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1847, June 13: Countess of Goerlitz’s Fiery Murder

The death of the Countess of Goerlitz in Darmstadt, Germany, on June 13, 1847, was very influential in spreading the concept of spontaneous combustion. Due to the infamy of the case, news of it was published all over Europe and the Americas in a variety of magazines and languages... which is interesting, since it was agreed in the end that her death was most certainly not a case of spontaneous combustion! Here’s the story.

        The night of June 13, 1847, started off quietly. The Countess' husband had gone out to dinner, and the Countess was in the habit of spending time alone in her rooms for half a day at a time... this evening, she had to "arrange some household matters," and most of the servants had been given the night off. So by 4 PM, only the Countess and one servant, a man named John Stauff, were in the house.

        About 7 PM, the Count returned home for a short while; he knocked on the Countess' door, but received no answer; he soon left again. During this second absense, neighbors living nearby noticed a bright light that quickly disappeared in one of the windows to the Countess' room; in addition, it was noted that the chimney associated with her room was billowing a thick smoke.

        At 9 PM, the Count returned for the second time. The servants had also returned by this time, and he sent them to fetch the Countess... but she still didn't answer her door, which was locked. No one could find the keys; soon, workmen were called in to break the doors open. Smoke billowed forth from the rooms, preventing the interior from being explored until someone forced opened a window; when this happened, flames immediately burst from the hangings, the Countess' writing-desk, and the floor under the desk. On the floor only a foot away from the burning desk was the body of the Countess, her feet towards the middle of the room and her head towards the window.

       The writing-desk was quickly extinguished, after which a second, smaller, fire was found in a small closet that contained an ottoman the Countess had sometimes taken naps on. The middle of the ottoman had an oval shaped hole that was smoldering; this was also extinguished. One of the Countess' slippers was on the floor in front of the ottoman.

        Around 11 PM that night, the scene of the Countess' death and her body were examined by Dr. von Siebold and the family doctor, Dr. Stegmayer; and the following morning the room and body were examined by Dr. Graff of the Hessian Medical College, who had been called in to investigate the causes and circumstances. The Countess' apartment was in disarray due to the fire-fighting efforts. The writing-desk was mostly consumed. Two candles on a chiffonnier 9 feet away from the Countess' body had completely melted, leaving their wicks behind. A mirror on the wall 15 feet away had cracked. The mirror and an oil painting both were obscured by a soft reddish material with black spots in it.

        The Countess' body lay on its left side, and her lower body was unharmed... but the clothing on her upper body was completely burned away, the flesh of her chest and neck were charred black, and her head was a near shapeless black mass that barely displayed a mouth with the tongue protruding slightly from it. The back of her torso was not as badly burned as the front. Her upper arms were flexed and charred, with the left shoulder and the right elbow joints laid open... her hands were not burned. Her clothing was only burned as far as the edges of where the body itself was burned.

        In considering that the Countess had been very healthy and vigorous, seen in good health the night before, that she had not called for assistance or seemingly resisted the fire, that there was an apparent lack of evidence for violence upon the Countess previous to her death, and that it seemed impossible that the fire that consumed the writing-desk and floor under it, which had not reached the Countess' body, could have produced the damage seen on her, Drs. Graff, von Siebold, and Stegmayer were led to the conclusion that the Countess' death may very well have been an example of the very rare phenomena called spontaneous human combustion. Dr. Graff's only hesitation in this matter was the possibility that the fire might have been purposely set to disguise a murder of the Countess, in which case the protruding tongue could be evidence of death by strangulation.

        Dr. Stegmayer stated that the Countess was not addicted to the use of spirituos liquors, nor could he say if there was anything in her mode of life that would make her prone to spontaneous combustion. What he did say, however, was that he himself had seen nothing nor heard anything from the servants that would lead him to think the Countess had been exposed to fire while alive. Both Dr. von Siebold and Dr. Stegmayer felt it was not reasonably possible to believe that an assassin would either attempt to kill the Countess by means of fire, or could produce the damage seen without risking either detection, or personal injury or death. It was conjectured that her head had spontaneously burst into flame first as she was lying on the ottoman in the parlour, thus the hole in the ottoman, the light seen in the window, and her slipper left in that area; she had attempted to run to the larger window near the writing-desk to seek help, but fell partway, igniting the desk, and lay in the position she was eventually found in.

