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 8:00PM 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 the 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. In that hole was a heap of ashes, which was found to also contain a skull, a cervical bone, some dorsal vertebrae and part of an ilium -- the vertebrae and ilium were nearly reduced to a cinder -- six inches of the right femur, and two human feet, still in their shoes... and both charcoaled. 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 while sleeping off the drinks. 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.

        Larson probably survived the night because he slept on the second floor and his door was shut, and so he was reasonably protected from the main source of smoke and soot. However, he 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... on the other hand, Mr. Rooney had not combusted, and the effect of the drinks was to simply render him incapable of responding to the threat. The same could be said of Larson, under the conditions.