The Mysterious Case of Drinking & Spontaneous Human Combustion
How celebrities, dubious science, and teetotalers fostered fake news to advance the temperance movement.
Consider the case of the unfortunate Mary Clues.
The 50-year-old Londoner found solace in drink after the death of her husband in 1771. Over the next 18 months, “she became much addicted to alcohol,” in the words of a contemporary, drinking a half a pint or more of rum every day. On the night of March 1, 1773, she retired early to bed. At 5:30 the following morning, “smoke was seen issuing through the window” of her flat.
Neighbors broke down her door and rushed in. Mary’s body—or what was left of it—was found between her bed and fireplace. “The skin, muscles, and viscera were destroyed,” wrote a witness, and “the bones of the cranium, breast, spine, and upper extremities were calcined and covered with a whitish efflorescence.” Only one leg and one thigh remained intact of the poor woman.
And so, with little ceremony, Mary joined the growing roster of drunkards who died mysteriously and suddenly. The suspected perpetrator? Spontaneous human combustion.
Between 1725—when the first case allegedly occurred—and 1847, some 50 similar instances were recorded. The victims were almost universally intemperate drinkers. The belief, persistent throughout the 18th and the 19th century, was that beverage alcohol could convert into a highly flammable gas via some mysterious transmutation within certain unwitting humans. An untidy denouement soon followed. The best preventative was to avoid ardent spirits altogether.
The Anatomy of Drunkenness, published in 1828, includes a full chapter on human combustion, inventorying many gruesome episodes that had befallen those overly fond of liquor. This included a Bohemian peasant “who lost his life in consequence of a column of ignited inflammable air issuing from his mouth.” Another unfortunate named Don Gio Maria Berthols was found alone in his room, bathed in blue flame. Friends extinguished him and he lived another four days, although perhaps wishing he hadn’t: “The body already exhaled an insufferable odor; worms crawled from it on the bed, and the nails had become detached from the left hand.”
In 1799, a physician named Pierre Lair reviewed all known cases of human combustion and found many similarities: Most victims were alcoholics, they were elderly (over 60), and they were overweight. The combustion was extremely rapid and left behind the putrid stink of burned organic matter. The fire often failed to ignite or damage the surroundings. Lair concluded that the spirits most likely to lead to combustion were, in order: gin, brandy, whiskey, and rum.
The corporeal pyrotechnics continued throughout the 19th century. In 1865, it was reported that a habitual drinker was discovered “completely enveloped in a silver-colored flame, like the wick of a candle in its blaze.” Around the same time in Illinois it was reported that a woman of 180 pounds, who had recently consumed a quart of whiskey, went up in flames and was swiftly reduced to cinders. Her ashes were found in a hole burned through her kitchen floor. “The entire remains weighed less than twelve pounds,” noted a report.
The idea that one could instantly go up like a roman candle got a significant boost in the mid 19th century thanks to the tacit endorsement of the era’s biggest celebrity: the novelist Charles Dickens.
Dickens published his novel Bleak House in serial form between 1852 and ’53. In the 10th installment, two men with the aptly Dickensian names of Guppy and Jobling detect a foul stench pervading their rooms in a London boarding house. They head downstairs to investigate and enter the apartment of a rag and bottle merchant named Krook, “an eccentric individual of intemperate habits, far advanced in life.”
Their discovery: “The burning smell is there—and the soot is there, and the oil is there—and he is not there!” Further investigation reveals “a smouldering suffocating vapour in the room, and a dark greasy coating on the walls and ceiling.”
Dickens was beloved for his realism, and so critics assailed him—this seemed a fantastical detour and unworthy of the great author. But Dickens doubled down, and in the preface to the novel’s single volume edition in 1853, he defended his scene as wholly plausible. “I took pains to investigate the subject,” Dickens wrote. The spontaneous human combustion debate flared anew.
In truth, those with a scientific bent never fully embraced the notion. Even the author of the Anatomy of Drunkenness admitted, “whether it could happen, I profess myself totally unable to determine.” A 1869 report on the topic noted that, “The corpses of drunkards have never been found to be combustible.” It’s telling that another trait of spontaneous incineration was that no witness was ever present when it occurred.
Why did the idea persist? Consider: The most vocal advocates of the combustion theory came from the temperance movement. While the link between intemperance and inferno appears not to have started with them, they found it rather handy in making their case. It was another arrow in their quiver, and no arrow demands attention quite like a flaming arrow.
A fiery death for those who drank injudiciously served as a vital disincentive to even start tippling—in this it was similar to the blindness and painful buboes that were said to afflict serial masturbators. It was clear evidence of god’s displeasure and a fitting punishment for transgressors. Drinkers would enter their own, individually crafted hell. A temperance lecturer in Canada in 1859 told of young man who got into his cups one night, and later was found “literally roasted from the crown of his head to the sole of his feet.” He lived two weeks longer, during which “he said he was suffering the torments of hell… and knew he was about to enter its dismal caverns.”
In 1850 a drinker went up in smoke in Scotland. “This sad event produced a great sensation,” noted one account. It also “awakened a deeper interest in the temperance movement in the district.” It’s hard to believe this was a coincidence.
The idea that a drinker could become a fireball at any given moment persisted as late as 1928—although in a less extreme form now referred to as “preternatural combustibility.” It was not spontaneous, although it still chiefly afflicted “the bodies of fat, bloated individuals who have been excessive drinkers.”
It’s worth noting that the concept of spontaneous human combustion didn’t vanish until the repeal of Prohibition in the United States, which was followed by the subsequent decline of the temperance movement’s influence.
The lesson? Misinformation and fake news doesn’t just appear when there’s a pool of ignorance. It’s invariably part of an ecosystem of complicated motives, some hidden and some not.
One might find a lesson in all this. One might also choose to pour oneself a stiff drink. I recommend the latter.