Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Reflaming the Victorians: Spontaneous Human Combustion in the Nineteenth Century

An artist's impression of a victim: notice the shoes

In Dying to Know (2002), George Levine says that the nineteenth century was driven by a “passion for selfless dedication to knowledge”. In the face of the methodologies of empirical science, mysteries such as the origin of species (Darwin) and the make-up of the universe (Dalton) tumbled. Amid this climate of discovery, there developed an appetite for the inexplicable. Spontaneous combustion whet this appetite: indeed, it remains a subject of debate and conjecture to this day. The term’s profile and usage rose exponentially throughout the nineteenth century, peeking in around 1865 (see graph below), and it was arguably its resistance to the epistemological rapacity of Victorian scientific endeavour that generated such fascination. I will track its profile through its appearances in both nineteenth-century literature and medicine, examining how it functioned both as an imaginative device, drawing authority from the very fictional works in which it featured, and also a “real” ailment, with an identifiable string of symptoms and causes.

Graph of usage of the term 'spontaneous combustion' from 1700 - 1910

Dickens’ Bleak House

Everywhere that spontaneous combustion appeared in the nineteenth century, it rubbed up uncomfortably against the scientific community. One of the most notable examples comes from Dickens’ 1852 novel Bleak House, with Mr. Krook, a hoarder of documents. Mr. Krook is a relatively minor character, his death taking up no more than a page in the 900-page novel; however, the scene prompted a tremendous backlash. George Lewes wrote a letter to Dickens decrying his deployment of the phenomenon, reminding him that his “magnificent popularity carries with it a serious responsibility”, and not to counteract the work of “a thousand philosophers” by making such a “vulgar error (…) but one peculiarly adapted to the avid credulity of unscientific minds.” The offending passage follows:

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 a coal? Oh horror, he IS here! And that from which we run away, striking out the light and overturning one another into the street, is all that represents him.
Oh horror! Krook's remains are discovered in this illustration

Dickens uses spontaneous combustion as a narrative tool: Krook’s hoarding of documents pertaining to central characters is preventing narrative progress, so Krook’s combustion becomes narratologically-necessitated. Interesting, then, that a narrative device -- a self-evidently manufactured feature -- should be taken so personally at the level of scientific (im)possibility by Lewes. More interestingly, in his response to Lewes in the preface of Bleak House, Dickens argued, not that this was a work of fiction and so inevitably contained elements thereof, but denied altogether that spontaneous combustion was impossible:

My good friend Mr Lewes (…) published some ingenious letters to me (…) arguing that Spontaneous Combustion could not possibly be (…) I do not wilfully or negligently mislead my readers, and before I wrote that description I took pains to investigate the subject (…) I do not think it necessary to add (…) the recorded opinions and experiences of distinguished medical professionals (…) I shall not abandon the facts.

This back and forth shows spontaneous combustion unnerving and offsetting scientific discourses. Paradigms of scientific verifiability are clung to in Dickens’ reference to “the recorded opinons (…) of distinguished medical professionals”, and his earlier reference to “about thirty cases on record”. The written record is key to Dickens’ understanding of the real (perhaps a spot of self-indulgence on his part): the very fact of recorded instances of spontaneous combustion is, for Dickens, proof of its existence. He dresses the fantastic in a lab coat.
Sarah Alexander, in her book Victorian Literature and the Physics of the Imponderable (2015), states that “Dickens’s novels (…) are more providential than scientific, more catastrophic than realist”. As John Foster said, in Dickens’ world, “we were all so connected by fate without knowing it.” Despite Dickens’ arguments for the scientific verifiability of spontaneous combustion, it exists in Bleak House as a cog in the gear-chain of a “providential” universe. It is a lingering, anachronistic distributor of justice, punishing the wicked (the Krooks, or crooks) – a harbinger of the inevitable, and an ordering force in a world of waning Christian narratives.

Manchester Guardian piece, 19 November 1825

Origins and Medicine

Spontaneous combustion wasn’t just discussed in fiction: it also featured on a (fairly) regular basis in newspaper and medical articles. This clipping (right) from the Manchester Guardian in 1825 is one of several from the period that sought to “elucidate the hitherto inexplicable phenomenon of spontaneous combustion.” To “elucidate the inexplicable” could serve as an epigraph to Victorian science, and certainly to the relationship between science and spontaneous combustion. The article, despite its claims to revelation, lists tropes which recur throughout accounts of spontaneous combustion: “ardent spirits”; the consumption of “a large part of the body”, “leaving other parts, particularly the head and fingers”; “fetid moisture”; the female subject; the lack of damage to “linen and furniture”, all of these are features, or ‘symptoms’ of spontaneous combustion, and you will notice them throughout this blog.

