Spontaneous human combustion is a method of death shrouded in mystery, hearsay, and controversy. It occurs when a human body bursts into flame without any apparent external source of ignition. The assumption is that a chemical reaction takes place within the body. Unusually, the extremities of the body remain intact; hands, feet, legs, and sometimes even the internal organs of the body remain unscathed while the head and torso can be completely destroyed. In some documented cases, the person does not burst into flame but develops strange burns on their body or emanates smoke. In the reported cases, there are certain continuities. The room the person was in did not show any signs of a fire, and there is often a sweet, smoky smell present.
There are several theories, outside of those associated with supernatural or paranormal causes, as to why this phenomenon occurs. One concerns the build-up of methane in the intestines; when this occurs, it can be ignited by enzymes. Another is that the fire is started due to a buildup of static electricity inside the body. These two theories as well as others have never been proven. Scientists proffer the “wick effect” as a more likely cause of the combustion. This suggests that when a cigarette or other heat source is lit near the body, the body acts like an inside-out candle. The body fat is the flammable part and the person’s clothing or hair is the wick. The hands and feet are usually left unburnt because by the time the flame gets to these extremities, cooler temperatures have blown it out.
The first known case was reported by the Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholin in 1663. A woman in Paris was consumed by fire and smoke while she was sleeping but her mattress was untouched. A collection of spontaneous human combustion cases was published in 1673. There have been dozens of reported cases in history, some of which are still veiled in mystery and others that have since been shown to be the result of falling asleep with a lit cigarette, a criminal cover-up, or other natural or explainable causes.
Literature features many cases of deaths that appear to be spontaneous human combustion. In Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland (1798), the narrator’s father dies from wounds sustained after a fire consumes part of his body (his clothes were burnt off). This occurs after the characters hear a loud boom and espy a bright light. Charles Dickens killed one of his characters, Mr. Krooks, in Bleak House (1852) through spontaneous combustion. Nikolai Gogol employed this mode of death for characters in several of his novels, including Dead Souls (1842). In Herman Melville’s 1849 novel Redburn, a drunken sailor experiences something very much akin to the phenomenon: “...two threads of greenish fire, like a forked tongue, darted out between the lips and in a moment, the cadaverous face was covered by a swarm of wormlike flames... [the body] burned before us, precisely like a phosphorescent shark in a midnight sea.” Jules Verne also used it in Dick Sand, A Captain at Fifteen (1878); he was convinced spontaneous combustion was caused by alcohol.
In the case of Wieland, spontaneous human combustion is but one of the fantastical methods employed by Brown within his Gothic tale. Carwin's ventriloquism and Wieland's ancestral madness also serve to shroud the events of the narrative in a more (melo)dramatic light. Brown cites real-world evidence of both combustion and ventriloquism when they are first introduced in the novel, creating a horror that he believes to be grounded in scientific fact. Brown was a product of his time, and his lengthy research on such topics as law, feminism, and the Enlightenment also find their way into his fictional piece. Wieland is the product of both Brown's imagination and his education.