1613, June 26: John Hitchell’s Fiery Demise

In 1745, Paul Rolli, as part of his argument in favor of the idea of spontaneous human combustion, reprinted an account that he claimed was first published in 1613. The incident as described, if true, does not appear to match reports of spontaneous human combustion... but it definitely is a very strange occurrence. I have confirmed that a different source from the year 1684 also refers to this event briefly, proving the story was not initially invented by Rolli.

        According to Rolli, on Saturday, June 26th, 1613, John Hitchell, a carpenter in Christ Church, Southampton, England, had spent the day working hard at another man's house, and went straight to bed when he finished for the day, joined by his wife and child. "In the Deep of the Night," the document tells us, lightning "came on so fiercely" that it woke Agnes Russell, Hitchell's mother-in-law, who had "received a terrible Blow on her Cheek (by what means I know not)." She cried out for help to Hitchell and her daughter, who slept in a separate bed in the same room. Getting no response, the old woman went over to the other bed and awakened her daughter.

        The daughter was "most lamentably burnt" on the side of her body that was facing her husband and child, both of whom were dead and, apparently, burning slowly with no flame. Despite her own wounds Hitchell's wife dragged him out of the bed and into the street, where the intense heat from his body led her to abandon it. The corpse continued to lay there and burn, smoking with no visible flame, for the space of three days until it was reduced to ashes and just a few bits of bone.

A Strange Tale

        As presented, it would appear that Hitchell's body would be the source of the heat that burned his wife and, presumably, killed his daughter... we're not told what condition his daughter was in, but it would seem the wife felt no need to get her body out of the house. It's a strange event indeed, and I'll be digging to find an earlier account of it.

        I need to note that Jenny Randles and Peter Hough's 1992 book Spontaneous Human Combustion, which gives their sources for the story as "historical archives traced and researched" -- which appears to be secret code for "we're not telling you" -- managed to get Hitchell's name wrong, reporting it as "John Hitchen."

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