The earliest reference to spontaneous combustion came in the Acta Medica et Philosophica Hafniensia  (a Danish medical journal), in 1673:

The very first written record of spontaneous combustion

This description set a precedent, and its example is cited throughout history: from the Manchester Guardian article quoted earlier, to Dickens’ reference to the “thirty cases on record”. Analysing a similar case in 1731, Paul Rolli confidently asserted:

The Fire was caused in the Entrails of the Body by inflamed Effluvia of her Blood, by Juices and Fermentations in the Stomach, by the many combustible Matters which are abundant in living Bodies for the Uses of Life; and, finally, by the fiery Evaporations which exhale from the Settlings of Spirit of Wine, (in the stomach); within which (…) those Spirits ingender a kind of Camphire; which (…) in Sleep, by a full Breathing and Respiration, are put in a stronger Motion, and consequently, more apt to be set afire.

Notice Rolli’s assured use of gently-vague biological terms: the “Juices” of the stomach; the “many combustible Matters which are abundant in living Bodies for the Uses of Life”. This commentary offers nothing like the rigour of nineteenth century scientific practice; and its self-confidence is in stark contrast to Dickens’ defensive preface, which communicated a cultural obsession with fact that is entirely absent from Rolli’s piece.

J.M. Booth's article is cynical from the off
By the nineteenth century, spontaneous combustion occupied a grey area in medical imagination. An article published in the British Medical Journal in 1888, entitled “Case of So-Called ‘Spontaneous Combustion’”, written by J. Mackenzie Booth, is prefaced: “The term ‘Spontaneous Combustion’ has been applied to two conditions: first, spontaneous ignitability, and secondly, increased combustibility, and I need hardly say that it is to the second category that the present case belongs.” Booth’s use of inverted commas around the term spontaneous combustion is symbolic of a shift in perception. Where Rolli calmly explained the pyrotechnics of entrails, Booth burdens the very term “spontaneous combustion” with cynicism (perhaps in satire of earlier accounts, like Rolli’s), assuring his readers – as if they needed assuring – that his is a case of the increased possibility of combustion, not combustion of the scientifically-slippery, spontaneous variety. This recalls Dickens’ preface; its desire to stay within the realm of scientific possibility, or rather, scientific ‘knowability’. Interestingly, Booth’s article is actually a far closer relative of Rolli’s than Booth would have us believe. Booth’s description of the remains of the victim runs: “the main effects (…) were limited to the corpse (…) the body was almost a cinder, yet retaining the form (…) and figure (…) Both hands and the right foot had burnt off and fallen.” This description retains all the features of Rolli’s: the “hands and right foot” of Booth’s article resemble the “two Legs untouch’d” and “three Fingers blacken’d” of Rolli’s. Like Rolli’s victim, Booth’s is “notoriously intemperate”. In spite of Booth’s scornful preface, he is unable, in reality, to do anything more than Rolli: blame the booze.

Spontaneous combustion and modernity

Off the rails: railway mania turns sour

One of the defining advancements of Victorian England was the implementation of the railway system. Variously revered and reviled, this “artefact of modernity”, as Nicholas Daly has dubbed it, “stood as both agent and icon of the accelerated pace of everyday life, annihilating older experience.” William E. Aytoun, a Scottish nationalist poet, was critical of what he called the “mania” surrounding the railway, and, in 1845, wrote “How we got up the Glenmutchkin Railway, and how we got out of it”, a short story (with a long title), about two hapless entrepreneurs who found, and quickly lose, a railway company. In his preface, Aytoun explains that the story “was intended by the writer as a sketch of some of the more striking features of the railway mania”, further claiming that “Although bearing the appearance of a burlesque, it was in truth an accurate delineation.”

Turner's famous painting communicates a similar anxiety
The reference to spontaneous combustion in the story is fleeting, but telling. Discussing the board members of their disintegrating business, Bob and Augustus, the protagonists, say: “’And Sir Polloxfen?’ ‘Died yesterday of spontaneous combustion,’” upon which the narrator reflects that “the company seemed breaking up.” It’s significant that spontaneous combustion signals the destruction of this fleeting business venture. It refers back to a comment made earlier in the story by Bob, that he had a plan to “send up the shares like wildfire.” This comment prefigures the end of their business before it has even begun, and sets up a metaphor which is extended throughout the piece. Aytoun concludes the story by stating that “It contains a deep moral, if anyone has sense enough to see it.” Ostensibly, this moral is concomitant with the metaphor of “wildfire” – the capitalist project, which exists in microcosm in “railway mania”, is greedy and unstable, and burns the hand that lights it. However, this “moral” can also be understood as part of a wider context of concern within the mid-nineteenth century over the concept of “modernity”. Daly suggests that much of Victorian art was attempting the “escape” modernity, and in “Glenmutchkin Railway”, spontaneous combustion acts as a knife with which Aytoun severs the link between Scotland and modernity. Spontaneous combustion behaves here in a similar way to in Bleak House, then: as an Old Testament-style force, punishing those who deviate from increasingly irrelevant moral and social codes.

