Can the human body spontaneously catch fire? For many years people believed that it could. Spontaneous human combustion was a topic that fascinated medics and the general public for many years. In the early nineteenth century it was widely believed to be a genuine phenomenon, caused by some quirk of human physiology (I’ve previously written about one celebrated case from the 1730s).
In 1825 a German journal, Literarische Annalen der gesammten Heilkunde, published a perplexing case report, subsequently translated into English by the editors of The London Medical Repository and Review. This was a case of spontaneous human combustion like no other:
Margaret Frederica Cath. Heins, of delicate constitution and florid complexion, had for some time past been affected with pain of the head and giddiness to such a degree, that she was compelled to give up her employment as housemaid, and apply herself to something which required less exertion, as that of sewing.
The young woman’s medical history was unremarkable: she had had only the usual childhood diseases and was otherwise healthy.
On the 21st of January, 1825, as she was occupied in sewing, she felt an extraordinary sensation of heat all through the body, and in the forefinger of the left hand a violent burning sensation; at the same instant there proceeded from the same finger a blue flame, about an inch and a half long, which emitted a peculiar sulphurous smell.
A symptom which does not appear in any medical textbook of my acquaintance.
The flame could not be extinguished, either with water, or by means of a wet towel put round the finger.
Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say.
On putting the hand into water, the whole hand appeared on fire. The patient went in a great hurry from the house in which she was at work to her home, and wrapped the hand in her apron: this, together with her clothes, were considerably burnt, but still the flame was only perceptible in the dark.
An alarming predicament to be in, and one that appears to defy explanation. The woman was then lucky enough to discover the only liquid capable of extinguishing this unearthly flame: milk.
On her return home, she dipped her hand in milk, and continued this during the night, by which means the flame was extinguished; the burning heat in the left hand, together with the occasional emission of the sulphurous smell, continued.
A quiet blue flame, smelling of sulphur, burns underwater but extinguished by milk. Any ideas?
A local doctor took some blood from the woman’s arm and gave her some (unspecified) medicines, which apparently made her feel better…
…but she always retained a burning sensation in the left forearm, which very often emitted a smell like that of sulphur.
In late February the woman’s symptoms became more serious, and she was admitted to hospital.
The internal surface of the middle of the hand was at this time covered with small bladders, and on one or two of the fingers there was the same appearance.
‘Bladder’ is an obsolete term for a blister.
The bladders somewhat resembled those observed in gangrene; they were not, however, so rapid in their course, and the redness about the circumference was also of a darker colour.
The blisters gave the fingers the appearance of having been burnt, as if they had been scalded or held in a flame.
The appetite was slight; the thirst considerable; pulse tranquil; and, independent of pain in the fore part of the head, there was no mark of a disordered state of body.
The doctors noticed that the burnt hand was much warmer than the healthy one. Experiments intended to discover the cause of the ‘blue flame’ were all failures. And then on the first day of March they decided to try a different approach:
Electric sparks were drawn from the points of the finger of the left hand, which, however, caused the patient great pain.
These electric sparks were not a spontaneous phenomenon, but were deliberately produced by attaching the woman’s hand to the ‘galvanic apparatus’, a device which produced an electric current for therapeutic purposes. The doctors had evidently decided to fight fire with fire, as it were – but the treatment was a failure.
On the following day, the burning shewed itself in the points of the fingers of the same hand, particularly in the forefinger, much stronger than before. No fresh bladders made their appearance. Between this and the 5th of May, she remained just in this state; the increase of temperature in the left hand still continued, with the sensation of heat, and the occasional burning.
The report is frustratingly vague at this point: it would be useful to know whether any of the woman’s doctors actually saw the ‘flame’ for themselves.
In other respects the girl was healthy; and feeling a desire to resume her avocations, she was discharged. This is the simple observation of a most remarkable case, which, in reference to the absence of the usual circumstances in self-combustion, particularly the non-destruction of the affected part, is the only one of the kind yet known.
What on earth was going on? I wondered at first whether the supposed blue flame was some electrical phenomenon, but the ‘sulphurous smell’ seems to suggest otherwise.
Interestingly, this is one of a cluster of reports from the 1820s in which a patient’s hands were said to have caught fire: in one striking case reported in 1829, a young man’s fingers repeatedly burst into flames even after he had doused them in cold water for several hours. I have no idea what might have caused it: if you think you have a plausible explanation, please do leave a comment below!
Update: A reader has been in touch with an intriguing idea. Dr John Ross (@JohnRossMD) suggests that the patient was suffering from Munchausen syndrome, a mental illness in which the patient pretends to be ill or deliberately causes symptoms which look genuine to a neutral observer. That diagnosis is entirely plausible; medical journals frequently reported cases which can be explained in no other way.
Dr Ross also points out that sulfur (or sulphur as we call it in the UK) burns with a blue flame which is notoriously difficult to extinguish – indeed, the young man I allude to above in the second case of ‘spontaneous combustion’ had been burning sulphur shortly before his symptoms first appeared. Sulphur ointment was often used to treat scabies in the early 19th century, so it’s quite possible that the woman had obtained some and surreptitiously burned it on her hands, thus creating the spectacular symptoms. Thanks to John Ross for this interesting theory!