Civilization was transformed the moment we discovered it. We’ve built it into our religions and use it to advance our technology. Whether we take it for granted or not, there’s a darker side to this tool, and if we’re not careful, we might get burned.
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This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
In nineteen, eighty, seven in a small village in north western India, a young widow stood beside the funeral pyre that held the body of her husband. She was just eighteen and he had been twenty four is a flames climb higher and cremated his body. She stepped forward and threw herself onto him right there in front of thousands who had gathered for the funeral. She burned alive and people responded by building her a shrine. What she did as horrible as it sounds to our modern sensibilities, was a tragic yet come and act in her
sure it's an ancient hindu funeral ritual known as suttee, and by practising this young widow became one more participants in a very old tradition. Suttee as practice dates back at least two thousand years wasn't in obscure practice, either in the last fifteen years prior to its ban and
one twenty nine it estimated at over. Eight thousand women committed suicide through suttee and
although its illegal today, it still occasionally happens in remote villages that have yet to leave the old ways behind. Maybe that's because it's a ritual, the taps into a deep ancient attraction we all seem to have toward fire for a very long time. Fire was a thing power, a thing of mystery or ancestor
torches were used to frighten off predators and were then brought indoors to keep them warm on cold winter nights
Winds might not have always understood it. We quickly learned that it was a tool we could use
since fire has been something we ve played with an harnessed laxity. Humans have worked into countless religious and civic practices over the centuries. Maybe that's why we tend to think that, where the boss, that we and that the flames are in control, it's just a tool. After all, we are the masters.
But that's a dangerous assumption, because fire has one other inescapable: undeniable quality, whether we want to or not fire burns. I Marin Mahnke, and this is more
throughout the world,
elaborate complex history of humankind. There is
small handful of recurring themes, their universal,
seeing the borders of culture and chronology and they never seem to go out of style power. Death, love money. These are ever present, ideals that play out time and again, like main characters in an epic novel and with them through at all from the beginning of civilization. Up to the present has been fire.
The ancient myths build stories to explain why we even had something as dangerous and helpful as fire. The greek story Prometheus
tells us of how he defied Zeus Install fire from Mount Olympus, bringing it
humanity as a source of power and civilization, and that idea the notion of a deity or superhero
deals fire from the realm of the gods is present in dozens of cultures around the world.
across the Atlantic and centuries later. The Cherokee would speak of grandmothers, spider and how she s,
the land of light and brought fire back in a clay pot hebrew myth
Ology tells of a fallen angel name, his easel, who brings knowledge of how to use fire in granted to humanity.
One of the Hindu Sacred texts, known as the rig Veda, carries the same theme with fire.
locked away from humanity until a brave hero retrieves it in all of the stories. Fire is a possession of the divine and when he managed to get a hold of it, they grow in advance and changed for the better. It's not difficult to see, then how the idea of fire evolved over time to become a sort of symbol of the divine
bless us in a sense, it makes our lives better. As a result, we ve worked fire into every aspect of our modern lives. It's the cornerstone of technology
has enabled us to evolve from cave paintings to sell phones, I think about it. The earliest examples of writing were on clay tablet. If it was clay, tablets couldn't be fired, it would have fallen apart and vanished long ago. Fire in a literal sense made it possible to pass knowledge down.
The next generation early on, we also discovered and other place in our lives for fire. Our funerals evidence for cremation dates back at least twenty thousand year,
and although it was never the sole method of burial, it was vastly more common than it is today. The speed bump was Christianity.
When belief. In the resurrection of the body spread across Europe and the new world, a distaste for cremation came with it. In some places and times it was even outlawed carrying the death penalty.
Cremation is a mixture of science and symbolism in one sense, are
these are just reduced to their basic elements, returning them to the earth as part of a greater chemical cycle in another, the afterlife in the form of fire consumes us either way. You view it at the core of the act: is the ever present force
fire. Cremation is a powerful process to even at temperatures in excess of fifteen hundred degrees Fahrenheit. It still takes the average human body almost three hours to burn completely when it's over, though all that remains is just a few pounds of bone fragments which are then crushed and move.
