Spontaneous Combustion, the ignition of inflammable bodies without the application of fire, and without obvious cause of increase of temperature. Occurrences of this sort, formerly very mysterious, are now explained by the well understood liability of certain bodies to undergo chemical changes which develop sufficient heat to set them on fire. Recently expressed fixed oils are particularly disposed to oxidize when exposed to light and air. They then absorb oxygen, and give out carbonic acid and hydrogen. If the process goes on rapidly, as it usually does when the oil is diffused through light inflammable substances, as cotton, tow, the waste used for lubricating machinery, oatmeal, etc, the heat may be sufficient to set these on fire. This is the most frequent cause of spontaneous combustion. Cloths saturated with oil, or covered with varnish of oil and turpentine, have thus been inflamed. By being piled together in quantity, the danger is increased by the accumulation of heat. In consequence of the frequent occurrence of cases of spontaneous combustion in " charged silks," or silks that have been treated with grease or oil for the purpose of increasing their weight, the German railways in 1872 refused to receive them for transportation.

Bituminous coal lying in large heaps is liable to be ignited by the heat evolved in the decomposition of the sulphuret of iron which it commonly contains. At the mouths of the pits the slates and refuse coal, which contain the most of this mineral, and in which the process of decomposition is hastened by the heaps being wet with the rains, are often seen in combustion from this cause. The liability to it seriously affects the value of those coals in which pyrites is found in considerable quantity, rendering it hazardous even to transport them by ships. In 1794 a lire occurred from this cause in the royal shipyard in Copenhagen, which consumed 1,600 tons of coal and 1,400 houses. The rapid absorption of water by quicklime is also attended with development of heat sufficient to ignite combustible bodies in contact with the lime. Freshly burned charcoal has the property of absorbing moisture and rapidly condensing it in its pores, generating thereby so much heat that it is set on fire. This often occurs about collieries and in the wagons used for transporting the coal from the woods, and is commonly attributed to the fire not being entirely extinguished in all the pieces of charcoal.

Several cases are recorded in the "American Journal of Science" (vol. xlii., 1842, pp. 169 to 195) of combustion occurring in heaps of hard-wood ashes which had long lain undisturbed. The cause not being understood, they were in several instances regarded as cases of spontaneous combustion. It would seem, however, that addition of fresh ashes had been made to the heaps within a few days, or 14 at the most. Still no satisfactory explanation is given of the manner in which a heap of 25 bushels, accumulated during two years previous, could become completely ignited, as occurred in the cellar of President Lord of Dartmouth college; nor how the combustion could commence in the centre of a box of ashes which had received no addition for about two weeks, as described by Dr. J. T. Plummer of Kichmond, Ind. Such instances, however they may be explained, exhibit the danger incurred by placing ashes in wooden vessels or in contact with combustible bodies; and the danger would appear to be at all times imminent, though the ashes may have thus remained quietly for two years. - Human Spontaneous Combustion. This is now generally believed to be a fiction; but it has been used with great effect by modern temperance lecturers and by novelists.

Herman Melville so disposes of an obnoxious character in "Redburn" (1849); and Dickens, in "Bleak House" (1853), made the case of Krook famous, and excited an animated discussion which revived public interest in the subject. But that it has been firmly believed by many eminent medical authorities, and has been a matter of earnest though not entirely satisfactory inquiry by others, will be evident from the citation of the following authorities and cases. Fodere notes an instance which occurred in Lyons in 1644. Devergie, in his Medecine legale, records 20 cases, the earliest in 1692, and two thirds of them before the beginning of the present century. The Dictionnaire de Medecine, article Combustion humaine, cites the opinions of different writers down to the year 1833. Dr. Apjohn, in the "Cyclopaedia of Practical Medicine," gives what he considers authentic cases. The fullest information on the subject is in the Journal de Physique, in an article by Pierre Aime Lair, translated and published in "Philosophical Transactions," vol. vi.

Among the remarkable cases recorded are the following: Le Cat narrates that while he was lodging in the house of Millet at Rheims, on the morning of Feb. 20, 1725, the body of Mme. Millet, a habitual inebriate, was found at the distance of a foot and a half from the hearth in her kitchen. A part of the head only, with a portion of the lower extremities and a few of the vertebras, had escaped combustion. A small portion of the floor under the body had been consumed, but a kneading trough and a tub which stood very near were, uninjured. Millet was arrested for the murder of his wife, a supposed intrigue with his servant girl furnishing the motive. He was tried and convicted; but on appeal to a superior court he was acquitted on the plea of spontaneous combustion. A more celebrated case, six years later, was that of the countess Cornelia de Baudi Cesenati, of Verona. She was 62 years old, and was accustomed to bathe in camphorated spirits of wine. Retiring one night in good health, the next morning her body was found on the floor, four feet from the bed, a mass of cinders. The walls and furniture of her room, and the walls, shelves, and utensils in an adjoining kitchen, were coated with a moist black soot, and a crust of bread was so contaminated that it was rejected by the cat.

