1847, January 6: Unknown Man’s Fiery Death

On January 6, 1847, a 71-year-old man was found in an amazing state of combustion by his family. He had last been seen alive the night before when, as was his usual practice, he had a hot brick placed at his feet in bed; two hours later his son and daughter-in-law had passed by his door but noticed nothing unusual. It wasn't until morning, when his grandson entered the room to check on him, that his body was discovered. 

        The room was filled with a dense smoke; it was asserted that, initially, small whitish flames were seen playing around the body... these receded from the first person who approached. The clothes and bed coverings had been almost completely destroyed; The man's body had been horribly burnt, reduced to charcoal in some parts. The hands were only attached to the arms by the carbonized tendons, and his thighs were completely detached from the body. Despite all this evidence of an intense combustion, the wood of the bed frame was only partially burnt. 

        Under the circumstances, the son and daughter-in-law were accused of murdering the man, and burning his body to cover the crime. A re-examination of the body led the main investigator to consider the man's death to be more likely caused by a form of spontaneous combustion commonly known as "preternatural combustibility," which supposes a person's body can become abnormally combustible under the right circumstances. This investigator felt the man's abnormally burnable body was accidentally ignited by the hot brick at his feet or, alternatively, by the matches he was known to carry in his waistcoat pocket. It was also noted that the man was neither fat nor prone to drunkenness, the temperature that night had been low, and there had been no electricity in the air, which eliminated four commonly proposed causes for spontaneous combustion in this case.

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