The Real Case of Spontaneous Combustion That Inspired a Death in Dickens's Bleak House

iStock.com/GeorgiosArt
iStock.com/GeorgiosArt

In The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine, medical historian Thomas Morris presents a collection of bizarre but fascinating stories culled from the pages of old medical journals and other accounts. In this tale, he discusses the final moments of an aristocratic older women, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, whose demise would provide fodder for Charles Dickens over 100 years later.

 

Do human beings ever burst into flames? Two hundred years ago, many people believed that they could, especially if the victim was female, elderly, and a heavy drinker. Spontaneous human combustion became a fashionable topic in the early 19th century, after a number of sensational presumed cases were reported in the popular press. At a period when candles were ubiquitous and clothes often highly flammable, most were probably simple domestic fires in which the unfortunate victim’s subcutaneous fat acted as supplementary fuel. Nevertheless, the circumstances in which some were discovered—with the body almost totally incinerated, but nearby objects left untouched—led some to believe that these conflagrations must have another, more mysterious, cause. Numerous theories were put forward to explain the phenomenon: some supernatural, others scientific.

One of the true believers in spontaneous combustion was Charles Dickens, who even killed off Krook, the alcoholic rag dealer in Bleak House, by means of a fire that left nothing of the old man except an object looking like a “small charred and broken log of wood.” Dickens had read everything he could find on the subject and was convinced that its veracity had been proved. His description of the demise of Krook was based closely on that of an Italian aristocrat, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, who was consumed by a fireball in her bedroom. Her case was reported in 1731 by a clergyman called Giuseppe Bianchini, and subsequently translated by a famous Italian poet and Fellow of the Royal Society, Paolo Rolli:

"The Countess Cornelia Bandi, in the 62nd year of her age, was all day as well as she used to be; but at night was observed, when at supper, dull and heavy. She retired, was put to bed, where she passed three hours and more in familiar discourses with her maid, and in some prayers; at last falling asleep, the door was shut."

The following morning, the maid noticed that her employer had not appeared at the usual time and tried to rouse her by calling through the door. Not receiving any answer, she went outside and opened a window, through which she saw this scene of horror:

"Four feet distant from the bed there was a heap of ashes, two legs untouched from the foot to the knee with their stockings on; between them was the lady’s head; whose brains, half of the back part of the skull, and the whole chin, were burnt to ashes; amongst which were found three fingers blackened. All the rest was ashes, which had this particular quality, that they left in the hand, when taken up, a greasy and stinking moisture."

Mysteriously, the furniture and linen were virtually untouched by the conflagration.

"The bed received no damage; the blankets and sheets were only raised on one side, as when a person rises up from it, or goes in; the whole furniture, as well as the bed, was spread over with moist and ash-coloured soot, which had penetrated the chest of drawers, even to foul the linen."

The soot had even coated the surfaces of a neighboring kitchen. A piece of bread covered in the foul substance was given to several dogs, all of which refused to eat it. Given that it probably consisted of the carbonized body fat of their owner, their reluctance to indulge is understandable.

"In the room above it was, moreover, taken notice that from the lower part of the windows trickled down a greasy, loathsome, yellowish liquor; and thereabout they smelt a stink, without knowing of what; and saw the soot fly around."

The floor was also covered in a “gluish moisture,” which could not be removed. Naturally, strenuous efforts were made to establish what had caused the blaze, and several of Italy’s best minds were put to the problem. Monsignor Bianchini (described as “Prebendary of Verona”) was convinced that the fire had not been started by the obvious culprits:

"Such an effect was not produced by the light of the oil lamp, or of any candles, because common fire, even in a pile, does not consume a body to such a degree; and would have besides spread it-self to the goods of the chamber, more combustible than a human body."

Bianchini also considered the possibility that the blaze might have been caused by a thunderbolt but noted that the characteristic signs of such an event, such as scorch marks on the walls and an acrid smell, were absent. What, then, did cause the inferno? The priest came to the conclusion that ignition had actually occurred inside the woman’s body:

"The fire was caused in the entrails of the body by inflamed effluvia of her blood, by juices and fermentations in the stomach, by the many combustible matters which are abundant in living bodies, for the uses of life; and finally by the fiery evaporations which exhale from the settlings of spirit of wine, brandies, and other hot liquors in the tunica villosa [inner lining] of the stomach, and other adipose or fat membranes."

