On a bright spring morning in 1731 a maid knocked, to no avail, on the bedroom door of the Italian countess Cornelia Zangari, grandmother to the future Pope Pius VI. Receiving no answer, the maid pushed open the door to discover an alarming scene. In between the lady’s bed and the window were the bottom halves of two legs, a few pieces of skull, a small pile of ashes, and some yellowish goo.
The countess was no more, but what happened was anyone’s guess. There were several theories put forward, but the one that carried the day was that of the Reverend Giuseppe Bianchini, who theorized that the vapors from the alcohol bath she had taken before bed combined with the gases in the countess’s system and caught fire. Since she apparently liked to get her drink on, this explanation seemed pretty legit, and by the time Bianchini’s report of the event was translated into English and reached a wider audience, quite a few scientists looking at similarly odd cases, were willing to think he was more or less right.
If the good reverend were correct, then one could avoid spontaneous combustion by living a more temperate and careful life. That was good news for the 18th century masses, which would rather not die in a burst of flames. It’d be good news, too, for us here in the Midwestern US, because we’re in the middle of a good ol’ fashioned Midwestern summer in which the heat index is regularly well over a hundred degrees and if, God forbid, we have to get into our cars after they’ve been parked for an hour on a blacktop parking lot, we are pretty sure we’ll burst into flames.
Of course maybe we will, because even nearly three hundred years later, the scientific community isn’t in agreement about the causes, or even the reality, of spontaneous combustion. Over the years there have been numerous explanations for the phenomenon, from the ridiculous notion that such fires likely came from a nearby external source, to the claim that the fires result from a diet too high in rice and fish.
Regardless of whether we need to worry about suddenly disappearing in a flame of glory, events that fire investigators and nosy neighbors can’t figure out how to explain are few and far between. In fact we might not even know much about them at all if the case of the Italian countess hadn’t been made famous by Charles Dickens, who used the event as inspiration for the death of Mr. Krook in Bleak House.
Dickens’s readers bought the scene, trusting the author who gave it to them, but at least one critic did not. Amateur physiologist, as well as literary critic and friend of Dickens, George Henry Lewes was highly vocal in his insistence that the author’s use of spontaneous combustion as a means to an end was “beyond the limits of acceptable fiction.”
And this is where I take Dickens’s side, because fiction is fiction and fire is fire. When the two meet, anything can happen. A drunken rag and bottle merchant can dissolve into a puddle of ash and goo. Or a Midwestern writer can burst into flames in the middle of the grocery store parking lot. Fortunately, truth has higher standards than fiction. It turns out cases of “spontaneous” combustion take place more often in winter, when people tend to keep closer company with fire. So I suspect I’ll be okay. As long as I don’t go too crazy with the rice and fish.