Bibliophilia: Human Combustion & The Temperance Movement

Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return. Genesis 3:19

Human combustion, especially but not limited to the spontaneous variety, has always been a subject of deep fascination for me. Both the idea of it, and the fact that learned folks such as scientists and scholars actually believed in it is mind boggling. What’s even more compelling is that back when it was a “reality” that people could just burst into flame the temperance movement said that they figured out why. According to them people were bursting into flame because they simply drank too much. Enter Thomas Trotter a young medical student who in 1804 writes his dissertation on the subject De Ebrietate ejusque effectibus in corpus humanum, or in English, An Essay, Medical, Philosophical, and Chemical on Drunkenness, and Its Effects on the Human Body.

Despite the fact that Trotter’s dissertation concerns people exploding from consuming too much
booze I expected that actually reading it would be pretty boring. For some reason I just can’t imagine  medical dissertations from the 1800’s as pleasurable reading. Luckily, I found the majority of it to be a breeze. One passage I especially enjoyed was trotter describing the symptoms of  drunkenness:

The man of a lively fancy who happens to be in love at such a time, sees beauties in his mistress that he overlooked before; and he culls every flower of poesy that can add warmth to his emotions or passion to his feelings. The delirium of love may, therefore, be said to begin first. (25)

Invigorated with wine, the infirm man becomes strong, and the timid courageous. The desponding lover forsakes his solitude, and silent shades, and in a cup of Falernian forgets the frowns and indifference of an unkind mistress. Even the trembling hypochondriac, unmindful of his fears and ominous dreams, sports and capers like a person in health. Regaled with the pleasures of the board, the soldier no longer complains of the hardships of a campaign, or the mariner of the dangers of the storm. (27)

But flowery language and silly phrases are hardly an excuse to pick up a medical dissertation. It isn’t until Trotter’s third chapter and 76th page that he finally dives into his plethora of odd stories concerning human combustion; and even when he finally does, he begins with some trepidation “One might be induced to give less faith to these instances of combustion as they seem to be rare. I confess that at first they appeared to me worthy of very little credit, but they are presented to the public as true, by men whose veracity seems unquestionable.” You see, although human combustion was considered a reality, it was still a fantastic reality.

From there Trotter begins listing out various cases of human combustion.

The Countess Cornelia Bandi, of the town of Cesena, aged 62, enjoyed a good state of health. One evening, having experienced a sort of drowsiness she retired to bed and her maid remained with her till she fell asleep. Next morning when the girl entered to awaken her mistress she found nothing but the remains of her mistress in a most horrid condition. At the distance of four feet from the bed was a heap of ashes, in which could be distinguished the legs and arms untouched. Between the legs lay the head, of which, together with half the part of the cranium, and the chin, had been consumed; three fingers were found in the state of a coal; the rest of the body was reduced to ashes, contained no oil; the tallow of two candles was melted on a table, but the wicks still remained, and the feet of the were covered with a certain moisture. The bed was not damaged, the bed clothes and coverlid were raised up and thrown on one side, as is the case when a person gets up. The furniture and tapestry were covered with a moist kind of soot of the colour of ashes, which had penetrated into the drawers and dirtied the linen. This soot having been conveyed to a neighbouring kitchen, adhered to the walls and the utensils. A piece of bread in the cupboard was covered with it, and no dog would touch it. The infectious odour had been communicated to other apartments. The Annual Register states, that the Countess Cesena was accustomed to bathe all her body in camphorated spirit of wine.  (78-79)

Madame de Boi seon, 80 years of age, exceedingly meagre, who had drunk nothing but spirits for several years, was sitting in her elbow chair before the fire, while her waiting maid went out of the room a few moments. On her return, seeing her mistress on fire, she immediately gave an alarm, and some people having come to her assistance, one of them endeavoured to extinguish the flames with his hand, but they adhered to it as if it had been dipped in brandy or oil on fire. Water was brought and thrown on the lady in abundance, yet the fire appeared more violent, and was not extinguished till the whole flesh had been consumed. Her skeleton, exceedingly black, remained entire in the chair, which was only a little one leg only and the two hands detached themselves from the rest of bones. (87)

And on and on they go. Trotter’s examples comprise the majority of this section with little room given to explanation as to how they could have happened (Other than the fact that the cases involved inebriated people left alone by open flame). The only thing he does know for sure is that they could not have been burned by any normal flame, using as evidence perhaps the most ghoulish passage from the entire work.

It may be said that assassins, after putting to death their unfortunate victims, rubbed over their bodies with combustible substances, by which they were consumed. But even if such an idea should ever be conceived, it would be impossible to carry it into execution. Formerly when criminals were condemned to the flames, what a quantity of combustible substances was necessary to burn their bodies! A baker’s boy, named Renaud, being condemned to be burnt a few years ago Caen, two large cart-loads of were required to consume the body, and at the end of more than ten hours some remains of the bones were still to be seen.(102)

The stories are strange and horrific so its easy to see why the teetotalers were keen to point out alcohol as the main culprit. For even as late as 1913, over one hundred years after Trotter’s dissertation was first published, articles were still being written about the links between alcohol and human combustion. Although my personal favorite comes from an 1863 issue of the Pennsylvania Temperance Recorder entitled “Fire! Fire! Blood on fire!” For a more in depth look at the link between the temperance movement and Human combustion pick up Jan Bondeson’s Medical Cabinet of Medical Curiosities.

With many of the texts that I look at I think it can sometimes come across that I’m simply mocking the people involved or the ignorance of the times but that isn’t necessarily true. While, yes, reading these text so far removed from the period they were written in does add a certain poetic irony to the situation what I think is even more exciting is getting to view the world through a different perspective. At the time this was written people were believed, as an effect of consuming copious amounts of alcohol, to combust. It’s fun then to imagine this world and to figure out how people were living in it and it’s even more fun to realize that what I’m reading about actually happened in my world. It rekindles my sense of wonder and reminds me that for as much as I think our views have evolved there is probably so much more that lies ahead of us.

So what do you think? Have you ever heard an especially frightening story of human combustion? Will these absurd tales scare you into a life of sobriety? Please leave some comments below so that we can continue our discussion on the delirium of love,  a piece of bread no dog would touch, and the pleasure of reading medical dissertations.

-Jet Fuel Blogger, Lucas Sifuentes

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