Bianchini claims that such “fiery evaporations” become more flammable at night, when the body is at rest and the breathing becomes more regular. He also points out that “sparkles” are sometimes visible when certain types of cloth are rubbed against the hair (an effect caused by discharges of static electricity) and suggests that something similar might have ignited the “combustible matters” inside her abdomen.

"What wonder is there in the case of our old lady? Her dullness before going to bed was an effect of too much heat concentrated in her breast, which hindered the perspiration through the pores of her body; which is calculated to about 40 ounces per night. Her ashes, found at four feet distance from her bed, are a plain argument that she, by natural instinct, rose up to cool her heat, and perhaps was going to open a window."

Then, however, he lets slip what is probably the genuine cause of the fire:

"The old lady was used, when she felt herself indisposed, to bathe all her body with camphorated spirit of wine; and she did it perhaps that very night."

Camphorated spirits (a solution of camphor in alcohol) was often used to treat skin complaints, and as a tonic lotion. The fact that it is also highly flammable is, apparently, quite beside the point.

"This is not a circumstance of any moment; for the best opinion is that of the internal heat and fire; which, by having been kindled in the entrails, naturally tended upwards; finding the way easier, and the matter more unctuous and combustible, left the legs untouched. The thighs were too near the origin of the fire, and therefore were also burnt by it; which was certainly increased by the urine and excrements, a very combustible matter, as one may see by its phosphorus."

So it was the “internal heat and fire” that caused the countess’s demise. Only an incorrigible skeptic would point out that an old lady who was in the habit of bathing in inflammable liquids, before going to bed in a room lit by naked flames, was a walking fire hazard.

Dutton/Penguin Books

Excerpted from The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth: And Other Curiosities from the History of Medicine by Thomas Morris. Copyright © 2018 by Thomas Morris. Published by arrangement with DUTTON, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Save Up to 80 Percent on Furniture, Home Decor, and Appliances During Wayfair's Way Day 2020 Sale

Wayfair
Wayfair

From September 23 to September 24, customers can get as much as 80 percent off home decor, furniture, WFH essentials, kitchen appliances, and more during the Wayfair's Way Day 2020 sale. Additionally, when you buy a select Samsung appliance during the sale, you'll also get a $200 Wayfair gift card once the product ships. Make sure to see all that the Way Day 2020 sale has to offer. These prices won’t last long, so we've also compiled a list of the best deals for your home below.

Rugs

AllModern/Wayfair

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Langley Street/Wayfair

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NutriBullet/Wayfair

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Samsung/Wayfair

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Foundery Select/Wayfair

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Meet Your Home's Microbes in The Great Indoors

Taylor Wilcox/Unsplash
Taylor Wilcox/Unsplash

This year, you’ve probably been spending more time than you ever expected at home. You might be sharing space with family members, roommates, pets—and an entire universe of microbes. In The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness, science journalist Emily Anthes investigates homes, offices, schools, hospitals, and other places where we live, work, and play. She looks at how the design of our surroundings affects major aspects of our lives, even when we don’t realize it. In this excerpt, she explores the thriving communities of bacteria and fungi with which we share our abodes—and what they reveal about us.

In 2010, microbiologist Noah Fierer made his first foray into the indoor microbial world, cataloging the bacteria present in 12 public restrooms at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he teaches. (Among the findings: The floor and the toilet handles were home to similar kinds of bacteria, suggesting that some bathroom-goers were flushing the toilet with their feet—“a practice well known to germaphobes and those who have had the misfortune of using restrooms that are less than sanitary,” Fierer and his colleagues reported.) The following year, he studied the microbes in residential kitchens and partnered with Rob Dunn to launch the Wild Life of Our Homes project. They began with a small pilot study in North Carolina, recruiting 40 families to run cotton swabs across seven surfaces inside their homes: a countertop, a cutting board, a refrigerator shelf, a pillowcase, a toilet seat, a TV screen, and the trim around an interior doorway.

The homes were crawling with microbial squatters—more than two thousand types, on average. Different locations within the homes formed distinct habitats: kitchens harbored bacteria associated with food, while doorways were covered in species that typically live in leaves and soil. From a microbiological perspective, toilet seats and pillowcases looked strikingly similar; both were dominated by bacteria that typically live on our skin and in our mouths.

