Booze And Bust

Dec 29 2012 @ 5:28pm

During America's temperance movement, rumors of alcohol-based spontaneous human combustion were common:

Thomas de Quincey confessed to fearing that his addictions might lead to such "anomalous symptoms," including spontaneous combustion. "Might I not myself take leave of the literary world in that fashion?" he wondered. A drunk explodes in Melville’s Redburn, and Charles Brockden Brown’s Wieland also features spontaneous human combustion (though, in a rarity, the victim there is not an alcoholic). And then there is Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, a novel notable not just for being one of the towering masterpieces of Victorian fiction, but because of its thirtieth chapter, in which the minor character—the alcoholic landlord Mr. Krook—spontaneously bursts into flames.

Amazingly, "the belief in spontaneous human combustion … outlasted the temperance movement, not the other way around":

While largely discredited by the beginning of the twentieth century, it lingered in the medical literature. As the height of Prohibition, Dr. W. A. Brend’s well respected Handbook of Medical Jurisprudence and Toxicology (1928) contained an entry for spontaneous combustion: "Spontaneous combustion of the body, in the sense that the layman attaches to the words, never occurs; but, very rarely, a state of the tissues exists for which Dixon Mann suggests the term preternatural combustibility. The condition has been most frequently noticed in the bodies of fat, bloated individuals who have been excessive drinkers. Probably, in such cases, inflammable gases are generated in the body after death, and, if a light is near, become ignited, leading to a partial consumption of the soft tissues."