1843, December 23 (ca.): Mrs. M’Donald’s Fiery Death

The following event was reported in The Times, newspaper of London, England, which describes the odd death of Mrs. M'Donald of Scotland, presumably on Saturday, December 23, 1843 (I'll explain the 'presumably' in a moment).

        Mrs. M'Donald, who was locally known as a 'spae-wife' -- a fortune teller -- had been discovered dead of fire in her own home. The neighbors must have suspected something was wrong, for we are told they enter Mrs. M'Donald's home to look for her; they had to "strike a light" to search inside, as the house was very dark. Mrs. M'Donald's remains were found sitting on the floor, "quite dead from burning;" there was no fire in evidence, and only Mrs. M'Donald and her clothes were burnt. Mrs. M'Donald was 'given to drink;' it was generally believed she had sat down to smoke her pipe using a 'lucifer match,' and had accidentally lit her clothes afire.

        “Lucifer matches” were a brand of match that had a chemical head that was ignited by being drawn across sand or glass paper; the name “lucifer” was also used by a number of other similar matches, most of a questionable quality that could spark, drip, and, in some cases, fire up if stepped upon.

A Note on the Date of the Event... oh, and One More Thing

        So, regarding the date given above of 'Saturday, December 23, 1843'... I stated that the event 'presumably' occurred on that date. The reason why is because this would be the Saturday before the article's printing in The Times, a newspaper of London, England; the article, however, was taken by them from the Stirling Observer, newspaper of Stirlingshire, Scotland, and we are not told when the story ran in that paper... so the event may have occurred on an earlier Saturday. I'll try to track the original printing.

        Despite the article being titled "Spontaneous Combustion," it would seem clear that the author in no way felt that Spontaneous Human Combustion was actually involved in Mrs. M'Donald's death. In fact, the main point to the original article was not so much to report the unusual death of Mrs. M'Donald, as to make fun of both her presupposed abilities to predict the future and the people who consulted her:

"She was rather famous in town as a ‘spae-wife,’ or fortune-teller, and we learn was patronized not only by serving girls and such others as are usually called ‘silly taupies,’ but even by those who wish to pass for the educated classes of our female population. These and all others must blush at their own credulity in putting confidence in a poor stupid creature whose gropings into futurity could not indicate to her the miserable fate which befel her, as is believed, through her own folly. Such, we should suppose, must now see that they have been duping themselves by becoming slaves to a criminal ignorance, entirely disgraceful to their parents, to their teachers, to themselves, and to the community among whom they live, who cannot account for such gross stupidity among those who have had no small degree of care bestowed upon their education."

Downright insulting to the people who consulted with Mrs. M'Donald; and di you note it was assumed they were all women?

        Now, whether Mrs. M'Donald could predict the future or not is neither here nor there, as there's just no way to follow up on that now. However, I will mention a pattern I've noticed with other people that are claimed to have foresight; their foresight generally only works for other people, and attempts to view or predict their own fortunes usually ends very badly. So, if people can see the future, there may be some sort of rule that prevents them from seeing and exploiting their own. Just a thought.

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