Cornelia Zanghari di Bandi was a minor Italian noblewoman who lived in 18th Century Cesena with her husband, Count Francesco di Bandi, and seven children. If not for her spectacular demise, the Countess likely wouldn’t be remembered except perhaps by students of the Catholic Church: her son Giovanni was the long-serving Bishop of Imola, and later a Cardinal; her grandson Giovanni Braschi became Pope Pius VI, imprisoned by Napoleon Bonaparte for resisting the French occupation of Rome. But through her death, Bandi served as the flash point for a controversy that lasted for centuries.
On March 15, 1731 Bandi hosted a dinner at which she appeared “dull and heavy” and partook in a fair share of brandy before joining her maid in prayer, then heading to bed. The next morning, the maid went to wake the Countess, who did not respond to her calls. The maid opened the window to the room, and then discovered, to her horror, the remains of Countess di Bandi. One chronicler, Paolo Rolli, described the grisly sight:
Four Feet Distance 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 Backpart of the Scull, and the whole Chin, were burnt to Ashes; amongst which were found three Fingers blacken’d. All the rest was Ashes, which had this particular Quality, that they left in the Hand, when taken up, a greasy and stinking Moisture. The air in the Room also observed cumbered with Soot floating in it: A small Oil-Lamp on the Floor was cover’d with Ashes, but no oil in it. Two Candles in Candlesticks upon a table stood Upright; the-Cotton was left in both, but the Tallow was gone and vanished. Somewhat of Moisture was about the Feet of the Candlesticks. The Bed receiv’d 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 colour Soot, which had penetrated into the Chest-of-drawers, even to foul the Linnens: Nay the Soot was also gone into a neighbouring Kitchen, and hung on the Walls, Movables, aid Utensils of it. From the Pantry a Piece of Bread cover’d with that Soot, and brown black, was given to several Dogs, all which refuse to eat it. 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 smelled like a Stink, without knowing of what ; and saw the Soot fly around.
It was remarkable, that the Floor of the Chamber was so thick smear’d with a gluish Moisture, that it could not be taken off; and the Stink spread more and more through the other Chambers.
Giuseppe Bianchini, a priest from Verona, visited the dread scene and drew some startling conclusions. Seeing no obvious cause for Bandi’s demise (ignoring the ashy oil lamp beside the Countess’s bed, and the Countess’s use of flammable camphorated alcohol to treat skin ailments), Bianchini determined that “the fire was caused in her entrails by inflamed effluvia of blood, by juices and fermentations in the stomach, and many combustible matters abundant in living bodies.” Noting the Countess’s drinking the night before, Bianchini postulated “fiery evaporations which exhale from the settlings of the spirit of wine, brandies, etc. in…the stomach.” Thus, Countess di Bandi became an early victim of spontaneous human combustion.
The Countess’s death was merely the most celebrated case of a disturbing phenomenon. As far back as 1611, chroniclers from Germany, Denmark and Sweden recounted cases of men and women unaccountably bursting into flames, breathing fire or otherwise incinerating. Often alcohol seemed the culprit, as in the case of two Baltic noblemen whose stomachs erupted in flames after a prolonged drinking bout; Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholin, who once published a paper espousing the medicinal value of unicorn horns, claimed “he had often seen gangs of drunk peasants…always lying on their backs with their mouths open to allow the spontaneous flame to erupt from their mouths unimpeded.”
It was a strange fire indeed, whose telltale characteristics changed little over the centuries. A victim would typically be found in an unrecognizable pile of ash, occasionally with undamaged limbs ghoulishly protruding from the remains. Often there would be no damage outside the limit area of the fire, beyond smoke and unaccountable grease; in some cases, a victim’s clothes wouldn’t even be singed. On the rare occasions when combustion was witnessed, the flame often burned bright blue rather than orange or yellow; trying to extinguish the fire with water, it was said, only made things worse.
