A Bizarre Case of Spontaneous Combustion

A haunting piece of history fit for Halloween

Transylvania University, Lexington, Kentucky. Library of Congress.

In 1829, doctors in Lexington, Kentucky, examined a case of spontaneous combustion after a local resident mysteriously burned in her home.

The episode was recorded in Transylvania University’s Journal of Medicine and Associate Sciences and was investigated by Dr. Charles W. Short, a Lexington physician and botanist who taught at the university’s medical school. Short, who co-founded the Journal of Medicine in 1828, was called “a learned botanist, and an accomplished physician and teacher.” This case was likely the strangest of his career.

Short’s position at the college certainly qualified him to examine medical mysteries. At the time, Transylvania University was one of the most respected medical colleges in the United States. Moreover, Lexington was a western center of learning and refinement which had earned the nickname “The Athens of the West.” The city, which included more than six thousand residents, boasted thriving businesses, influential churches, the first library and newspaper in Kentucky, and prominent national leaders like Henry Clay.

Henry Clay. Library of Congress.

The university also helped bolster Lexington’s solid reputation. Founded in 1780, by the time Short investigated his case the school had 317 students, including 114 in the college and 203 in the medical department. News about the school frequently made national headlines. When the main college building burned that May, newspapers around the country urged donations to the school. Another article published that year, which announced the beginning of medical lectures, made the New York Evening Post.

Upon investigating the case, Dr. Short determined that the unfortunate victim was “aged sixty-five or seventy years” and weighed approximately 120 pounds. Her health had been “impaired” by “her late habits,” which included her addiction “to the intemperate use of ardent spirits — the drink more commonly used by her was whiskey distilled from corn.”

On the night of November 15, 1829, the victim was last seen out drinking before returning home, where she lived alone. Several hours later, a neighbor smelled a burning, “unpleasant odour.” Fearful that his smokehouse was on fire, the neighbor checked his property. He also searched around the victim’s house, but there was no sign of a fire.

Late the next morning, neighbors noticed that the woman’s house was locked up and that the curtains were still drawn. According to Dr. Short, “suspicions of mischief arose in the minds of the neighbours, and the door was broken open.”

Witnesses were shocked at what they found. The doctor reported that “a dense smoke issued from the room, the floor adjoining the fire-place and something upon the hearth were discovered to be on fire; water was thrown upon them, and then a black substance was perceived lying on the hearth, which was ascertained to be the remains of the unfortunate woman; so much consumed however, and so disfigured by the fire, as to be mistaken at first for a stick of wood.”

In his report about the incident, Dr. Short explained the woman’s condition in great detail, including the portions of her corpse that remained intact and her limbs that had been consumed by the fire. He added that “the entire remains of the body would probably not have exceeded the weight of thirty pounds.”

It was also noted that “a small Irish potatoe” was still in a pot on the hearth while the poplar fireplace was “burnt in the middle immediately above the body.” Furthermore, behind the victim, “the ash flooring had taken fire and was burning at the time of the discovery.”

While modern forensic science would probably discover a logical reason behind the woman’s death — her dress could have ignited while cooking or she could have died from other causes and fallen into the fire, for example — readers surely gleaned a moral lesson from Short’s analysis. The woman’s health had been in decline from imbibing too much whiskey. Furthermore, prior to her demise she had engaged in that habit which, readers might infer, contributed to her fiery death.

In fact, in supposed cases of spontaneous combustion, writers frequently highlighted victims’ alcoholism and turned the investigations into morality plays.

The same year as the Lexington case, a woman in France reputedly died in the same fashion. Newspapers reported that the remains of “Marie Drignan, widow of Ferand,” were discovered after neighbors smelled “an empyreumatic odour, like that of a burnt horn.” Drignan “was found almost entirely burned, and what remained of her corpse was still burning.” She, too, was supposedly a heavy drinker. Therefore, her doctors concluded, her body became full of hydrogen after she drank too much alcohol, and a nearby candle ignited the gas that was emitting from her body.

The “habit of intemperance” was also blamed for Ann Smith’s death.

A year later in North Carolina, an African American woman named Ann Smith — also an alleged alcoholic — was said to have spontaneously combusted. “We understand that she was so badly burnt, that her intestines fell out before she died,” a newspaper reported. Again, the media highlighted the victim’s alcohol abuse.

Dr. Short provided few conclusions about the Lexington case. Therefore, the incident left residents scratching their heads as to how their unfortunate fellow citizen died. Yet, her death served as a grim warning for the intemperate. By blaming her demise on alcohol consumption, one writer warned, “her end is a solemn warning to all, who indulge in the use of ardent spirits. The circumstance of her being so entirely consumed, can be accounted for, only by her system having become highly inflammable by the excessive use of alcohol.”

Consume alcohol, the cases warned, and your body would be literally consigned to the flames.

Stuart W. Sanders is the author of four books, including the forthcoming “The Ohio Belle Murder: Vigilante Justice in 19th Century America,” which will be published in March 2020.

Writes about history. Author of four books, including the new “Murder on the Ohio Belle,” published by the University Press of Kentucky.

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