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.

Book jacket for The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth
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.

This Course Will Teach You How to Play Guitar Like a Pro for $29

BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images
BartekSzewczyk/iStock via Getty Images

Be honest: You’ve watched a YouTube video or two in an attempt to learn how to play a song on the guitar. Whether it was through tabs or simply copying whatever you saw on the screen, the fun always ends when friends start throwing out requests for songs you have no idea how to play. So how about you actually learn how to play guitar for real this time?

It’s now possible to learn guitar from home with the Ultimate Beginner to Expert Guitar Lessons Bundle, which is currently on sale for $29. Grab that Gibson, Fender, or whatever you have handy, and learn to strum rhythms from scratch.

The strumming course will teach you how to count beats and rests to turn your hands and fingers into the perfect accompaniment for your own voice or other musicians. Then, you can take things a step further and learn advanced jamming and soloing to riff anytime, anywhere. This course will teach you to improvise across various chords and progressions so you can jump into any jam with something original. You’ll also have the chance to dive deep into the major guitar genres of bluegrass, blues, and jazz. Lessons in jam etiquette, genre history, and how to read music will separate you from a novice player.

This bundle also includes courses in ear training so you can properly identify any relative note, interval, or pitch. That way, you can play along with any song when it comes on, or even understand how to modify it into the key you’d prefer. And when the time comes to perform, be prepared with skilled hammer-ons, pull-offs, slides, bends, trills, vibrato, and fret-tapping. Not only will you learn the basic foundations of guitar, you’ll ultimately be able to develop your own style with the help of these lessons.

The Ultimate Beginner to Expert Guitar Lessons Bundle is discounted for a limited time. Act on this $29 offer now to work on those fingertip calluses and play like a pro.

 

The Ultimate Beginner to Expert Guitar Lessons Bundle - $29

See Deal


At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

Why Don’t Bugs Eat People’s Bones?

ledwell/iStock via Getty Images
ledwell/iStock via Getty Images

In her new book, Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death, mortician and best-selling author Caitlin Doughty answers real questions she's received from kids about death, dead bodies, and decomposition. In the following excerpt, she describes why the creatures that consider skin and organs a tasty snack just don't feel the same way about our skeletons. (It's nothing personal.)

It’s a lovely summer day and you’re having lunch in the park. You bite into a fried chicken wing, munching on the crispy skin and juicy flesh. Is your next move cracking into the bones, crunching them like the giant in “Jack and the Beanstalk”? Probably not.

If you yourself wouldn’t eat a pile of animal bones, why would you expect a beetle to show up and eat your bones? We expect too much from necrophages, the unsung heroes of the natural world. They are the death eaters, the organisms that fuel up by consuming dead and rotting things—and bless their hearts! Imagine, for a moment, what the world would look like without the assistance of the consumers of dead flesh. Corpses and carcasses everywhere. That road kill? It’s not going anywhere without the help of necrophages.

Necrophages do such a good job getting rid of dead things that we expect them to perform miracles. It’s like how if you do too good a job of cleaning your room, then your mom will expect perfection every time. Better to not set expectations so high. It’s just not worth the risk.

The corpse-nosher ranks are filled with diverse species. You have vultures, swooping down for a roadside snack. You have blowflies, which can smell death from up to 10 miles away. You have carrion beetles, which devour dried muscle. A dead human body is a wonderland of ecological niches, offering a wide range of homes and snacks for those inclined to eat. There are plenty of seats at death’s dinner table.

Remember the dermestid beetle? The helpful cuties we’d enlist to clean your parents’ skulls? Their job is to eat all the flesh off without damaging the bone. Let’s be clear: we don’t want them to eat the bone. Especially because other methods of flesh removal (like harsh chemicals) will not only hurt the bones, but might damage certain types of evidence, like marks on bones, which could be useful in criminal investigations. That’s why you bring in a colony of thousands of dermestids to do the dirty work. Plus, while you were over here complaining that they don’t eat enough bones, the beetles were also eating skin, hair, and feathers!

All right, but to your question: why don’t they eat bones, too? The simple answer is that eating bones is hard work. Not only that, but bones are not nutritionally useful to insects. Bones are mostly made of calcium, something insects just don’t need a lot of. Since they don’t need much calcium, insects like dermestids haven’t evolved to consume it or desire it. They’re about as interested in eating bones as you are.

But, here’s a dramatic twist: just because these beetles don’t usually eat bone doesn’t mean they won’t. It’s a cost-reward thing. Bones are a frustrating meal, but a meal is a meal. Peter Coffey, an agriculture educator at the University of Maryland, told me how he learned this firsthand when he used Dermestes maculatus to clean the skeleton of a stillborn lamb. Adult sheep bones are robust, “but in fetuses and newborns there are several places where fusion is not yet complete.” When he removed the lamb bones after the beetles finished cleaning them, “I noticed small round holes, about the diameter of a large larva.” It turns out beetles will go after less dense, delicate bones (like those of the stillborn lamb), but, Peter says, “there has to be a perfect storm of good environmental conditions and poor food availability before they’ll resort to bone, which would explain why it’s not more commonly observed.”

So, while dermestids and other flesh-eating bugs do not usually eat bone, if they get hungry enough, they will. Humans behave the same way. When Paris was under siege in the late 16th century, the city was starving. When people inside the city ran out of cats and dogs and rats to eat, they began disinterring bodies from the mass graves in the cemetery. They took the bones and ground them into flour to make what became known as Madame de Montpensier’s bread. Bone appetit! (Actually, maybe don’t bone appetit, as many who ate the bone bread died themselves.)

It seems like no creature out there wants to eat bone, really prefers bone. But wait, I haven’t introduced you to Osedax, or the bone worm. (I mean, it’s right there in the name, people. Osedax means “bone eater” or “bone devourer” in Latin.) Bone worms start as tiny larvae, floating out in the vast blackness of the deep ocean. Suddenly, emerging from the void above is a big ol’ dead creature, like a whale or an elephant seal. The bone worm attaches, and the feast begins. To be fair, even Osedax don’t really devour the minerals in the bone. Instead, they burrow into the bone searching for collagen and lipids to eat. After the whale is gone, the worms die, but not before they release enough larvae to travel the currents waiting for another carcass to comes along.

Bone worms aren’t picky. You could throw a cow, or your dad (don’t do that), overboard and they’d eat those bones, too. There is strong evidence that bone worms have been eating giant marine reptiles since the time of the dinosaurs. That means the whale eaters are older than whales themselves. Osedax are nature’s peak bone eaters, and they’re even sorta nice to look at, orangey-red floating tubes covering bones like a deep-sea shag carpet. Pretty amazing, given that scientist didn’t even know these creatures existed until 2002. Who knows what else is out there in the world, devouring bone?

The cover of 'Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death'
The cover of Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death
W.W. Norton

Reprinted from Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs: Big Questions from Tiny Mortals About Death by Caitlin Doughty. Text copyright (c) 2019 by Caitlin Doughty. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.