Lighting Literary Fires Spontaneously

by Mary Reed

Shocking events occur in sixth century Constantinople as our Byzantine mystery Two For Joy opens.

Our protagonist John, Lord Chamberlain to Emperor Justinian, is showing his former philosophy tutor around the city when a storm produces a downpour as they pass within sight of one of the city’s stylites, one of those holy men who live for years atop pillars,. Then John realizes the stylite’s arms are on fire…

“Even as John grasped the fact, rivulets of flame ran greedily across the stylite’s robe. Glowing patches blossomed and spread in the man’s straggling beard. A small dark shape –- a rat — scuttled to the platform’s edge and fell over.

“The burning man tried to dowse the blaze, slapping at his chest. He began screaming only when his matted hair burst into an incandescent halo around his head.”

Nor is the unfortunate stylite the only character to die by spontaneous combustion in Two For Joy.

Perhaps the best known literary instance of this type of death occurs in Bleak House, where it is the awful fate of the drunkard Mr Krook, dealer in rags, paper, bones, old iron, bottles, cat skins, and similar et ceteras. Dickens tips a wee wink at readers by describing Krook on his first appearance as having “… breath issuing in visible smoke from his mouth as if he were on fire within.”

Bleak House first appeared as a serial beginning in 1852, and was issued in book form the following year. In his preface to the book, Dickens states he received correspondence denying the possibility of spontaneous combustion, going on to huffily declare he has “no need to observe that I do not wilfully or negligently mislead my readers and that before I wrote that description I took pains to investigate the subject. There are about thirty cases on record…”

In Chapter 32, Dickens foreshadows the discovery of the burnt remains of Mr Krook by describing features often reported in accounts of such cases: a “stagnant, sickening oil” on certain surfaces, “hateful soot”, a “burning smell”.

Although Dickens declares in his preface “I shall not abandon the facts until there shall have been a considerable spontaneous combustion of the testimony on which human occurrences are usually received”, in Chapter 33 he humorously refers to “the Italian case of the Countess Cornelia Baudi as set forth in detail by one Bianchini, prebendary of Verona, who wrote a scholarly work or so and was occasionally heard of in his time as having gleams of reason in him; and also of the testimony of Messrs. Fodere and Mere, two pestilent Frenchmen who WOULD investigate the subject; and further, of the corroborative testimony of Monsieur Le Cat, a rather celebrated French surgeon once upon a time, who had the unpoliteness to live in a house where such a case occurred and even to write an account of it…”

In researching for Two For Joy, I stumbled over The Book of Curiosities: Containing Ten Thousand Wonders and Curiosities of Nature and Art; And of Remarkable and Astonishing Places, Beings, Animals, Customs, Experiments, Phenomena, etc., of both Ancient and Modern Times, On All Parts of the Globe: comprising Authentic Accounts of the most Wonderful Freaks of Nature and Arts of Man. Compiled by the Revd I. Platts, the first American edition was published in 1854.

Platts gives details of instances of what he calls “spontaneous inflammation of animal and vegetable substances” but expresses doubts about accounts of human spontaneous combustion. However, they are, he says, “presented to the public as true, by men whose veracity seems unquestionable.”

His book includes a chapter entitled Combustion of the Human Body, Produced By the Long Immoderate Use of Spirituous Liquors, which includes information from two of the men mentioned by Dickens.

Bianchini writes concerning the death of Countess Cornelia and the awful state of what remained of her body. A telling detail: the countess was in the habit of bathing her body in camphorated spirits of wine.

Among other instances, Le Cat relates the very case to which Dickens refers. At one point Le Cat lodged with a family in Rheims. The husband was tried for murdering the wife, a crime here described as an attempt to make it appear as the result of an “accident”; the description of his wife’s remains show them to be a state similar to those who die by spontaneous combustion. It seems his wife was in the habit of getting intoxicated every day and the fact the couple employed a pretty servant girl told against him. It was only after an appeal to a higher court that the man escaped punishment. However, says Le Cat, “he suffered so much from uneasiness of mind, that he was obliged to pass the remainder of his melancholy days in a hospital.”

Another book consulted was Anomalies and Curiosities of medicine: Being an Encyclopedic Collection of Rare and Extraordinary Cases, and of the Most Striking Instances of Abnormality in All Branches of Medicine and Surgery, Derived From An Exhaustive Research of Medical Literature From Its Origin To The Present Day, compiled by two doctors, George M. Gould and Walter L. Pyle and published in 1901.

One of the cases mentioned in their chapter on spontaneous combustion gives more details of the death of Countess Cornelia. She was 62 when she died and the explanation offered by Bianchini was that combustion was caused by “inflamed effluvia of the blood, by the juices and fermentation in the stomach, and, lastly, by fiery evaporations which exhaled from the spirits of wine, brandy, etc.”

Another case mentioned by Gould and Pyle from March 1850 caught my eye. Counsel for the defense of a man accused of murdering the Countess Goerlitz advanced spontaneous combustion as the explanation for her death. However, after prominent members of the medical profession gave evidence on the topic, based largely on their testimony the accused was found guilty and given a sentence of imprisonment for life. The compilers state they find “no reliable evidence to support the belief in the spontaneous combustion of the body”, adding that “[T]he opinion that the tissues of drunkards might be so saturated with alcohol as to render the body combustible is disproved by the simple experiment of placing flesh in spirits for a long time and then trying to burn it. Liebig and others found that flesh soaked in alcohol would burn only until the alcohol was consumed.”

Gould and Pyle quote an authority who examined and summarised features of 28 such cases. Among them: victims were usually older, more often women than not, led idle lives, and all were corpulent or intemperate. Similarly, a writer Platts quotes states among other similarities victims were “generally much addicted to the use of spirituous liquors; were very fat; in most instances women, and old”. He also notes the “oily and fetid ashes, with a greasy soot, of a very penetrating and disagreeable smell” found in connection with these cases, a description that will ring bells for readers of Bleak House.

Returning to Two For Joy, we not only provided an explanation for the fiery deaths which we extrapolated from information available at the time — I’ll go so far as to reveal it does not involve imbibing spirituous liquors — but we also went even further in giving one for an even more spectacular event related later in the novel: setting the sea on fire.

Mary Reed is the co-author of the John the Lord Chamberlain mysteries set in sixth century Byzantium. The current entry is Nine for the Devil. Ten for Dying will be published in March, 2014.

You can also follow Mary on Twitter.

3 Responses to Lighting Literary Fires Spontaneously

  1. I vividly remember reading Jules Verne’s A Captain at Fifteen as a boy (much younger than 15 myself) and coming upon the passage describing the death of the African tribal king: his body was so full of brandy and other spirits that he was set alight when he came close to a punch bowl full of blazing brandy. It was a lesson I never forgot: to this day I only drink beer and wine, non-flammable spirits that quench one’s thirst instead of incinerating one!

  2. That’s why I live so close to the Aegean, Mary. Whenever I feel that I’m about to incinerate myself–for any number of reasons–I jump in the water. Others, of a more formal spiritual bent, might choose to immerse themselves in the Holy See.

    Can’ t wait to hear Lord Chamberlain John’s explanation.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *