1883, October: Warrenton Man’s Fiery Suicide

On a day in October, 1883, a 66-year-old resident of Warrenton, Massachusetts, USA, went out with his gun and did not return alive. His remains were found four or five days after his disappearance, and they were in a remarkable state. The body of the man had been examined by a Dr. Middlekamp, whose verbal remarks regarding the incident were later recorded and published in The Saint Louis Medical and Surgical Journal.

         The circumstances, as Dr. Middlekamp related them, was that the man had committed suicide by placing his gun a short distance off between two twigs, and had then used the ramrod to fire the weapon at his own chest. He was found lying on his back. The remains consisted of just the man's lower legs, his arms, and his upper torso and head... everything else was ashes. In the area the body had occupied, Middlekamp was able to identify the pelvic bone and vertebrae, all of which crumbled to ash when he touched them. Within the upper torso, only the heart remained identifiable. The fire, which it was supposed lit when the gun was fired, had been hot enough to melt the ramrod of the gun and the metal belt buckle the man had been wearing; despite this, the only other obvious fire damage was to a bush directly over the man's body, which was scorched.

        Middlekamp described the man in life as "at least two-hundred pounds," and "a very large man of rather the fatty kind." He had been an alcoholic for twenty years. When pressed by the crowd of gawkers for an explanation, Middlekamp told them that the man had become so thoroughly saturated with alcohol that it assisted in his being burned completely... though Middlekamp admitted to the other doctors that he was not sure this was the right answer or not; nevertheless, at the time it satisfied the crowd.

        A Dr. Scott was particularly astounded by the circumstances, as he had dealt with burning deaths before and understood that people roasted in fires, rather than incinerating. He felt that the man in question could not have been burned so thoroughly without outside assistance... but Dr. Middlekamp assured him that there was no indications of the body having been visited earlier than its known discovery.

        A Dr. Wesselor theorized that the fire may have succeeded in liquifying the man's fat to use as additional fuel: "it may be that when the fire had consumed his clothing it was sufficient to heat the oil in his body and after the oil started to burn it continued until the trunk was consumed."

        Other doctors pointed out that crematories take three hours to fully cremate a body, proving it is not easy to do so. It was also noted how people who had been caught in building fires were not fully consumed either.

        Dr. Middlekamp felt it was case of spontaneous human combustion, the proposed possibility of a human body igniting itself from the inside and burning. Dr. Scott felt something more "mysterious" was at hand... by implication, he thought it was a human-assisted combustion, likely for the purpose of destroying evidence. It was noted by other doctors that tissue samples were preserved in alcohol, yet none were known to have spontaneously combusted; they also questioned the idea that drinking alcohol in any way made a person more flammable.