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A Fiery Death: Murder or ‘Spontaneous Combustion’?

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 22.3, Fall 2012

Bleak House by Charles Dickens book cover

This is the story of a fiery death that became a cold case—a mystery unsolved since 1847. It begins with an elderly Frenchman, whose badly burned body suggested to authorities that it may have been set afire to conceal evidence of foul play. The victim’s son and daughter-in-law were soon charged with homicide. Subsequently, an exhumation and examination of the severely burned remains led the pathologist to conclude that the case was not one of murder but of “spontaneous combustion”—a possibility discounted by modern science. Was it murder after all, or is there still some other possibility?

Scene of the ‘Crime’

Initially reported in the journal Union Médicale, the case found its way—via the Gazette Médicale—to an American medical journal (Flint 1849) and then on to a textbook on medical jurisprudence (Taylor 1883). On the morning of January 6, 1847, the body of seventy-one-year-old Monsieur Char­bonnier1 was found lying abed “in its usual position during sleep,” yet it was afire with a small, whitish flame that had de­stroyed, almost entirely, both the deceased’s clothing and the bed clothes, as well as part of the bedstead. Surrounding materials were scorched. Monsieur Char­bonnier was de­scribed as “neither very fat, nor given to drunkenness.”

It having been quite cold for a time, when he retired Charbonnier had, “as usual, placed at his feet a heated brick.” It was also noted that he carried matches in his waistcoat pocket. He had gone to his room sometime between six and seven p.m., and, two hours later, his son and his son’s wife, having passed his door, “perceived nothing un­usual” (Flint 1849).

The authorities came to suspect the couple in Charbonnier’s death of “having first murdered him, and then burnt the body, in order to conceal all traces of the crime.” Apparently, the suspicions were founded on nothing more than that the origin of the fire was unknown and the destruction of the body severe. A Dr. Masson was ordered to examine the remains and so make a determination as to the cause of death. Masson had Charbonnier’s body exhumed (Flint 1849).

Autopsy

A medical journal (Flint 1849) reported on Dr. Masson’s examination:

The coffin was found half filled. The body was folded in a white shroud. A cravat, nearly destroyed by the fire, and a fragment of a shirt collar, remained round the neck. The hands, burnt to a cinder, were attached to the forearm merely by some carbonized tendons, which gave way at the least touch. Lastly, the thighs were so completely separated, that, had it not been for fragments of animal charcoal, the separation might have been attributed to a knife.

The journal continued:

From the examination of these facts, it was concluded that, as it was impossible to attribute the phenomena to the action of the combustibles with which the body had been in contact, they must be ascribed to a cause inherent in the individual, put in action, perhaps, by the heat of the brick applied to the feet, but which must have found a fuel in the tissues which it de­stroyed; that, in a word, it must be classed among cases of spontaneous combustion.

As a result, “This opinion of M. Masson being fully confirmed by that of M. Orfila, the accused were acquitted” (Flint 1849).

Spontaneous Human Combustion?

But if there was no evidence of homicide, does “Spontaneous Human Combustion” (the title of the medical journal article) provide a more viable alternative as a cause of death? Debate over the possibility of spontaneous human combustion (SHC) raged throughout the nineteenth century. When Charles Dickens invoked the alleged phenomenon to kill off a drunken character in his 1853 novel Bleak House, he was following a then-current belief. Early theorists, including members of the temperance movement, had suggested that alcohol-impregnated tissues were rendered highly combustible, but scientists refuted the notion by experimentation. And they pointed out that a person would die of alcohol poisoning long before imbibing enough alcohol to have even a slight effect on the body’s flammability (Lewes 1861, 398). Dickens’s novel set off a controversy.

Response came immediately from George Henry Lewes, the philosopher and critic, who upbraided Dickens for perpetuating superstition. Lewes insisted that SHC was scientifically impossible, a view shared by the great scientist Liebig (1851), who stated: “The opinion that a man can burn of himself is not founded on a knowledge of the circumstances of the death, but on the reverse of knowledge—on complete ignorance of all the causes or conditions which preceded the accident and caused it.” In short, SHC proponents were essentially engaging in a logical fallacy called arguing from ignorance: “We don’t know what caused the fire, so it must have been spontaneous human combustion.”

Thus rationalists like Lewes were seizing the scientific high ground with the question of cause, while Dickens was arguing primarily from effect, citing several cases of the alleged phenomenon. To assess the contrary views, I teamed up with forensic analyst John F. Fischer to launch a two-year investigation of the phenomenon, culminating in a two-part report in the journal of the Inter­national Association of Arson Investi­gators (Nickell and Fischer 1984) and portions of a book (Nickell with Fischer 1988). We reviewed thirty historical cases and focused on one of the most famous, that of Mary Reeser of St. Petersburg, Florida, who in 1951 was reduced to a few bones, a quantity of “grease” (i.e., human body fat), and an intact slippered foot. In our forensic investigation, we focused on both cause and effect.

We found that the correlation of bizarre fiery deaths to drunkenness was likely due to inebriated persons being more careless with fire and less able to properly respond to an accident. We also found a more significant correlation: In those incidents in which the destruction of the body was relatively minimal, the only significant fuel source appeared to have been the victim’s clothes; however, where the destruction was considerable, additional fuel sources—bedding, chair stuffing, wooden flooring, and so on—augmented the burning. Impor­tantly, materials under the body appear also to have helped to retain melted body fat (present in significant amounts even in a relatively lean individual), which volatized and burned, destroying more of the body’s tissues and yielding still more liquefied fat to continue the process known as the wick effect (Gee 1965). In case after case, we found plausible causes for the ignition, thus removing the word spontaneous from the equation (Nickell with Fischer 1988, 161–171). For example, Mary Reeser was seen just before her death wearing flammable night clothes, sitting in a large stuffed chair, smoking a cigarette, after having taken sleeping pills. She was a proverbial accident waiting to happen (Nickell with Fischer 1988, 149–157).

