1832 (pre): A.B.’s Fiery Death

Sometime previous to 1832 (when the earliest report of the case I can find was published), a 60-year-old woman identified only as A.B. who lived with brother and family in the county of Down, Ireland, was found burned to death under very unusual circumstances. She had last been seen the evening before when she and her daughter retired to their bedroom for the night, both intoxicated "as was their constant habit.

        A little before daybreak some members of the house were awakened by an offensive smelling smoke which was coming from the room of the two women. Investigating, they found the smoke issuing forth from every part of the body of A.B., who was black as coal and appeared to be burning from an internal fire. There were no flames, yet it took some effort to extinguish the smoldering remains. As the body was being moved into a coffin, it began to fall apart. 

        A.B.'s daughter, who slept in the same bed, was unharmed by this incident. Stranger still, neither the bed nor the sheets were burned... just the woman. The only other evidence of a fire in the room were stains caused by the thick smoke.


        In some accounts of this event, it is stated that the clothing the woman was wearing did not burn. This is due to a confusion in the wording of the original account that states in connection to the extent of the fire "nor did the combustion extend to the bed or bed-clothes." In this case, the term 'bed-clothes' is being mistaken for the clothing the woman was wearing, when at the time it would simply have meant the sheets used on the bed.

        It was noted by the author of the account above that A.B. had been "grossly intemperate for several days" previous to her death... this is noted because a going theory at the time was that spontaneous combustion was caused by drinking too much alcohol. 

        A skeptical writer in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine #89 (April 1861) made much of what the above account doesn’t tell us. His arguments, however, boil down to this: since it is impossible for the woman to have been in such a state and to not have burned her daughter, the bed, and the bedclothes, she simply could not have been in bed. Also, although no external source of fire was mentioned (in fact, it had been asserted there was none) then either the reporter is mistaken or lying. This is just an opinion, however, as the author didn’t investigate the matter directly, and only has the account from a second-hand source.

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