1810 in Cesene, Italy. On the evening of 22 October, Countess Cornelia di Bandi, a sixty-two-year-old woman who has never been ill in her life and whose youthful complexion is admired by all her friends, is dining lightly. Then, as is her custom, she has an herbal tea brought to her and drinks it in the company of her chambermaid Anna Maria, while listening to the day’s gossip. The two women chat gaily for more than an hour-and-a-half. Around ten o’clock, the Countess rises, bids goodnight to Anna Maria and laughingly says that she can’t wait for the next morning because it is Sunday and she will have brioches for breakfast. Then she goes to bed.
At this moment, she appears happy to be alive and in perfect health.
The next morning, at half-past eight, the chambermaid knocks at the door to the Countess’ apartment. No answer. She knocks again. Still no answer. Intrigued, she opens the door. What she sees makes her hurl in horror.
At the centre of the bedroom, which is intact, there are the extremities of two legs, two forearms and a head… The rest of the Countess’ body is nothing more than a little pile of ash on the blackened brick tiles.
The chambermaid’s cries rouse the other domestics who rush to the scene. The Countess’ butler warns them not to touch anything. The Police must be called.
Commissioner Antonielli arrives a quarter-of-an-hour later, accompanied by Doctor Bianchi.
The two men immediately notice that nothing in the bedroom has burnt, but that a sort of greasy soot covers the furniture, the bedsheets, the curtains and the paintings. The policeman exclaims:
“It’s extraordinary! You would say that the Countess has been consumed by an interior fire…”
Doctor Bianchi adds:
“A fire of rare intensity, for you know that, to burn a human body and reduce it to ashes, you need a heat of 2,500 degrees! But a heat of 2,500 degrees would have destroyed the whole house…”
The following day, the day after that, and for weeks, policemen and doctors try to solve the enigma posed by the death of Countess Cornelia di Bandi. Finally, Commissioner Antonielli, finding no explanation, writes in conclusion to his investigation “that a mysterious fire seems to have lit itself spontaneously inside the Countess’ chest”.
And the dossier is filed.
Second case: on 2 July 1951, Mrs Carpenter, who is the owner of a house in Saint Petersburg (Florida) brings a telegramme to Mrs Reeser who is renting an apartment there. She knocks several times on the door. Obtaining no answer, she tries to open it. The doorknob is burning hot. She then notices that there is a slight odour of singeing in the air. Panicked, she calls the Fire Department. The firemen break down the door with axes and find the apartment intact, except that, in the salon, a big armchair, of which only the metal springs remain, has burnt completely, along with the centre of the rug. Just above it, a black stain marks the ceiling… But where is Mrs Reeser?
Moving closer, the firemen suddenly discover what is left of her: her head, completely carbonised and reduced to the dimension of a tennis ball… In the ashes, they find a fragment of spine and a little piece of foot… That is all.
The Police come to investigate. With no result. Then Doctor Wilton Krogman, a specialist in death by fire at the School for Medicine of the State of Pennsylvania, is called in. He had been on holiday nearby. He declares:
“It is the most astounding thing that I have ever seen. I am unable to imagine such a complete cremation without more damage to the apartment itself. I have never seen any human skull shrunk like that by intense heat, either. In general, skulls swell or explode into a thousand pieces…”
There again, the dossier is filed without any explanation being given…
Third case: in 1885, on a farm near Senecca, Illinois, on Christmas morning, John Larson discovers the body of his employer Patrick Rooney in the middle of the kitchen, stretched out on a sort of film of coagulated fat. Larson leaps onto his horse and goes to tell Rooney’s son who lives close by.
Back at the farm, the two men notice a hole near the kitchen table. They lean over it and find a calcinated skull, a few burnt bones and a little pile of ashes. These are the remains of Mrs Rooney, the farmer’s spouse.
The Police, alerted, come to investigate. The Medical Examiner concludes death by asphyxia for Patrick Rooney, from the smoke of his wife’s body, which was burning.
The Inspector in charge of the case, after a long investigation which gives – again – no result, contents himself with writing that “Mrs Rooney disappeared in a fire of fantastic heat and of an unknown nature, which, curiously did not extend farther than the immediate vicinity”.
And the dossier is filed.
The fourth case is even more extraordinary, for it is triple.
On 7 April 1938, the cargo ship Ulrich is sailing towards Liverpool. Suddenly, the First Mate notices that the boat is yawing as if it were drifting. Very intrigued, he goes to see what the man at the helm is doing. A surprise awaits him: the man has disappeared. In his place, near the wheel, he discovers a little pile of ashes and a pair of slightly calcinated shoes. There is no trace of a fire: the wheel, the compass are untouched.
The First Mate then questions the crew. No-one heard the slightest cry. As well as that, the sky is limpid, which excludes any lightning bolt hypothesis.
Conclusion: the man at the helm of the Ulrich died by spontaneous combustion.
However, on this same 7 April 1938, near Upton-by-Chester, in England, the Police discover a lorry in a ditch. On the seat, there is a calcinated head and a few blackened bones mixed with greasy ash. This is all that remains of the driver George Turner who has been completely incinerated.
The lorry’s cushions are barely singed. Again, the fire appears to have started inside the victim’s body…
That is not all.
On this same day, in Holland, near Nimegue, a shopkeeper William Ten Bruick is discovered dead, “burnt beyond all recognition”, according to the Police report, in his Volkswagen. Once more, although all that is left of the driver is a magma of ashes, fat and calcinated bones, the car is only singed. On top of which, the petrol tank is intact…
An investigation is ordered. It gives no result. And the Police Inspector who led it contents himself with writing in conclusion to his report: “It seems that the victim was consumed by an interior fire of mysterious nature…”.
After which, he too files the dossier.
To be continued.