The Explanation

But if the death of Monsieur Charbonnier was not a case of spontaneous human combustion, was it one of murder after all? That is doubtful. Not only was there no evidence of homicide, but a fiery death, under the circumstances given, is an unlikely—though not unheard of—means of murdering someone (Taylor 1883, 719–720). No doubt the accused family members could have staged a more convincing “accident” had they wished to do so.

No, M. Charbonnier’s mode of death was not homicidal; neither was it suicidal or natural (unless a heart attack, say, was directly involved; see below). (It assuredly was not preternatural as in “spontaneous combustion.”) The most likely mode is accidental. As to the manner and cause of death, they remain unexplained but not unexplainable. Indeed, there are many credible explanations that could account for the known data, if we allow some reasonable assumptions. For example, we do not know whether there was a fireplace in the room, but bedrooms typically had such; or whether the victim was a smoker, but matches in his pocket suggest the distinct possibility; or whether he was infirm or had dementia, but he was elderly and being cared for by his son and daughter-in-law. Here are some possibilities:

1. Since Charbonnier was still wearing his clothes (indicated by the remaining fragments of cravat and shirt collar about his neck), probably because it was so cold, he might simply have been lying abed while smoking. In such circumstances it is a common cause of death for a person to fall asleep (or much less commonly to die suddenly, say from cardiac arrest), and so drop the smoking material, thus causing the bedding to smolder, with the result that the victim dies of smoke inhalation before the smoldering process ignites the gasses produced. (If ignition occurs at all, it may be an hour or more after smoldering began.) (Spitz 1993, 427–­428; Nickell 1988, 155)

2. The friction matches in M. Char­bonnier’s vest pocket might have ignited as they rubbed together while he tossed and turned in sleep. They were described as “chemical matches” (Flint 1849) and again as “Lucifer-matches” (Taylor 1883, 722)—that is, a type of friction match using white phosphorous. (These were created in 1830; safety matches were not developed until 1855 [Bellis 2010]).

3. The “heated brick” that the deceased placed at his feet for warmth might have carried, stuck to its underside, a cinder from the fireplace; this could easily have caused smoldering of the linen in which it was wrapped. This scenario is possible even though early sources inform that the brick, “before being wrapped in linen, had been slowly cooled by water thrown over it twice” (Flint 1849). The cinder could have been picked up from the hearth even after the brick was wrapped.

4. A popping, crackling fire in the fireplace might have propelled a burning cinder, or sent adrift a spark, that landed on the bed, or even on the victim’s clothing to be thus carried to the bed. Again, all that was needed was for the smoldering process to be initiated. Such an occurrence need not have been common, since the resulting phenomenon was itself rare.

Other scenarios are possible. However, I think we may conclude not only that the mode of death was accidental but that the manner of death was, generically, carelessness with fire, and the cause of death smoke inhalation.2 (Remember, the victim was found in bed in the repose of sleep.) Taylor (1883, 723) concludes that the medical investigator, Masson, probably “underrated the effects which are liable to follow from an accidental ignition of the clothes.” He says of alleged SHC—that is, of severe destruction of the body in cases where the origin of the combustion is unknown—that “In the in­stances reported which are worthy of any credit, a candle, a fire, or some other ignited body has been at hand, and the accidental kindling of the clothes of the deceased was highly probable” (Taylor 1883, 719). As true as that statement was in 1883, today—given our knowledge of how the body’s fat can contribute to its own destruction by means of the wick effect—it is even more defensible.


Acknowledgments

CSI Libraries director Timothy Binga was very helpful with research, especially in tracking down an early account of this case.


Notes

1. Flint (1849) and, presumably, his source give the name only as “Ch______,” but Arnold (1995, 46) has somehow discovered the complete surname. ( Char­bonnier is a perfectly good French name, but—as one cannot help but note with irony, given that the man was largely reduced to ash—it means “charcoal-burner.”)

2. For further discussion of mode, manner, and cause of death, see Nickell and Fischer Crime Science (1999, 254–261).


References

Arnold, Larry E. 1995. Ablaze! The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion. New York: M. Evans and Company.

Bellis, Mary. 2010. The history of matches. Available online at http://inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blmatch.htm; accessed Feb. 24, 2010.

Flint, Austin, ed. 1849. Buffalo Medical Journal and Monthly Review of Medical and Surgical Science, volume 4. Buffalo, N.Y.: Jewett, Thomas & Co., 247 (citing the Gazette Médicale, which in turn quoted from the Union Médicale).

Gee, D.J. 1965. A case of ‘spontaneous combustion.’ Medicine, Science and the Law 5: 37–38.

Lewes, George Henry. 1861. Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 89 (April), 385–402.

Liebig, Justus von. 1851. Familiar Letters on Chemistry, Letter no. 22. London: Taylor, Walton & Maberly.

Nickell, Joe, and John F. Fischer. 1984. Spontaneous human combustion. The Fire and Arson Investigator 34: 3 (March), 4–11; 34: 4 (June), 3–8.

———. 1999. Crime Science: Methods of Forensic Detec­tion. Lexington, Ky.: University Press of Ken­tucky.

Nickell, Joe, with John F. Fischer. 1988. Secrets of the Supernatural. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books.

Spitz, Werner U., ed. 1993. Spitz and Fisher’s Medico­legal Investigation of Death, 3rd ed. Springfield, Illinois: Charles C. Thomas.

Taylor, Alfred Swaine. 1883. The Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence, 3rd ed., vol. Ed. Thomas Stevenson. Philadelphia: H.C. Lea’s Son & Co.

Joe Nickell

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Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.