The mystery of spontaneous human combustion

A literary concern

Whether or not spontaneous human combustion is real — and the evidence certainly seems to suggest that it isn’t — it became a major source of worry for readers in the 1800s thanks to a very unlikely source: Charles Dickens.

In the December 1852 installment of his serialized novel Bleak House, author Charles Dickens dispatched of the alcoholic landlord Mr. Krook via a conveniently-timed case of spontaneous combustion. As in most instances of SHC, Krook’s body was reduced to ash, while his junk-filled apartment made it through the fire unscathed, save for some grease on the windows and a putrid smell. (The stack of papers in Krook’s cluttered abode would ultimately and conveniently solve Bleak House’s main conflict, a legal case called Jarndyce and Jarndyce.)

At the time, the public considered the scientifically-minded Dickens a “realistic” author, and when he used SHC as a plot device, most readers assumed that it was just as real as Dickens’ other subjects, which included smallpox, sleep apnea, and tuberculosis. Some scholars, including Dickens’ close friend George Lewes, didn’t swallow the story quite as easily. Lewes attacked Dickens in a public newspaper, claiming that Bleak House gave “credence to a scientific impossibility.” Dickens shot back by citing numerous examples of apparent spontaneous human combustion from throughout history and by citing recent scientific discoveries — including oxygen, which is crucial for both the body and fires — to make his case.