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1867, February 15: Andrew Nolte’s Fiery Death

On February 15, 1867, in the town of Columbus, Indiana, USA, around 8:00 am, smoke was seen issuing from a liquor store owned by a German man named Andrew Nolte. Nolte was found dead in his shop, lying on the floor behind the counter near a whisky barrel. His lips were entirely burned away, his tongue charred, and the inside of his mouth and throat were both "burned to a crisp". His nose was burned as if fire had expelled from the nostrils. His cloths were still burning when he was discovered, and his body was scorched where the burning clothing touched it, but otherwise there was no more fire damage. His hands were drawn up to his mouth, "as if to close it or shut off some dreaded thing from it." There was no fire in the room other than that upon the body.

       It was noted the Nolte was a heavy drinker to start with, and that he had recently been far more drunk than usual, because of his wife applying for a divorce due to his drunkeness. It was supposed that he may have ignited his own breath while lighting a cigar, based on the then common assumption that drunkards had more flammable breath and body tissues than non-drinkers. The case was labeled as spontaneous combustion by the newspapers even though, technically, this is more a case of preternatural combustibility in description since the flame appears to have been introduced to his body which then burned in an abnormal way. It should also be noted that this case was reported to at least one newspaper by a dentist, named Dr. M.L. Whitesides.

Dickens on the Trail 

        Charles Dickens in the preface of his novel, Bleak House, defends the death by spontaneous human combustion of a character named Krook by citing several cases in real life to support himself. In a later footnote added in 1868 to this preface, he writes:

"Another case [of spontaneous human combustion], very clearly described by a dentist, occurred at the town of Colombus, in the United States of America, quite recently. The subject was a German, who kept a liquor-shop, and was an inveterate drunkard."

Detail-wise and date-wise, I believe it's safe to say that Andrew Nolte's death is the event Dickens was citing in the above passage.