1866: Englishman’s Fiery Corpse
In 1865, a 30-year-old gentleman died of typhoid fever in the south of England. The body was interred in a family vault under a parish church in Garston, placed in a metal coffin and then an oaken one [this arrangement may have been meant to prevent his corpse from being stolen, a common fear of the time].
Thirteen months later, a very foul smell filled the church... it was found it came from a crevace that led to the vault, so the vault was opened. The two coffins the man's corpse had been placed in had "burst opposite to the breast," and liquid was oozing out. The coffins were filled with sawdust, and the vault was left open to allow it to air out; the gas in the church was turned off at the meter, and all was left for the night.
The following morning, workmen found the vault burning with a bluish flame and an offensive odor; the flames were snuffed out by throwing water and earth on fire. At this point, it was clear that it had been the man's corpse and oaken coffin that had been burning... all that was left of them was a silver plate off the coffin and a portion of the corpse's intestines. Another coffin in the vault, a short distance away, was slightly burned on the side. The church had still been secured from the night previous, and nothing other than the coffin in the vault had burned.
Though many of the people at the time suspected spontaneous combustion of the body, it was also found that one of the workmen had been smoking in the vault the night before, and may have left a lit paper behind. It was supposed therefore by some that had this paper ignited either the sawdust or the wood of the coffin, or if the putrifaction of the body had produced flammable gases, then these all together might have been enough to explain the strange occurrence, though the complete destruction of the bones made some hesitate to accept this proposition.