Moralists made much of the fact that many victims, particularly elderly men and women, died after (or often during) bouts with alcohol. Widely circulated was a 1799 essay by French agronomist Pierre-Aime Lair, who asserted that “those who fell victim to the fatal accidents were almost all addicted to spirituous liquors.” Temperance crusaders in England, America and continental Europe parroted these claims well into the 19th Century, which made a more graphic argument against the “Demon Drink” than cirrhosis and family discord. (Other observers noted that alcohol simply made people careless around matches, cigarettes and open flames.) Others blamed lightning, magnetic fields, imbalanced humors, witchcraft or the divine judgment of God, smiting the wicked with a foretaste of Hell’s fire.
More surprising, perhaps, is that medical authorities took SHC seriously for centuries. German physician Carl Rosch interrupted a sober 1838 study on the physical affects of alcohol with an assurance that spontaneous combustion could be cured by feeding manure to the afflicted (as appetizing as the wife of one Swedish victim who “sat astride his head and put out the flames by pissing in his mouth”). As late as 1888, Scottish Doctor J. Mackenzie Booth published a monogram describing the fate of a victim reduced “almost [to] a cinder; yet it had kept the form and figure of the old soldier, including his military mustache.” It took distressingly long for the scientific community to abandon SHC; unsurprisingly, the idea survived even longer in popular culture.
One enthusiast was Charles Dickens. As a child, Dickens regularly read a frightful periodical called The Terrific Register, which provided the budding novelist material for his portraits of the Victorian underclass. “Dealing in nothing but sensationalism,” Dickens expert Trevor Blount recounts, the Register “offers a hotchpotch of atrocities, tortures, earthquakes, shipwrecks, ghosts, duels, plots, frauds, robberies, conspiracies, piracies, rebellions, executions and escapes…pander[ing] to some of the less defensible perversities.” Dickens gleaned much from this magazine, which in an 1822 issue recounted Countess di Bandi’s demise in lurid detail.
Though Dickens makes fleeting reference to SHC in other works (in “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge worries about becoming “an interesting case of spontaneous combustion” when meeting the Ghost of Christmas Present), it’s his 1852 novel Bleak House which indelibly linked him with the phenomenon. Within this chronicle of a legal squabble in Georgian England lurks Mr. Krook, a drunken junk collector who issues “visible smoke from his mouth, as if on fire within,” and obsessively hoards papers of seemingly little value (including a document key to resolving the plot). This unsavory figure perishes in spectacular fashion, as two characters discover a conflagration at Krook’s home:
There is a very little fire left in the grate, but there is a smouldering, suffocating vapour in the room and a dark, greasy coating on the walls and ceiling. The chairs and table, and the bottle so rarely absent from the table, all stand as usual. On one chair-back hang the old man’s hairy cap and coat….
Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is—is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? Oh, horror, he IS here! And this from which we run away, striking out the light and overturning one another into the street, is all that represents him.
Help, help, help! Come into this house for heaven’s sake! Plenty will come in, but none can help. The Lord Chancellor of that court, true to his title in his last act, has died the death of all lord chancellors in all courts and of all authorities in all places under all names soever, where false pretences are made, and where injustice is done. Call the death by any name your Highness will, attribute it to whom you will, or say it might have been prevented how you will, it is the same death eternally—inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself, and that only—spontaneous combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died.
Dickens wasn’t the only 19th Century writer to employ spontaneous combustion as a plot device. Authors as diverse as Nikolai Gogol (Dead Souls), Herman Melville (Redburn) and Emile Zola (Le Docteur Pascal) consigned characters to fiery deaths. Almost invariably, following the era’s moral template, the victim was either a villain or an indolent miser punished by flames for their wickedness. Yet Dickens’ novel sparked far more controversy than these books, appearing at a time when the existence of SHC came under increased scrutiny.
Five years earlier, on June 13, 1847, workmen in the German city of Darmstadt discovered the remains of the Countess Görlitz in her apartment. The scene resembled Countess di Bandi’s death a century earlier; the room was filled with smoke and ash, the upper portion of the Countess’s body incinerated but the rest unharmed. The room was coated with an oily yellow-red substance which one witness compared to “the fluid extracted from the heads of mummies.” A local physician, Dr. Graff, examined the scene and concluded that “a spontaneous combustion or ignition would have a great probability only on the supposition that there was no act of violence.”
