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Deja Vu

February 20, 2013

Bursting Into Flames

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2013: Oklahoma authorities investigating a man’s death have come up with an unusual theory: the victim may have spontaneously combust. The local sheriff’s department has ruled out arson and discovered no signs of struggle, and research by the department has led them to believe combustion may be the answer to the mystery. KSDK, a local NBC affiliate station, reports:

“The body was burned and it was incinerated,” said Sheriff Lockhart. He said in a telephone interview he believes the death could be a rare case of spontaneous human combustion.

“I think there’s only about 200 cases worldwide and I’m not saying that this has happened I’m just saying that we haven’t ruled it out,” said Sheriff Lockhart.

“If you read about spontaneous human combustion that’s what we have here.”

1852: Charles Dickens faced criticism from readers and scientists alike when an installment of Bleak House killed a character by spontaneously setting him alight. (A death explored in a recent Roundtable.) The remains of Krook, an alcoholic rag-and-bone dealer, are found by his acquaintances, who instantly recognize spontaneous combustion as the cause of his demise:

Here is the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is—is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log and wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? Oh, Horror, he IS here! And this,—from which we run away, striking out the light and overturning one another into the street,—is all that represents him.

Help, help, help! Come into this house for Heaven’s sake!

Plenty will come in, but none can help. Call the death by any name Your Highness will, attribute it to whom you will, or say it might have been prevented how you will, it is the same death eternally—inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humors of the vicious body itself, and that only—Spontaneous Combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died.

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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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