Prebendary Giuseppe Bianchini minutely investigated the case, and published an account of it at Verona in 1731, and afterward at Rome. It furnished, as is intimated in the preface to " Bleak House," the precedent for the remarkable death of Krook. " The appearances beyond all rational doubt observed in that case," says Dickens, "are the appearances observed in Mr. Krook's case." The case of Mary Clues first appeared in the "Annual Register" for 1773. She was 50 years old, and was much addicted to intoxication. One night she retired, leaving a lighted candle on a chair near her bed. The next morning her remains were found on the floor between the bell and the chimney. The skin, muscles, and viscera were destroyed; the bones of the cranium, breast, spine, and upper extremities were calcined and covered with a whitish efflorescence; one leg and a thigh were still entire. The room was filled with a very disagreeable vapor; the walls and everything in the room were blackened; but, except the body, nothing exhibited any very strong traces of fire.

An almost parallel case is that of Grace Pitt, aged 60, published in the "Transactions of the Royal Society of London" in 1774. Fodere records the remarkable death of Don Gio Maria Bertholi, in 1776. The account is abridged by Paris and Fonblanque in their " Medical Jurisprudence," and the case is one of the best authenticated to be found.

In 1840 the Bulletin de Therapeutique published an account by M. Bubbe-Lievin, surgeon in the army in Algeria in 1839, of the death of a Moor, a habitual drunkard, where the phenomenon was a bluish flame running all over the body, making frightful burns; but the surgeon saw only the results of the combustion, and derived the details from the natives, who probably embellished the facts. In 1839 Du-puytren investigated a supposed case of spontaneous combustion. The victim was an excessively fleshy woman, and addicted to drink; but Dupuytren discovered that she had been sitting over a foot stove filled with burning charcoal, and his theory was as follows: Stupor, due first to alcohol, and heightened by the fumes of the charcoal; the clothes take fire; the epidermis cracks open and streams of melted human fat run out and burn; combustion continues as long as any fragments of cloth saturated with fat remain unconsumed; the room is filled with dense black smoke; and, finally, the victim presents only a mass of charred flesh and bones. The case of the countess of Gorlitz, found dead in her chamber, June 13, 1847, excited attention throughout Europe. The upper part of her dress was burned, and her head, neck, and arms were charred. The floor and furniture were much damaged by fire.

The physician who examined the remains pronounced the case one of spontaneous combustion. In the year following, Aug. 11, the remains were exhumed, and Liebig and Bischoff, who examined them, published in 1850 their report, exploding the theory of spontaneous combustion. In March of that year Stauff, the count's valet, was tried and convicted for murdering the countess. Subsequently he confessed the crime, and said that the countess having surprised him in an attempt to rob her room, he strangled her, and afterward piled furniture around her body and set it on fire. In 1850 a supposed case had a wide circulation in the French and English journals, and was quoted by Dean in his "Medical Jurisprudence." It was that of a laborer, drinking in a cabaret near the bar-riere de l'Etoile, Paris. He wagered that he would eat a lighted candle, and had hardly brought it near his mouth when, with a faint cry, he fell lifeless. A bluish flame flickered about his lips, he consumed inwardly, and in half an hour his head and part of his chest were reduced to charcoal. On the publication of this extraordinary case, Liebig at once wrote to Professors Regnault and Pelouze, and to Carlier, the prefect of police, asking for further information.

This he immediately received from Carlier, to the effect that the case was wholly imaginary, originating only in the fertile fancy of a sensational journalist. In two cases in England, one in 1854 and the other in 1860, where all the accepted phenomena of spontaneous combustion were present, rigid examination by experts discovered that the victims had been murdered, and an attempt made to burn the bodies to conceal the crime. But in the apparently authenticated cases cited above, as the victims were generally drunkards, the hypothesis has been that their bodies were rendered exceptionally combustible, and for a long while this theory obtained credence. But after a while chemists began to discredit the cases. It was shown that combustion could not occur without an abundant supply of oxygen; that the soft parts of the human body contain 72 per cent, of water, which must be evaporated before consumption by fire can take place; and instances of the extraordinary difficulty of consuming the bodies of persons burned at the stake were adduced.

It is noteworthy, too, that nearly all of the supposed authentic cases agree essentially in the following particulars: That the victim is almost always a fat woman, an inebriate, and in some instances addicted to getting up in the night to smoke a pipe, or to sit by the fire; nine out of ten of the supposed cases have occurred in cold weather; and in nearly every case the remains were found near a grate, fireplace, or candle. Dr. Robert Mac-nish, in his "Anatomy of Drunkenness "(Edinburgh, 1827), says that when "writers like Vicq d'Azyr, Le Cat, Maffei, Jacobseus, Rolli, Bianchini, and Mason and Good, have given their testimony in support of such facts, it requires some effort to believe them unfounded in truth." But he thinks that the witnesses in supposed cases "have been led into an unintentional misrepresentation," and says further: "The subject has never been satisfactorily investigated; and notwithstanding the cases brought forward in support of the doctrine, the general opinion seems to be that the whole is fable, or at least so much involved in obscurity as to afford no just grounds for belief." This was written long before the thorough examinations by Liebig, Bischoff, and other experts, since 1850, whose reports are decidedly adverse to the hypothesis of spontaneous human combustion.

Spontaneous Combustion #1

See Combustion, Spontaneous.