A Brief History
Mysterious Fires - The Study of Spontaneous Combustion Begins - Not So Spontaneous Combustion - SHC in Popular Fiction - The Scientific Approach - Modern Weirdness - Strange Associations and Interpretations - Science Marches On - Pig in a Blanket - Some Explanations... and Continuing Controversies - Afterthoughts - Sources
SHC in Popular Fiction
It was an exciting way to kill off a villainous drunkard, but it brought a sharp response from Dickens’ friend, George Henry Lewes, then head editor of The Leader. The main gist of Lewes complaints -- published as editorials in his newspaper, and later in private letters to Dickens -- was simple; Lewes felt that the idea of spontaneous human combustion had already been completely disproven by the scientific minds of the day, and that by using this as a device within his story, Dickens was guilty of spreading a false and scientifically incorrect idea to a large audience that would now start to believe it could occur. Dickens’ response in the introduction of the completed volume of Bleak House, released in 1853, was straight to the point... he felt he wasn’t spreading a falsehood, and proceeded to quote more recent occurrences of the strange fire deaths. In a private letter to Lewes, not published publicly until 1955, Dickens had made his position even clearer; essentially, he states that while human combustions may or may not be spontaneous, the strange fire deaths had occurred, as evidenced by the numerous reports. Krook’s death in his novel was factually correct in description of what was known of these deaths to date, and he, as author, offered no other explanation for the event than would have been voiced by those examining it, whether or not that opinion would be scientifically valid.
As it turned out, Lewes was absolutely right; popular belief in the occurrence of spontaneous human combustion and preternatural combustibility were indeed greatly boosted by Dickens’ work... though, ironically, this may have been more due to the publicity Lewes’ letters gave to Dickens’ novel. At the same time, Lewes was also correct in stating that the scientists of his day for the most part no longer believed in the possibility of either spontaneous human combustion or preternatural combustibility.
Lewes’ opinion was mostly informed by the details of the death of the Countess of Goerlitz in Darmstadt in 1847, which resulted in a number of inquiries and experiments. The Countess had been found dead in her room on the evening of June 13, 1847, her head and upper body charred and blackened, her writing-desk smoldering a few feet away from her and another small fire smoldering in an ottoman much further away. Dr. Graff, the first doctor to observe the scene, immediately declared it a case of spontaneous human combustion... but the Countess’ husband was not fully convinced, nor were the police inspecting the matter. A fuller examination of the death was called for and a number of doctors and professors from the Hessian Medical College performed an autopsy, with the result that even Dr. Graff stated the case was not an occurrence of spontaneous human combustion, as the examination proved that all of the damage to the Countess’ body could have been caused by radiant heat from the burning desk. In fact, it was further determined that she had been murdered, either by strangulation or a blow to the head, and that the fire was an attempt to cover this fact up... and when some of the Countess’ missing jewelry turned up in association with the only servant who was in the house at the time of her death, and the facts were laid out, the servant made a full confession to the murder. People who didn’t believe in spontaneous human combustion, Lewes included, absolutely loved the news.
However, despite the end of the matter, the main reason the Countess’ death was ruled as not being caused by spontaneous human combustion was that her death didn’t fit either Rolli’s or Lair’s criteria for such deaths... the Countess was not an intemperate drinker, not of an advanced age, and, most importantly, had not been reduced to a pile of ashes. For these reasons alone other explanations were sought; and when the doctors and professors involved took the moment in the spotlight to state that they all felt that spontaneous human combustion was completely impossible, they failed to state why (Dr. Graff, by the way, was the only one who still stated that spontaneous human combustion might be possible). But it was a fact that the strange fire deaths had happened... and if these weren’t being caused by spontaneous human combustion or any other scientifically impossible process, then the problem became a matter of determining a scientifically acceptable way for these deaths to occur.
What neither Lewes nor the learned men from the Hessian Medical College knew was that a possible scientific explanation for the strange fire deaths had been proposed nearly seventy years previous to the publication of Bleak House in 1853.
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