More Evidence

        An inquest into the cause of death of the Countess was scheduled, but, before the inquest, further evidence began to appear that brought suspicion of murder into the question. Around the 26th of November, 1847, jewels that had belonged to the Countess were found in the possession of some relatives of John Stauff, the only servant who was in the house with the Countess when she was last seen alive.

        For the inquest, the Countess' body was disinterred and a full autopsy performed. In addition, a study of previous reports of supposed spontaneous human combustion deaths was performed by Dr. Graff, which led to the conclusion that the Countess' death did not fit the known description of the strange fire deaths. Previous accounts featured torsos that were completely destroyed, implying a fire that begain within the body... in comparison, the Countess's burns started at the surface, which implied an external source of flame. The Countess was not addicted to alcohol, sedantary in her lifestyle, nor fat, so she did not fit what was considered normal criteria for a spontaneous combustion victim. Her bones were found to be in good condition, unlike the reports of the fragile splintering bones said to be found in victims of spontaneous combustion. In short, she showed no resemblance to the alledged cases of spontaneous human combustion and, therefore, the inquest decided this was not what had caused her death or the condition she was found in.

        Excluding a supernatural fire, the evidence led to one conclusion... that the damage on the Countess' body was caused by the burning writing-desk, even though it was not in direct contact with her. This point was experimented with, and it was found that the radient heat from the burning desk was indeed enough to account for all of the damage on the Countess' body... assuming the Countess was already dead when the fire started to have its effect.

        It was decided that the likeliest scenario was that the Countess had been stunned by a blow, and then strangled. They disagreed on whether this had happened before or after the Count's short return home at 7 PM, but all agreed that the fire of the writing-desk had started after this visit.

        Given the circumstances, John Stauff was found guilty of the murder of the Countess, and sentenced to imprisonment for life. On September 7th, notices were released to the newspapers that Stauff had confessed to the murder. He stated that he had entered the Countess' rooms to tell her he was going out, but found her rooms empty and decided to pocket some of her valuables. The Countess surprised him; they struggled, and he strangled her... afterwards, he placed her body in a chair, and set a fire around it to cover up the crime.

Arguments and Re-Interpretations

        For at least thirty years after the events, the Countess of Goerlitz' death was used as proof against the possibility of spontaneous combustion. The argument was usually that scientific authorities, given a chance to examine a so-called spontaneous combustion death for a change, were able to show that it was all perfectly explainable... and, therefore, all previous cases of spontaneous human combustion death were likely just as explainable if only a competant scientific mind had been allowed to examine them. This argument, of course, ignored the fact that the main reason the Countess' death was ruled out as a spontaneous combustion death was that it didn't match the descriptions given for previous alledged cases of this matter... which meant that her death also did not represent a case of scientific minds examining a typical case of the so-called spontaneous combustion.

        At the other end of the scale, despite the clear evidence that the Countess of Goerlitz' death was a murder, about 120 years later it was once again reported as a case of spontaneous human combustion.

        This re-interpretation of the event was presented by Michael Harrison in his book Fire From Heaven, published in 1976. His argument was simple, though based on some assumptions... Harrison himself both believed in the existence of spontaneous human combustion, and also believed in the existence of an ancient and on-going conspiracy by scientific and medical authorities to cover up evidence of spontaneous human combustion. Because of these beliefs, he argued that the Countess really had died of spontaneous combustion, and that the innocent John Stauff had been framed as a murderer to cover-up the fact. This is not supported by the evidence of the trial, but for a whole new generation of spontaneous combustion theorists who had no access to the old court records or other printed evidence of the Countess' death, Harrison's interpretation became what was assumed to be correct; as such, his version of the story was repeated in new articles and books on spontaneous combustion from then on.