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1869, August 1: Paris Woman’s Fiery Death

The Legend:

Sometime in 1869, a woman was found in Paris, France, burned to death in unburned cloths and on an unburned bed.

The Actual Event 

       On August 1, 1869, a 37-year-old woman was found strangely burned to death in Paris, France. She had last been seen by her husband around five o'clock that evening when she had returned home; she went to the bedroom. Two hours later, around seven o'clock, the husband discovered that the doorknob to the bedroom was so hot that he couldn't touch it; he immediately called for help, and he and some others entered the bedroom through a window to see what had happened (the room was on the first floor). 

       The room was filled with a suffocating and foul smelling smoke. The woman was lying on the floor between the hearth and the bed, her head half under the bed and her legs across the closed and fireless hearth. The floor beneath her was completely destroyed, burned to coal and still smoldering, and formed an excavation in which the remains of much of her torso were found. Her head and upper torso were intact, though her upper torso was covered by a fine black dust which may have been the remains of her clothing. Her face was swollen and purplish red, but not burned; her hair, gathered in a bun at the back of her head, was also unburned. In the burned floor area there were bits of bones, ribs, and other incompletely incinerated material. Her left arm was completely missing from the shoulder down. Her right hand was gone, and the bones of her elbow were exposed to view, but the muscles of the forearm and upper arm were not destroyed. The left and back of her chest cavity were pressed wide open, and the chest cavity was empty of organs; The lower ribs were detached, and nothing but bone still existed from the chest cavity down to the top of the thighs. Both legs from the thighs down were completely intact, and covered in the same black dust as the upper body was. 

       The woman had been "addicted to alcoholic drinks," and had started drinking that day at five in the morning. Her husband stated that she was often siezed with a nervous convulsive trembling in the evenings. No furniture in the room, including the bed, had any flame or heat damage on them. There was no obvious source of flame near the body... no matches, candles, or fire in the hearth. The woman had not cried out, and no noise of a struggle had been heard by any of the neighbors, and the occupants of the house opposite had not seen signs of any light or fire during the time she must have been burning.

Changes 

       As if the account above was not intriguing enough, two mistakes in its re-telling made it even more interesting for later researchers. The account above was originally reported by a Dr. Bertholle in an February 1870 issue of a French language journal. When the account was translated from French to English and briefly summarized in the well-known English medical journal The Lancet, the magazine accidentally described the scene as "She was found in her room with the viscera and some of the limbs consumed, the hair and clothes having escaped;" and in the same year Appleton's Journal of Literature, Science, and Art mistakenly reported "No flame issued from her body, which was completely charred, and no trace of fire was visible in the house, although she partly lay in bed, in contact with the bed-hangings, coverlets, and other articles, easily ignited." Thus, between these two influential journals, the details of the woman being found in unburned cloths and on an unburned bed were created.