Graff’s qualified diagnosis was strengthened by another physician, Dr. Siebold, who unhesitatingly proclaimed the Countess a victim of spontaneous combustion. He noted the similarities to the Bandi case and, inevitably, that the Countess was fond of alcohol. When police arrested a servant named Johann Stauff on suspicion of murder, Siebold scoffed. After all, he claimed, this would have required Stauff to possess “practical knowledge of physics, chemistry, medicine and even jurisprudence.” Stauff’s attorneys latched onto Siebold’s explanation to clear their client; a humble valet was being blamed for an Act of God.
In fact Stauff, as Jan Bondeson notes, was “a slippery, dishonest character who could not live within his income.” After pathologists uncovered evidence of trauma on Countess Görlitz’s remains, the facts became clear. Stauff had been caught red-handed by his mistress, stealing money from a cupboard; he responded by knocking the Countess down and strangling her, then immolating her body. Stauff confessed and received a life sentence; in continental Europe at least, spontaneous combustion was instantly discredited. In Victorian England, where superstition and mystery (from ghosts to sea serpents to Spring-Heeled Jack) gripped the public’s imagination, it took longer to fade.
As the Görlitz case unfolded, Dickens steeped himself in lore about SHC. Besides his memories of Countess di Bandi (which clearly colored his description of Krook’s remains) and The Terrific Register, he consulted a scientist, Michael Farraday, about a lecture where Farraday asserted that “spontaneous combustion does happen sometimes, particularly in great spirit drinkers.” He also consulted press coverage of the Görlitz murder (ignoring its banal resolution) and an 1827 treatise, Robert Macnish’s The Anatomy of Drunkenness to verify that Krook’s fate was, indeed, plausible.
Bleak House‘s Chapter 32, describing Krook’s death, appeared in December 1852 and excited a riot of comment. The most pointed criticism came from literary critic George Henry Lewes. Well-known for his relationship with novelist George Eliot (nee Mary Ann Evans), Lewes edited a publication called The Leader and wrote biographies of historical figures from Goethe to Robespierre. He was also a trained physiologist whom one writer likens to “a Victorian-era Richard Dawkins,” sensitive towards and eager to debunk all supernatural claims. Though friends with Dickens, he couldn’t let Bleak House pass unremarked.
In his December 11th, 1852 column, Lewes fired the first broadside. The critic chided Dickens for inventing an incident “beyond the limits of acceptable fiction” and “giving currency to a vulgar error.” He cited the Görlitz case and the writings of German and French physicians and chemists who showed SHC was impossible. He further suggested, in a petty parting shot, that Dickens plagiarized Chapter 32 from an 1834 novel called Jacob Faithful, written by Captain Frederick Marryat, whose protagonist becomes a sailor after losing his mother to spontaneous combustion.
Dickens responded in the next installment of Bleak House, dramatizing the inquest into Krook’s death and scoffing at Lewes and other skeptics. “Some of these authorities (of course the wisest) hold with indignation that the deceased had no business to die in the alleged manner,” he teased. Dickens countered by citing the redoubtable Countess di Bandi and an 18th Century French case witnessed by “Monsieur [Claude-Nicholas] Le Cat, a rather celebrated French surgeon” famous for his pioneering work in urology. Nonetheless, “still [skeptics] regard the late Mr. Krook’s obstinacy, in going out of the world by any such-a-way, as wholly unjustifiable and personally offensive.”
Lewes continued the correspondence in a column and several open letters published in The Leader. Citing a variety of scientific authorities, from Richard Owen to Justus von Liebig (one of the Görlitz pathologists) and his own knowledge of physiology, he chided Dickens and demolished the novelist’s specious appeals to anecdotal evidence. “Let us not deceive ourselves respecting the value of reported cases,” Lewes scoffed. “You, Dickens, would not believe a whole neighborhood of respectable witnesses who should declare that the lamppost has been converted, by a flash of lighting, into an elm tree.”
