Spontaneous Combustion

I found the following story in The Ipswich Journal, August 23 1856.

“During the last few days public curiosity has been excited to a very unusual pitch by a series of occurrences. On Tuesday night, the 12 inst, an alarm of fire was raised, and, on proceeding to the scene of the danger, a house abutting on the large store-yard belonging to Messrs. Howard, the celebrated implement makers, and tenanted by one of their servants, was on fire.

“It appeared that the family had taken the opportunity of the master’s absence to have a good cleaning down, with an especial view to the riddance of a certain pest better known to Londoners than the happy dwellers in the country [i.e., fleas]. In furtherance of the latter part of this truly housewifery design recourse was … fumigation. A vessel containing broken roll sulphur was placed in what was deemed to be a safe position – viz. in a bassinette, which was removed from its usual place and set in the middle of the room. The sulphur was duly ignited, and the room of course vacated by all except the obnoxious vermin.

“In the space of two hours it was discovered that the sulphurous fluid had escaped into the bassinette, had burnt through the bottom, fired the floor, and eaten its way through the planks. Timely observation and alarm railed to arrest the progress of the fire. All was deemed safe. but on Saturday evening the head of the family returned, and on retiring to rest, and having innocently thrown his damp stockings on the carpet, what was his astonishment at seeing them ignite! Something like a panic seized the household, but at length their fears were pacified and they went to rest.

“On Sunday morning, while the master was attending Divine service at the Methodist chapel, fire was again discovered in the house. Considerable consternation was occasioned to the assembly by the calling out of a fireman during service, and also by the master’s disappearance from his pew. These fires were suppressed, but in the course of the day no less than 30 fires broke out in different parts of the house – in the presence of visitors, most respectable and intelligent men.

“Every part of the furniture in every room of the house appeared to be charged with some mysterious self-igniting gas. Smoke issued suddenly from cupboards, large and small, from almost every drawer, and even from boxes of linen and woollen materials which had not been opened for some length of time prior to Tuesday’s fire.

“Some of the statements made before the coroner are so startling as to be nearly incredible. One gentleman laid his handkerchief down upon the sofa when it forthwith ignited. Another gentleman, while discussing the marvels of the day and washing his hands, discovered that the damp towels on the horse in the bedroom were on fire.

“A lady, anxious to prevent further mischief, had a short time previously examined a box containing articles appertaining to feminine apparel, and pronouncing it safe had shut it up, but on going to remove it felt that it was hot, and on re-opening it discovered the contents ablaze. On Monday morning the phenomena, somewhat abated, re-appeared, and it was found that the greater part of the property in the house was charred or burnt to tinder.

“Two medical gentlemen – Dr Barker and Mr Blower – visited the scene of the fiery mystery, and at noon made an application to the sitting magistrate (in the absence of the mayor) for sanction to their proposal of submitting the matter to the coroner. In the course of the prolonged enquiry the medical gentlemen were of the opinion that the sulphurous fumes, in connection with the gas of the charred wood, had charged the entire house with inflammable gas, which, in some cases by friction, in others by electricity, had been from time to time ignited. The verdict of the jury was, according to the evidence, so far as the fire was concerned, ‘Accidental’, and with regard to the other fires the verdict was an open one”.

Wow, I’m glad they got some science people in there to sort that. My first thought was some truly STELLAR revenge plot enacted by the ghosts of the fleas. Is ectoplasm flammable? I don’t know ghost-science.

To be honest, though, I don’t care what the cause: if your house spontaneously catches fire more than, say, 10 times in a weekend, let it burn down, salt the ground where it stood, and move.

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