The mystery of spontaneous human combustion

A long-lived tradition

If you think that people unexpectedly bursting into flames is a modern phenomenon, think again. The earliest recorded report of spontaneous human combustion dates all the way back to the Late Middle Ages. In 1470, an Italian knight named Polonus Vorstius decided to kick back and relax with a couple of glasses of wine. Unfortunately for Polonus, the chill-session didn’t quite go according to plan. First, he started burping fire. Next, Polonus burst into flames and burned to a crisp in front of his poor, traumatized parents.

That’s how the story goes, anyway. Officially, Polonus Vorstius’ fiery fate didn’t enter the historical record until 1641 — nearly two centuries after Polonus’ demise. That’s when a Danish medical expert named Thomas Bartholin included the event in his magnum opus, the Historiarum Anatomicarum Rariorum, which catalogs strange medical cases from throughout history. Bartholin claimed that he heard the story from later generations of the Vorstius family, but with 200 years between the alleged immolation and Bartholin’s written account, it’s entirely likely that the story had been embellished by the time that Bartholin got to it. At the very least, like every other case of spontaneous human combustion, the Vorstius blaze is more or less impossible to verify.