On 3rd January 1771 the New York Journal reported on a peculiar death that had occurred a few days earlier and which was baffling the police.
Sometime before 7 o'clock on the evening of 31st December 1770 a young charwoman visited her employer a certain Hannah Bradshaw. It was the last time Bradshaw was seen alive. A resident of the Division Street's Lodging House in New York City, Hannah Bradshaw was a 30 year old woman with a dubious reputation. Although described as a "healthy, hearty-looking woman," she was also known as "a woman of large dimensions, masculine person, coarse manners, and notorious in the neighbourhood for her boldness, habitual intemperance, and the vices allied to, and engendered by it." Her nickname, 'Man-o-War Nance' alluded to both her physical size and her fondness for sailors. She was almost certainly a prostitute.
The charwoman left Hannah Bradshaw at around 7.00pm promising to come back the next day. The next morning, January 1, 1771, the young charwoman woman arrived at Division Street as arranged. To reach Bradshaw's room, the charwoman trudged up a rickety wooden staircase on the outside of the building. When no one answered her repeated knocking, she presumed at first that her
employer was sleeping off a drinking session and she left. By 11:00 a.m. there was still no response and a male lodger from downstairs was summoned to help her break a back window and climb inside.
"The most shocking spectacle imaginable…"
She saw what the Journal described as "the most shocking spectacle imaginable." The room had a screen that went all around the room and reached the ceiling; upon looking into this screened area, the reamains of Hannah Bradshaw were discovered. In the middle of the floor was a charred and still smoking four-foot diameter hole.
Near the edge lay a leg fragment with the flesh still attached and an assortment of bones, some of which had been reduced to ashes, all were crumbly to the touch. A blackened partial skeleton lay in the dirt of the crawl space below. A big gelatinous blob of intestines remained intact, as did some flesh on the head, shoulder, and leg. A foul-smelling, greasy matter coated the walls and ceiling, and the heat generated by the strange blaze had even drawn the turpentine from the boards and wainscotting. A rush-bottomed chair was burned on the leg nearest the hole, but nowhere else.
Despite the great heat, the screen, which almost touched the hole, was undamaged; and near where Bradshaw's head had apparently been, was a candlestick with all the tallow melted off the unburnt wick. The ceiling and upper walls were black "as if covered with lampblack," and the heat had been so great that it extracted the turpentine out of the boards and wainscotting of the room. Strangest of all, the fire that had destroyed Bradshaw had already extinguished itself, for "not a spark remained."
The Professor James Hamilton Case (1835 Nashville, Tennessee, USA )
In 1835 the Medical Society of Tennessee wrote up an account of partial combustion in their official 'Transactions' journal. The subject was a respected professor of mathematics of the University of Nashville by the name of James Hamilton.
A bright flame, several inches long, "about the size of a dime in diameter.."
On January 5, 1835, it was a very cold day and Professor Hamilton had walked some three-quarters of a mile to his home. Forty minutes later he decided to check the outside temperate and examined a hygrometer (thermometer) that he had hung outside his house. It showed a temperature of 8 degrees. He felt a sudden pain in his left leg "like a hornet sting, accompanied by a sensation of heat." He looked down and saw a bright flame, several inches long, "about the size of a dime in diameter," issuing like a gas flame from his trousered leg.
Alarmed, the professor slapped at the flame several times but it continued to burn. Figuring that it would go out if he cut the oxygen supply, he clipped his hands around it and he was eventually able to extinguish it. After putting out the flame he examined his leg and found an injury that resembled an abrasion. The wound was small: about a third of an inch long and very dry. The scar tissue had bunched up in a roll at the lower edge of the abraded surface. When his clothes were examined, there was a hole where the flame emerged, but the surrounding areas were not even scorched. On the inside leg of his trousers he found a dark yellow fuzz which he managed to scrape off with his penknife.
