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1885, December 25: Mrs. Patrick Rooney’s Fiery Death

On December 25, 1885, Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Rooney were found dead in their kitchen by their hired hand, John Larson, and their son, John Rooney, at their home in Seneca, Illinois, USA; the last time the two of them had been seen alive was 8:00 pm the evening before, when they had shared a few 'Christmas drinks' with Larson and their son. The following morning, Larson alerted neighbors that something was wrong in the house... he himself had been nearly asphyxiated by smoke inside, so the horror within was not fully explored until a doctor from Port Huron, Michigan -- Dr. Floyd Clendenin -- arrived to perform an inquest. An account of this matter was written by Clendenin himself, and printed in an 1889 issue of the Therapeutic Gazette.

       Upon entering, the body of Mr. Rooney was found lying on the floor next to his bed. The bedroom was next to the kitchen, and the door was ajar. In the kitchen, a partly burned candle stood on the table... and next to the table was a hole burned through the floor measuring two and a half feet by three feet, through which the ground under the house could be seen; and on that ground was a heap of ashes. When the ashes were removed from the hole, they were found to also contain a skull, a cervical bone, and some dorsal vertebrae; the vertebrae were nearly reduced to a cinder. Also found were six inches of the right femur, part of an ilium (also nearly charcoaled), and two human feet, still in their shoes... both reduced to cinder. In all, Mrs. Rooney's formerly one-hundred and sixty pound body had been reduced to just twelve pounds worth of remains. Nothing else in the kitchen was damaged by fire directly, but most of the house's interior walls and furniture were coated with a "dirty, greasy, sooty substance." 

       Investigation by the police and coroner led to the conclusion that Mrs. Rooney was a victim of spontaneous human combustion, a situation in which it is believed the human body somehow ignites itself and reduces to ashes in a very short time. It was further stated that her husband had been asphyxiated by the fumes rising from his wife's burning body. John Larson was cleared of the suspicion of murder because rising soot from the fire had left an outline of his head on his pillow, proving he had slept through the strange event; he probably survived because he slept on the second floor and his door was shut, and so was reasonably protected from the source of smoke and soot. However, Larson died two weeks after the event, apparently due to the effects of inhaling the smoke and grease in the air of the house that night.

        It was duly noted that both of the Rooneys were "addicted to the excessive use of whisky," as this fit the then-current belief about spontaneous combustion effecting drunkards.