Like many skeptics, Lewes often preferred ridicule to reason in dealing with absurd claims. Yet he clearly got the better of Dickens, noting that the human body consisted largely of water and could not simply ignite; neither chemistry nor common sense allowed it. The very cases Dickens cited, viewed objectively, seemed to undermine his argument, with mundane explanations ignored by the credulous. Lewes urged Dickens to “make some qualifying statement in the preface to [the book version of] Bleak House so as to prevent the incident of Krook’s death from promulgating an error.”
Dickens might have done well to plead dramatic license; as a novelist, after all, he owed little responsibility to fact. Yet Dickens persisted in defending, both publicly and privately, the veracity of his claims. He cited the dubious authority of Dr. John Elliotson, who had recently resigned from University College, London for his advocacy of mesmerism (the belief that magnets and hypnosis could cure all bodily ailments). Dismissing Lewes’ appeal to scientists like Owen, Dickens claimed that “if I had such evidence of a Sea Serpent as I have of cases similar to Krook’s, I could not for a moment set even his ingenious arguments against such human experience.” Dickens thus placed eyewitness accounts, however dubious, above scientific evidence.
Dickens and Lewes seemed to bury the hatchet in a cordial exchange of private letters, deciding that Mr. Krook should not come between them. Yet in the fall of 1853, when Bleak House was published in a single volume, Dickens inserted a Preface which again asserted his tale’s accuracy. “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,” he insisted, adding the postscript that “I have purposely dwelt upon the romantic side of familiar things.” An exasperated Lewes sputtered that Dickens “was not at liberty to disregard and pass over in silence” the scientific evidence amassed against spontaneous combustion.
There the matter rested. Bleak House became a success and Dickens’ reputation untarnished by the furor. It’s probably true, as Lewes feared, that Dickens encouraged many credulous Englishmen to believe in SHC, or at least steeled the converted in their beliefs. But as scientific and medical opinion turned against the phenomenon, it seemed not to matter, even as occasional cases (like Mrs. Rooney, an Illinois woman whose cremation in December 1885 also claimed her husband’s life) continued. By the early 20th Century, belief in spontaneous combustion persisted only among kooks, cranks and prohibitionists. Charles Fort’s voluminous accounts of SHC in Lo! and Wild Talents (which offered contradictory explanations of fire demons that preyed on humans, or psychic phenomena igniting them) did little to stem the tide.
Only after World War II, as people embraced UFOs, psychic powers and other unexplained phenomena, did spontaneous combustion reenter the public consciousness. On July 1, 1951 an elderly St. Petersburg, Florida woman named Mary Reeser was found immolated in her apartment, her body so incinerated that many suspected foul play…or spontaneous combustion. The case’s strange features – the relative lack of damage to her surroundings, the utter incineration of her body, weird debris like an apparently shrunken skull (unlikely, as skulls explode rather than shrink in extreme heat) led one investigator to conclude that “the victim died of fire, with no idea of what caused it.”
Yet the FBI, which extensively investigated Reese’s death, deemed it a mundane tragedy. They discovered that Reeser had been smoking and taking sleeping pills when last seen, assuming that she had dozed off and dropped a cigarette on her body. She became a victim of the “wick effect,” wherein fatty tissues melted by extreme heat seep into a person’s skin and clothing, consuming them in a slow-burning fire of great intensity. In their reconstruction of the case, Jenny Randles and Peter Hough also note that Reeser’s apartment contained several floor fans which might have blown an initially tiny fire into a deadly conflagration. These factors considered, spontaneous combustion seems not only unlikely but unnecessary to explain her death.
Which didn’t deter Allan W. Eckert, an historian best-known for ostensibly nonfiction books (Wilderness Empire, A Sorrow in Our Hearts, The Dark and Bloody River, etc.) chronicling white colonization and Native resistance in the Ohio Valley. His books were best-sellers, but reviewers frequently chided them for invented dialogue and “interpretative zeal [that] strays from, or at least embellishes, the historical record to the point of being suspect.” Eckert also dabbled in paranormal writing, where he proved no more reliable. His April 1962 article in American Legion Magazine helped launch the Bermuda Triangle, placing invented words in the mouths of Flight 19’s pilots (“Even the ocean doesn’t look as it should!”) endlessly echoed by the phenomenon’s chroniclers.