Spontaneous combustion is part of a select group that mystified at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and mystified at the end of the nineteenth century. Since its inception (or invention) in the seventeenth century, it has been doubted but never fully debunked in the public imagination; today, it crops up in cautious tabloid articles (and online blogs), and I suspect its appeal to the “avid credulity of unscientific minds” will continue for years to come.

Works cited

Alexander, Sarah. Victorian Literature and the Physics of the Imponderable. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.

Aytoun, William E. "The Glenmutchkin Railway." Stories by English Authors: Scotland. New York: Scribner's, 1896. N. pag. Print.

Booth, J. M. "Case of So-Called "Spontaneous Combustion"" Bmj 1.1425 (1888): 841-42. British Medical Journal. Web. 29 Feb. 2016.

Dalton, John. A New System of Chemical Philosophy. New York: Philosophical Library, 1964. Print.
Daly, Nicholas. Literature, Technology, and Modernity, 1860-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. Print.

Darwin, Charles. The Origin of Species and the Voyage of the Beagle. Ed. Ruth Padel. London: Vintage, 2009. Print.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. Ed. Norman Page and Hablot Knight Browne. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971. Print.

Fairclough, Paul. "Spontaneous Human Combustion a Hot Topic Once More." Guardian Online. The Guardian, 23 Sept. 2011. Web. 1 Mar. 2016.

Levine, George Lewis. Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2002. Print.

Rolli, Paul. "An Extract, by Mr. Paul Rolli, F.R.S. of an Italian Treatise, Written by the Reverend Joseph Bianchini, a Prebend in the City of Verona; upon the Death of the Countess Cornelia Zangari & Bandi, of Cesena. To Which Are Subjoined Accounts of the Death of Jo. Mitchell, Who Was Burned to Death by Lightning, and of Grace Pett at Ipswich, Whose Body Was Consumed to a Coal." Philosophical Transactions.: Giving Some Account of the Present Undertakings, Studies and Labours of the Ingenious, in Many Considerable Parts of the World. .. Ed. James Parsons. Vol. 43. London: Printed for S. Smith and B. Walford, Printers to the Royal Society, 1731. 447-61. Print.

Images used

Derailed Train. 1878. Slate.com. Web. 5 Mar. 2016.

Illustration from Dickens' Bleak House. 1853. Ancient-Origins.net. Web. 4 Mar. 2016.

Image of 1673 article from Philosophical Transactions, London. Personal photograph by author. 2016.

Skeleton in Chair. N.d. Secretsofthefed.com. Web. 3 Mar. 2016.

Screenshot of Google Graph. 2016. Google.co.uk. Web. 4 Mar. 2016.

Screenshot of Manchester Guardian Article, 1825. 2016. Theguardian.com. Web. 7 Mar. 2016.

Screenshot of '"So-Called" Spontaneous Combustion' Article, 1888. 2016. BMJ.com. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.

Turner, J. M.W. Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway. 1844. Oil on canvas. National Gallery, London.


Arnold, Larry E. Ablaze!: The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion. New York: M. Evans, 1995. Print.

Byard, Roger W. "The Mythology of “spontaneous” Human Combustion." Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology Forensic Sci Med Pathol (2016): n. pag. Web. 6 Mar. 2016.

Heymer, John E. The Entrancing Flame: The Facts of Spontaneous Human Combustion. London: Little, Brown, 1996. Print.

Marsh, H. "On the Evolution of Light from the Living Human Subject." Bmj S1-4.9 (1842): 163-72. BMJ. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

Morton, Heather. "The “Spasmodic” Hoaxes of W. E. Aytoun and A. C. Swinburne." SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 48.4 (2008): 849-60. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.

Thurston, G. ""Spontaneous Human Combustion"" Bmj 1.4041 (1938): 1340. NCBI. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.

