        The mayor was unable to put out the fire on the grease, and called in further authorities. Upon investigation of the circumstances, officials came to the conclusion that the woman had been trying to ignite some embers by blowing on them... and that an ember then entered her body, causing her to combust. Presumably, her alcoholic habits had transferred the flammability of the alcohol to her own body, which is what caused the accident.

        It has since been demonstrated that ingested alcohol in no way makes a living body more likely to catch fire; but the officials' conjecture displays what the going beliefs regarding spontaneous human combustion were at the time.