One of this country’s greatest ever social commentators, Charles Dickens, brought the seedy underbelly of life in Victorian London, to the eyes of the world.
He did not subscribe to the popularist view of life in Victorian England, and his body of work, although it received some critisism for it’s gritty, honest content, still towers like a colossus over his contemporaries.
He would have made a great blogger.
One of his literary ‘firsts’ was to introduce the serialisation of his novels in popular Newspapers, making them easier for the poorer members of the population to access.
He introduced another ‘first’ within the pages of his 1852 novel, Bleak House, which caused a mini sensation among his readers.
For the very first time, the phenomenon known as ‘Spontaneous Human Combustion’ (SHC), entered the mainstream.
It was not well received by the stuffy Academics as you would imagine, the Philosopher and Critic George Henry Lewes, for example, probably dined out for weeks with his view that Dickens was perpetuating what was seen as, “nothing more than a ridiculous superstition.”
But Dickens responded well, arguing successfully that he had thoroughly researched the subject and was aware of about 30 such cases.
Spontaneous Human Combustion has been, and still is, a contentious and widely debated enigma.
Sir David Brewster in 1832, described the Death of Grace Pett, the pipe-smoking wife of an Ipswich fisherman in 1744, in his book, ‘Letters on Natural Magic’ thus:
“Pett retired to bed having ‘drunk plentiful gin’. When her daughter opened the kitchen door the next morning, she walked in to a hellish scene. The trunk of the unfortunate woman was almost burned to ashes and appeared like a heap of charcoal. There was no fire in the grate and a paper screen on the other side were untouched.”
His description pretty much epitomises the circumstances of this mysterious event.
It often involves alcohol being consumed, no obvious source for the fire, and almost always, combustible items nearby, even underneath the victim, are left unscathed.
Like all SHC incidences, Pett’s body had been completely incinerated and body fat was present around the room where it occurred.
On the 19th of February 1888, a Dr Booth was called out to a hay loft in Aberdeenshire to examine the remains of a 65 year-old man, someone, he noted as being, “of notoriously intemperate habits.”
He wrote about the case in the British Medical Journal.
“I found the charred remains of the man reclining against the stone wall of a hay loft. The body was almost a cinder.”
Booth also noted that loose hay surrounding the body was untouched and when the body was lifted, it simply ‘disintegrated’.
He offered no explanation.
More recently, science has tried to explain SHC as being synonomous with the ‘wick effect’.
Experiments have shown that if a body is set alight and tightly wrapped, then body fat, burning slowly, can achieve the same effect.
There have been independent reports from firefighters however, who have stated that SHC does not behave like a normal fire.
Being such a rare event, it has proved notoriously difficult to study.
So what could cause a human body to suddenly, and inexorably just burst into flame?
Many possibilities have been offered:
• Alcohol and Cigarettes.
Blaming the demon drink was very popular in Victorian times when they were never reluctant to moralise.
However, whilst a number of cases have involved heavy drinkers, not all cases involved alcohol.
• The Wick Effect.
Replicating the circumstances and substituting a pig wrapped tightly in a blanket in place of a human body, a group of scientists claimed they had found the definitive answer.
Crematoria staff have pointed out however, that even after many hours in an oven at 600 Fahrenheit, bodies are still not completely burnt to ashes.
None of the recorded cases were known to have been wrapped in a similar manner that matched the experiment either.
• Faulty digestive system.
It has been suggested that a build up of gases in the digestive tract could lead to unstable and flammable chemicals spontaneously combusting.
This has only been offered to explain the cases where the unfortunate individual has been seen to burn from the inside out.
• Ball lightning.
Weird electrical fields, ball lightning, and high levels of static have all been suggested.
• An act of God.
A Divine retribution for blasphemy or other percieved ‘sins’ have also been taken seriously by many devout people, following local incidences of SHC.
Random episodes of ‘Alien’ visitation or abductions, have a surprising amount of serious supporters too.
In 300 years, only 200 cases have been documented, and whilst science still struggles to provide an explanation, there are those who remain convinced that there is more to it than can ever be explained by conventional means.