1890, May 12: Ayer Woman’s Evidential Death

On May 12, 1890, Dr. B.H. Hartwell of the town of Ayer, Massachusetts, USA, was making a house-call on the outskirts of town when he was called to come into the nearby woods by a woman who stated that her mother was "burned alive." Hartwell quickly drove to the place the woman indicated, only "about forty rods distant" -- roughly 220 yards away -- where he found himself looking at an extremely strange sight.

        The woman's mother was in a state of full conflagration, lying facedown but with only the face, arms, upper part of the chest, and the left knee touching the ground... the rest of the body was lifted into the air by the muscles that had turned rigid under the assault of the fire. The clothing had been nearly all consumed. The flames were coming from the mother's shoulders, both sides of her abdomen, and both of her legs, and radiated from twelve to fifteen inches from the body. As Hartwell approached the corpse, there was an audible snap as the bones of the right leg broke; this left the right foot hanging by the remaining tendons and muscle, as half of those had already been destroyed.

        Hartwell sent his driver to get water and assistance, and watched as the body continued it's bizarre burning. Then someone found a 'spading fork,' which those gathered at the spectacle used to smother the fire by throwing dirt on it. After this, Hartwell was able to examine the mother's remains in detail.

        All of the flesh had been burned away from the right shoulder, exposing the joint; the abodomen had burned through to the intestines, allowing them to protrude from the corpse. Most of the flesh of both legs was destroyed, and the bones of the legs were calcined where exposed. The remaining parts of the mother's clothing consisted of parts of a calico dress, cotton vest, woollen skirt, and a thick, red, woollen undergarment.

        The woman's mother had been 49 years old, and about five foot five inches in height. She weighed about 140 pounds, and was described as of active habits, 'strictly temperate' -- not a drinker of alcohols -- and a hard worker. On this particular day, she had been clearing stumps and roots from the land, and she had buegun to burn a pile of roots... somehow during this endevour, she had caught her clothing on fire. The pile of roots was about 11 yards from where the mother's body was. Her straw hat, a few feet from the body, was scorched but not burning. The handle of the spade she had been using was blackened, but not damaged otherwise.

        It had rained shortly before the accident had occurred; there were charred leaves under the mother's body, but the fire had not spread to the leaves on the ground in general nor spread from the body. Hartwell's assessment of the strange situation was that the woman's burning clothing had somehow succeeded in igniting her body itself, and that the fire then continued using the mother herself as the primary fuel until the observers had extinguished the flames.

        As Hartwell points out in his report of the matter, it appears to be the first recorded case in which a trained medical observer personally witnessed a human body actually supporting its own combustion. Hartwell also pointed out that previous cases had been reported of similar events -- grouped under the description of 'spontaneous combustion' deaths --but that this instance did not involve a person who was either overweight or addicted to alcohol, as most earlier reports did. This seemed to counter popular beliefs that these strange fire deaths were caused by alcoholism transferring the flammability of alcohol to the victim's body; it also desputed claims that only a person with a lot of fat had a chance of burning long and hot enough to break bones down.

       As Hartwell summed up the situation: "It is interesting in a medico-legal sense. It proves that under certain conditions — conditions that exist in the body itself — the human body will burn."

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