Further reading

Appearances in nineteenth century literature:

Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland, or the Transformation; and Memoirs of Carwin the Biloquist. Ed. Emory Elliott. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Disraeli, Benjamin. Sybil, Or, The Two Nations. Doylestown, PA: Wildside, 2004. Print.

Marryat, Frederick. Jacob Faithful. London: Macmillan, 1895. Print.

Redburn from: Melville, Herman. Redburn, His First Voyage; White-jacket, Or, The World in a Man-of-war; Moby-Dick, Or, The Whale. Comp. G. Thomas Tanselle. New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, 1983. Print.

Critical discussion of SC in the nineteenth century and beyond:

For SC’s relationship with the twentieth century and law: Adelson, Lester. "Spontaneous Human Combustion and Preternatural Combustibility." The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 42.6 (1952): 793-810. Web.

For twenty-first century medical perspectives: Gromb, S. "Spontaneous Human Combustion: A Sometimes Incomprehensible Phenomenon." Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine 7.1 (2000): 29-31. Web.

For a quirky take on SC in film and feminism: Hennefeld, Maggie. "Destructive Metamorphosis: The Comedy of Female Catastrophe and Feminist Film Historiography." Discourse 36.2 (2014): 176-206. Web.

For insights into SC’s relation to religion: Moreman, Christopher M. "Inner Heat and Spontaneous Human Combustion." Journal of Religion and Psychical Research 24.2 (2001): 92-102. Web.
For nineteenth century medical perspectives: "Spontaneous Combustion of the Human Body." The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal 4.9 (1831): 146-47. Web.

For an overview of the phenomenon with literary leanings: Whittington-Egan, Richard. "The Enigma of Spontaneous Combustion." Contemporary Review 294.1704 (2011): 69-80. Web.


  1. Hi Alastair,

    What a fascinating post! Before reading this blog, I had no idea just how significant spontaneous combustion was in the era's literature and mindset.

    I am particularly interested in your reference to Dickens' Bleak House. Why do you think he chose spontaneous combustion as the death of Mr. Krook? I understand his death was crucial for narrative progress, but am interested to learn more about why this method in particular was used, especially considering the debate around the subject at the time.


    1. Hi Phoebe
      Thanks a lot for your response! Regarding your question, Sarah Alexander stresses the importance of the dispersal of Mr Krook's ashes. His hoarding of materials "petrifies connections" within the text, according to Alexander. She states that "in Krook's combustion, an economic problem finds a physical solution": i.e., it is important that Krook burns to death because this facilitates the redistribution of matter, both physical and metaphorical, back to the other characters. I also think that it was important that Krook is supposed to be disliked on moral grounds, and spontaneous combustion often operated in literature at this time as a punishment for moral wrongdoings.

      I hope this answers your question, and for further insights into Mr Krook's death I really recommend Alexander's book "Victorian Literature and the Physics of the Imponderable", I relied upon it heavily in my research and it's packed full of great information.

  2. Hi Alastair,

    Spontaneous combustion is such an interesting topic and one I looked into myself. There seems to be some links between it and drinking alcohol, which you have covered excellently. It is interesting that Dickens chooses to spontaneously combust Krooks as he is the owner of a rag-and-bottle shop and alcoholic!

    It's really interesting that you trace the history of spontaneous combustion throughout your blog post and I would be interested to see its use within modern literature. Is this a concept dismissed by modern science?


    1. Hi Sarah
      Thanks for your feedback. Yeah, I found that there was quite an obsession with linking alcohol and spontaneous combustion -- I think this may have been an attractive link to the Victorians because it implied some kind of moral punishment for alcoholism. I actually had another paragraph of this blog discussing spontaneous combustion and alcoholism more explicitly, but I had to cut it due to word count. The text I was discussing was "Jacob Faithful" by Marryat, there's a fascinating passage involving Jacob's alcoholic mother in the very first chapter which you should flick over.

      In terms of its place in modern fiction, I didn't come across any examples at all in my research -- I think it really did see more interest in the nineteenth century than any time before or since. In terms of modern science and medicine, it is still discussed to this day, altough most every modern medical and scientific discussion dismisses the possibility of spontaneous combustion and focusses instead on debunking reported cases. I suggest this article from my Further Reading list for a good example of twenty-first century medical takes on the phenomenon: Gromb, S. "Spontaneous Human Combustion: A Sometimes Incomprehensible Phenomenon." Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine 7.1 (2000): 29-31. Web.

      Also, for an entirely different modern approach, see this article: Moreman, Christopher M. "Inner Heat and Spontaneous Human Combustion." Journal of Religion and Psychical Research 24.2 (2001): 92-102. Web.

      Hope this answers your queries,