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1852, July 29: John Anderson’s Fiery Death

On July 29, 1852, 50-year-old John Anderson, who carted wood between the forest of Darnaway and the pier of Nairn, in Scotland, died of fire under some unusual circumstances.

        Anderson was a drunkard by all accounts, but the sort of drunkard who loses his physical abilities before he loses his mental... thus he was largely able to work and function just fine even when drunk. Anderson was seen leaving Nairn that day with a load of hay and already intoxicated; he also stopped at a "public" in one of the villages he passed through for more to drink, and was described as coming out on "all fours." He was traveling later that day with another carter, who was sober; Anderson asked this man to light his pipe at one point, but this companion had the sense of mind to pretend to try and light the pipe but claim it wasn't going to work, rather than hand the drunken man a burning pipe. This man was to later state that Anderson rarely lit his own pipe, and was not known to carry matches for this purpose. 

        A few minutes later, the two men parted company, heading in different directions at the toll-gate of Harmuir. The weather was warm and dry. Less than a half-mile further on, Anderson's cart was noticed by a herd-boy about a quarter-mile away who spotted smoke coming from it. As the boy watched, Anderson descended from the cart, stood still for a moment, then staggered and fell... the horses pulling the cart stood still, apparently not reacting to this event. A few minutes later, the herd-boy saw smoke rising from the ground where the man had fallen and, running to see what had happened, he found Anderson "lifeless, black, disfigured, and burning." The herd-boy ran to a nearby cottage and returned with a woman and a water-pail, and the two of them extinguished the flames using water from a rivulet next to the road... a total of about fifteen minutes had elapsed from the boy seeing Anderson fall to the extinguishing of the flames. 

        Anderson's body lay on its back, black, stiffened, and incinerated. His face was destroyed: his eyes, ears, and nose were burned away, the remainder of his face and head charred. The burning had stopped midway between his knees and feet, and his back was not destroyed as badly as his front, which was mostly charred. the part of his internal organs that were examined were in reasonable, unburnt, condition. All of Anderson's clothing had been destroyed by the fire except for the lower leg parts of his trousers and a small bit of clothing that was between his body and the ground. 

        When the body was moved, Anderson's pipe was discovered underneath it, still capped and unused, as it had been handed to him earlier. None of the hay in his cart was burned.

Theories & Observations

        The primary investigator of this incident, John Grigor (who was asked to investigate by Procurator-Fiscal of the county of Nairn), immediately felt it was clear that Anderson had accidently set his own clothes aflame while trying to light his pipe and, being too drunk to respond properly, likely suffocated on the smoke from the clothing... being dead, he then wouldn't resist the further burning as the clothing was fully consumed. 

        But on a second thought in the matter, he found several points that raised a question in his mind. Th fact this event happened in open air, with a lack of fire evidence anywhere other than on the body; the fact that Anderson was seen getting down and standing, and that his body was found on its back; and Anderson's lack of attempt to throw off burning clothing, or to quench the flames in the rivulet that was nearby, and the short amount of time -- just 15 minutes -- in which all the fire damage had occurred... these all bothered Grigor, and led him to the conclusion that this was not a burning death of the ordinary kind. Clearly, the flame had not started within Anderson's body, as only his exterior was burned, so he had not died of spontaneous internal combustion... so Grigor concluded that Anderson's death was likely an example of the proposed condition called "preternatural combustibility," wherein it is believed a person can make their body more flammable than normal and be burned to death from ignition by a small outside flame. 

        The editor of the magazine that presented Grigor's account stated he felt this idea was wrong. Both the editor and modern skeptics take the stance that Anderson ignited his clothes while trying to light his pipe and burned to death; end of story. Still, it seems strange that a man -- drunk or not -- could calmly climb down off a cartload of hay and stand still until suffocation caused him to pass out; the extent of the burning seems very unusual for the short time it had to work in; and, if an argument is made for Anderson's clothing as having acted as a wick to facilitate burning, then it must be noted that Anderson's face likely had no clothing covering his eyes, ears, and nose that would allow these parts to burn further than the rest of his head. Finally, of course, his pipe was found under his body, closed and unlit.