1869, March 14: Mrs. Warrack’s (or Ross’) Fiery Death

As part of a larger discussion of spontaneous human combustion (published in 1870), Dr. Alexander Ogston took a moment to discuss his own encounter with a strange fire death, and what his feelings were on the topics of both 'spontaneous human combustion' - the proposed possibility of a human igniting from the inside of their body and burning to ashes - and 'preternatural combustibility' - the proposed idea that some people are, for various reasons, far more flammable than an average human.

        Ogston explained that on March 14, 1869, that he and his father -- Dr. Francis Ogston -- were both called to examine the remains of a woman named either Mrs. Warrack or Mrs. Ross (Ogston wasn't sure which -- I'm sticking to 'Warrack'). Mrs. Warrack had been sixty-six years old, and lived near the Bridge of Dee in Aberdeen, Scotland. Ogston described her as stout and "of intemperate habits" -- an alcoholic -- and she had last been seen alive that morning at 10:00AM by her son, in normal health at the time.

        One hour later, she was very much NOT in 'normal health.'

        She was at 11:00AM lying on her left side on the lower stair inside her house; the interior of the house was pervaded by an odor Ogston described as smelling like a mix of burning straw and burning animal matter. Warrack's face, and the front soft tissue of her head, were completely gone, leaving exposed her calcined skull... all of her hair was gone. The rest of her body was "greasy charcoal to a depth of about an inch," with no skin, and the bones of her trunk exposed and calcined. her abdomen had been burnt open, and her intestines were "a hard and blackened mass." Her liver protruded nine inches past the ribs, and had been partially converted to ash.

        Warrack's arms were strongly flexed and charred to a great depth; despite this, the bones of the arms and hands "preserved their position." The lower body was largely converted to just a fragile greasy mass. There was no sign of clothing anywhere.

        Compared to the destruction of Warrack's body, the rest of the house seemed to have done well. The wooden stairs under Warrack's body, and immediately around it, were charred to a depth of about a quarter of an inch. One bar of the stair near Warrack was similarly charred on the bottom twelve inches, and the wall and remaining rail above that was blackened by smoke.

        A room Warrack normally inhabited, which was next to where she lay, had a chair in the middle of it which had a burned back, and arms which had been completely destroyed by fire... the seat only showed minor traces of burning. The bed, about two feet from the chair, had a straw mattress that was only slightly burnt where it was near the chair. A mahogany table, about two feet from the chair, showed no damage, nor did anything else in the room. The chair was about four feet from the fireplace. An empty beer bottle, "smelling of whiskey," was on the table.

        Ogston the younger ventured no opinion on the causes of circumstances of Warrack's death, other than to cite it as an example of a person burned in an extreme manner in an environment that was relatively untouched by fire. Seven years later, in 1877, his father published some of his own notes on the strange death. The elder Ogston felt that the fire that killed Warrack had been started by "a few smouldering ashes" from the fireplace in the kitchen, but felt that there was no way of making sense of how severely destroyed Warrack was unless she herself was unusually combustible to start with... so he concluded she was proof of 'preternatural combustibility.'