Beyond these commonalities, there was a lot of variation among the homes, each of which had its own microbial profile, sheltering a slightly different collection of organisms. But the researchers couldn’t explain why. So Fierer and Dunn launched a second study, asking more than one thousand families living across the United States to swab the dust that had collected on the trim around their interior doorways.

“We focused on that because nobody ever cleans it,” Fierer told me. “Or we don’t clean it very often—maybe you’re an exception.” (I am not.) Because the dust collects over months or years, the duo hoped it would give them the broadest possible look at indoor life, an inventory of the organisms that had floated, crawled, and skittered through the homes over the previous months and years. As Dunn put it: “Each bit of dust is a microhistory of your life.”

Back in the lab, the team analyzed the DNA fragments present in each dust sample, listing every organism that made an appearance. The numbers were staggering. In total, the indoor dust contained DNA from more than 116,000 species of bacteria and 63,000 species of fungi. “The shocker was the diversity of fungi,” Dunn told me. There are fewer than 25,000 species of named fungi in all of North America, which means that our houses could be teeming with organisms that are essentially unknown to science. In fact, when the researchers compared the indoor dust to samples that the volunteers had taken from the trim around an exterior door, they found that there was more microbial diversity inside the homes than outside of them.

Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Some of the species that Fierer and Dunn identified originate outside, hitching rides into our homes on our clothes or drifting in through open windows. (And they may not all be alive by the time they turn up inside; DNA sequencing can identify the organisms that are present in a sample, but it can’t distinguish between living creatures and dead ones.) Other kinds of bacteria actually grow in our homes—in our walls and our pipes, our air conditioning units, and our dishwashers. Some sprout on our houseplants or our food.

And a lot of indoor microbes, it turns out, are living on us. “We’re constantly shedding bacteria from every orifice and body part,” Fierer said. “It’s nothing to be grossed out about. It’s just the way it is.” Our individual microbiomes—the collection of microorganisms that live in and on our bodies—are unique, and we each leave our own microbial signatures on the places we inhabit. In one innovative study, re- searchers tracked three families as they moved into new homes; each family’s distinct blend of microbes colonized its new residence within hours. The scientists—led by Jack Gilbert, a microbial ecologist then at the University of Chicago—could even detect the individual microbial contributions of each family member. “People who spent more time in the kitchen, their microbiome dominated that space,” Gilbert explained. “People who spent more time in the bedroom, their microbiome dominated there. You could start to forensically identify their movement.”

Indeed, the bacteria that turn up inside a home depend enormously on who lives there. Fierer and Dunn found that Lactobacil­lus bacteria, which are a major component of the vaginal microbiome, were most abundant in homes in which women outnumbered men. When men were in the majority, different bacteria thrived: Roseburia, which normally live in the gut, and Corynebacterium and Derma­bacter, which both populate the skin. Corynebacterium is known to occupy the armpit and contribute to body odor. “Maybe it means that men’s houses smell more like armpits,” Dunn ventured. “Microbially, that’s a fair assessment.” The findings may be due to sex differences in skin biology; men tend to have more Corynebacterium on their skin— and to shed more skin microbes into the environment—than women do. (The researchers also acknowledge the possibility that a bachelor pad’s bacterial profile could be the result of “hygiene practices.”) In a subsequent study, Fierer and his colleagues showed that they could accurately predict the sex of the students living in a college dorm room simply by analyzing the bacteria in its dust.

Meanwhile, dogs introduce their own drool and fecal microbes into a home and track soil dwellers in from outside. (Dog owners never seem too bothered when Dunn tells them that Fido is smuggling an entire microbial zoo into their homes. “It’s a pretty fine conversation most of the time,” he told me. On the other hand, he noted, “If I say that every time your neighbor comes over, that he brings over a mix of beneficial microbes and pathogens, it just makes people scrub.”) Cats change a home’s microbial makeup more modestly, perhaps because they are smaller and venture outside less often. Using the dust DNA alone, Fierer and Dunn were able to predict whether a home contained a dog or a cat with roughly 80 to 90 percent accuracy.