The Countess Cornelia di Bandi (1731 Italy)
On April 4, 1731, the remains of the 62-year-old Countess Cornelia di Bandi of Cesena, Italy, were found on the floor of her bedroom by her maid.
The previous night the maid bid the Countess good night and closed the bedroom door. The Countess did not arise at her usual hour and the maid entered the room and discovered the Countess' remains on the floor of the room near the window.
"The skull was missing the back half…the brain had fallen between her legs."
The Countess' body had been reduced to a circle of ashes with little else remaining: three blackened fingers and two stockinged legs. A large and calcined portion of her skull (it was missing the back-half, the chin, and the brain) had fallen between her legs.
The ashes left a "greasy and stinking moisture" on the skin when picked up. The bed and covers were unburned and raised up on one side indicating that the Countess had calmly risen from it. A small oil-lamp on the floor nearby was covered by the ashes from the Countess' body and empty of oil. All the furniture was covered with the moist soot which had penetrated a chest of drawers, ruining the clothing. The soot had also drifted into an adjacent kitchen coating almost everything. In addition to this soot, the Countess' bedroom had a stinking, greasy, yellowish fluid trickling down the lower part of the windows.
The authorities were perplexed. The fact that the body was in the centre of the room and the position of the skull seemed to indicate that the countess had been consumed by a fire starting in her torso and burning with such rapidity that it had fallen between her legs.
Robert Francis Bailey (1967 Lambeth, London, England)
On the morning of 13 September 1967, a group of female employees were on their way to start an early shift. Walking through Lambeth,
South London, they passed a derelict and boarded house. One of the employees noticed a bright flickering light inside the property.
"To their horror they realised the man had bitten the newel stair post in his convulsions"
Believing it was a fire, one of the workers telephoned the emergency services at 5:19 am. Within five minutes the local Lambeth Fire Brigade had responded and were on the scene by 5:24 am. They were led by Brigade commander John Stacey. Unable to access the property by the front door, the Fire crew entered by a window and made for the flickering light. In the hallway they immediately found the burning body of a male lying prostate out at the foot of the stairs. From his position it looked like the man was doubled in pain. To their horror they realised the man had bitten the newel stair post in his convulsions. The fire itself was jetting out from a small slit in the man's abdomen and the charring the immediate woodwork.
Commander Stacey was concerned that the man was still alive and immediately ordered the hoses be played upon the body. The flame refused to extinguish and continued to burn a bright blue as though pressurised. Eventually, however, it was extinguished and the Brigade Commander checked the body to establish the man was dead. It was then he discovered that the man had bitten the mahogany newel post so hard that the teeth were embedded in the wood and had to be prised open.
"We extinguished the flames by playing a hose into the abdominal cavity."
Commander Stacey describes what happened in his own words: "When I got in through the window I found the body of a tramp named Bailey laying at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the second floor. He was lying partly on his left side. There was a four-inch (102 mm) slit in his abdomen from which was issuing, at force, a blue flame. The flame was beginning to burn the wooden stairs. We extinguished the flames by playing a hose into the abdominal cavity. Bailey was alive when he started burning. He must have been in terrible pain. His teeth were sunk into the mahogany newel post of the staircase. I had to prise his jaws apart to release the body. The fire was coming from within the abdomen of his body. [...] There’s no doubt whatsoever, that fire began inside the body. That’s the only place it could have begun, inside that body.”
Enquiries established that the body was a local alcoholic, non smoker, Robert Bailey, who had sought shelter in the abandoned house overnight. The police, anxious to eliminate foul play, found that the empty house had no power supplies: both gas and electricity had been cut off. There were no accelerants and no matches at the scene.
Death due to "Unknown Causes"
The incident caused quite a stir and went before the Westminster Coroner Dr Gavin Thurston who initially wanted the cause of death to be listed as "asphyxia due to inhalation of fire fumes", but a second hearing found that Bailey's death was due to "unknown causes".