In May 1964, Eckert published “The Baffling Burning Death” in the men’s magazine True, providing the basis for modern histories of SHC. After revisiting the Reeser case and older examples, he updates the litany to the present. He relates the sad fate of Phyllis Newcombe, an Englishwoman who “in the midst of a crowded dance floor burst into intense blue flames seemingly generated from her body”; Jack Larber, an elderly San Franciscan found in a nursing home “wrapped in blue flames”; Billy Peterson, found in a car outside Pontiac, Michigan with “nose and mouth…badly seared, almost as if he’d exhaled living fire”; and Ricky Pruitt, the four month old from Illinois who “burst into fire and burned to death in his crib.” Eckert ominously concludes that “only one thing is sure: there will be more victims – possibly you, possibly me.”
Eckert’s account was embraced by Vincent Gaddis (Mysterious Fires and Lights), Ivan T. Sanderson (Investigating the Unexplained) and others, who cite “The Baffling Burning Death” as an authoritative source and not a humbug scarcely more credible than Dickens’ Terrific Register. Most of Eckert’s tales are easily dismissed: Phyllis Newcombe didn’t catch fire “in the midst of a crowded dance floor” but her dress ignited, either from a lit match or smoldering cigarette, as she left the discotheque; Jack Larber likely died of an accidental fire caused by a fellow patient; Billy Peterson committed suicide by carbon monoxide, suffering postmortem burns from his overheated car. As for little Ricky Pruitt, researchers couldn’t find evidence that he even existed.
Nonetheless, Eckert’s article sparked fresh interest in SHC, inspiring myriad books and essays advocating its existence. Some writers, like Randles and Hough, are credulous but generally responsible in presenting and assessing evidence. Not so Michael Harrison, whose Fire from Heaven (1976) not only defends SHC but dismisses science itself as nonsense. “All but the ‘scientifically trained’ know that all bodily health, all mental stability, all happiness, all optimism are matters for human choice,” Harrison scoffs, asserting that ley lines, negative waves and willpower are to blame for these fiery demises. Harrison’s readers are thus assured that if they really believe in themselves, they too can someday burn to a crisp.
Then there’s Larry Arnold, the bus driver-turned-amateur physicist who’s written a book (Ablaze!) and numerous articles with amazing explanations for the phenomenon. Arnold waxes rhapsodic about his “Subatomic Pyrotron Theory,” which postulates “an extremely small but high-powered particle…that zips through the spaces between the quarks that make up the atoms, which compose the molecules of the human body. On rare occasions a rogue particle scores a direct hit with a quark and sets off an internal chain reaction.” Should we find this dubious, Arnold assures us that his theory is “based on quantum physics.”
Accounts of spontaneous human combustion continue to this day, though they’re generally relegated to tabloids, paranormal blogs and credulous YouTube channels. Even in an age where 36 percent of Americans believe in UFOs, and 45 percent in ghosts, SHC is just too out there for most to take seriously. A far cry from the days when Britain’s greatest writer and its leading literary engaged in a public dispute over its veracity. While Dickens’ Bleak House remains a classic, George Henry Lewes undoubtedly had the last laugh.
Sources and Further Reading:
This article draws upon: Trevor Blount, “Dickens and Mr. Krook’s Spontaneous Combustion” (Dickens Studies Annual Vol. 1, 1970; online here); Jan Bondeson, A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities (1997); Lee B. Croft, “Spontaneous Human Combustion in Literature: Some Examples of the Literary Use of Popular Mythology” (CLA Journal Vol. 32 No. 3 March 1989; online here); Allan W. Eckert, “The Baffling Burning Death” (True May 1964; online here); Gordon S. Haight, “Dickens and Lewes on Spontaneous Combustion” (Nineteenth-Century Fiction Vol. 10 No. 1 June 1955; online here); Garth Haslam, “Spontaneous Human Combustion: A Brief History” (Anomalies Info, December 2016; online here); J.L. Heilbron, “The Affair of the Countess Görlitz” (Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society Vol. 138, No. 2 June 1994; online here); and Jenny Randles and Peter Hough, Spontaneous Human Combustion (1992).