While the bacteria in our homes mostly comes from us (and our pets), the fungi are another story. Fungi are much less abundant in our own microbiomes, and our houses are dominated by fungal species that originate outdoors. A home’s fungal signature, Fierer and Dunn found, was largely determined by where it was located. Houses in eastern states had different fungal communities than those in western ones. Ditto homes in humid climates compared with those in dry ones. The geographic correlation was so strong that Fierer and Dunn could use fungal DNA to determine, to within about 150 miles, where a house dust sample originated.

Fierer and Dunn did identify more than 700 kinds of fungi that were more common indoors than out, including a variety of household molds, yeasts, edible mushrooms, and fungi that live on human skin. Homes with basements had different fungi than those without them. And because some species of fungi feed on wood and other building materials, what our homes are made of affects the fungi that live there. “It’s kind of a ‘three pigs’ thing,” Dunn told me. “A stone house feeds different fungi from a wood house from a mud house. Because unlike the bacteria, they’re eating the house.”

 

Some of the microbes that inhabit our homes are known to cause disease. Black mold, which grows in and on our walls, can trigger allergies and respiratory problems. Aspergillus fumigatus, a fungus that can cause lung infections in people with weakened immune systems, lives in our pillows. Legionella pneumophila, a bacterium that causes Legionnaires’ disease, loves indoor plumbing. It nestles inside hot water tanks, cooling towers, and faucets, and spreads through airborne, or aerosolized, droplets of water. Streptococcus bacteria—which can cause strep throat, sinus and ear infections, pinkeye, meningitis, and pneumonia—are more abundant inside our homes than outside them, Fierer and Dunn found. Though the mere presence of these microbes isn’t necessarily dangerous, and not all strains cause illness, buildings can provide an infrastructure that helps diseases spread. Airborne influenza can waft through an office building’s ventilation system; a spray of Strepto­coccus can turn a doorknob into a booby trap.

But many indoor microbes are completely innocuous, and some may even have lifelong health benefits. In recent decades, the rates of asthma, allergies, and autoimmune diseases have skyrocketed in industrialized nations. Some scientists have theorized that the increasing prevalence of these diseases may be the fault of our modern lifestyles, which keep us at a distance from the robust microbial menageries that surrounded our ancestors for most of human evolution. As a result, our immune systems never get properly trained.

Evidence has been accumulating to support this theory. Studies show that children who live with dogs, which increase the richness and diversity of bacteria in a home, are less sensitive to allergens and less likely to develop asthma. (A dog might be the immune system’s best friend.) Children who grow up on farms, and are exposed to livestock and their microbes, appear to be similarly protected from allergies and asthma.

Some of the most compelling evidence comes from research on two American farming communities: the Amish and the Hutterites. Although the groups have much in common—including large families and Central European ancestry—just 5 percent of Amish kids have asthma, compared to 21 percent of Hutterite children. The communities also have distinct farming customs. The Amish, who generally eschew electricity, live on single-family farms and employ traditional agricultural methods, using horses to plow their fields. It’s not uncommon for Amish children to play in the family barns, which are typically located near their homes. The Hutterites, on the other hand, live together on big, industrial farms, complete with high-tech tools and equipment, and their children have less contact with livestock.

These differences may affect the children’s microbial exposures and the development of their immune systems. In 2016, scientists reported that house dust collected from Amish households had higher levels of endotoxins—molecules contained in the cellular membranes of some bacteria—than dust from Hutterite homes. What’s more, when they drew blood from kids in both communities, they found that compared to Hutterite children, Amish children had more neutrophils, white blood cells that help the body fight infection, and fewer eosinophils, which play a critical role in allergic reactions.

The researchers also whipped up some house-dust cocktails, mixing dust samples from Amish and Hutterite homes with water, and then shooting the slurries into the nasal passages of young mice. Then they exposed the mice to allergens. The mice that had received the Hutterite dust responded as expected; their airways trembled and twitched. But the mice that had received the Amish dust continued to breathe relatively freely, seemingly protected from this allergic response.

Although there’s still a lot to learn, the science suggests that a healthy home is one that’s full of uninvited guests. “We are exposed to microbes every day, and a lot of these are harmless or potentially beneficial,” Fierer told me. “We don’t want a sterile house.” Which is good, because it turns out that I don’t have one.