To an early true too much of human history, though cremation is something we ve managed to twist and then to our own nature. As far back as four thousand years ago, the Babylonians use death by burning as a punishment for certain crimes that Brad
was echoed in ancient Egypt and carried on later in the roman empire by the third
century. Many european kingdoms had begun to make burning a legally required method of execution for certain crimes wielded by christian emperors. That punishment quickly became focused on people acute,
of heresy, restrain away from accepted religious norms of the time. That's why, by the fifteen hundreds witchcraft and burning at this time?
and become as synonymous as chocolate and peanut butter. Just you know a lot less enjoyable. It has anything to learn here. It's that humans have a long history of burning each other. We burn are dead and sometimes we even burn living. The key to both scenarios, though, is that were in control, and we know the reasons why, whether their honourable or hers,
in every case fire has been a tool in our hands. There have been rare and unexpected moments in history, though, when then hasn't been the case,
when someone has been consumed by fire and despite all
attempts to explain why were left with nothing but mystery, and it's happened enough that we ve even given it a name spontaneous human combustion,
We didn't always have a name for it: the term
Spontaneous human combustion first appeared in Prince in one thousand seven hundred and forty six, but there were stories told long before that fit the description. One of the first, as far as I can tell it, was written down in one thousand. Six hundred and forty one by danish physician Thomas,
According to Bartlett, there was an italian night in the fifteenth century, name: paleness forced yes, the story
was that the night was at home in MILAN in one thousand four hundred and seventy eight eating and drinking with friends and family
And he apparently had a great love of strong wine, which you drink a lot of that night
Bartle describes how the night, the fully intoxicated and stinking of alcohol belched fire
probably surprised him as much as his parents who were right there with him at the table and then.
Without any source of ignition. He burst into. Flames died before their eyes.
More than a century later, a professor of philosophy, named John Christopher stormiest, recorded a similar tail in one of his books. He tells a brief story of three men who apparently like the party after encouraging each other to get absolutely blitzed on wine too, of the men died, the cause of death was that they had been, and I quote, scorched and suffocated by a flame foreseen itself from the stomach. This idea that
alcohol was to blame, and specifically the excessive ingestion of alcohol was one of the most common explanations tossed around. In the early days of these tales and one level, it was pretty logical. Alcohol is a flammable substance,
so if someone was found mysteriously burned alive and they were unknown alcoholic well, the story
sort of road itself,
On the other hand, though, there was little science to support these claims.
The stories about these events speak of the wrath of God and how this.
in all these alcoholics brought judgement by fire. It was a convenient theory, but it didn't hold water, especially when you take
Story of contesting Cornelia De Bandy into consideration.
Mandy was an italian countess in the city of Justina back in the early part of the 18th century, in an account from one thousand. Seven hundred and thirty one or story was recorded in detail according to the tail at the age of
due to the countess ended her evening, one night with a long conversation with her maid and then retired, to bed.
The following morning. When the maid entered the countess s bedroom, she discuss,
nothing more than two legs and a pile of ash legs. By the way
we're still wearing cloth, stockings and, unlike
other stories of spontaneous human combustion. This woman, one.
and a heavy drinker. In fact, she was known to abstain from alcohol entirely.
Most tales of events like this remit
into the realm of speculation and whispered rumour, and rightly so,
we now and then, though, our superstitions sneak into more formal locations like the courtroom and that's what happened in seventeen twenty five,
John in Nicole Millay we're innkeepers in France and they had quite a reputation Nicole, so the story goes was almost always drunk as she was verbally, abusive and difficult to
work with it. Maybe that's why John was rumored to be sleeping with one of the young servants there at the inn. They were an imperfect coupled with a lot of issues to work through apparently inlaid February of
one thousand five hundred and twenty five a surgeon named Claude Nicola Liquor, was passing through the area and booked a room at the malaise in, according to his account,
the following morning. A small pile of human remains was found in the ins kitchen, but two feet from the hearth. It was Nicole.
Now the remains of her were her unburned feet were skull and a few pieces of her spine
almost immediately. Her husband, John, was arrested and charged with murder by fire of his wife, but he protested the charges he told the king
That is why had going to bed with him at eight p m the previous night, but it
the bad a short while later she told him,
couldn't sleep and she left the room he is,
that she'd gone off to drink somewhere by herself and rolled over and went back to sleep. Consider,
in all the rumours about their unhappy marriage, the judge was slow to believe the innkeeper. It was too convenient honestly and they were ready to convict and that's when the travelling surgeon Lecoq stepped in. He spoke to the judge. You told him that there were many documented exam.
rules of unexplainable burnings like this, and then there were scientific logical causes behind them. As a medical expert, he supported the idea.
Whatever the true cause of Nicole's death might have been, like. I told the core that her death seemed more like punishment from God for her heavy drinking and bitter attitude and with no physical evidence to support the charge murder. They should lead her husband off the hook,
And it worked, Jamila was released, a free man thanks to a surgeon who was.
Well read and open minded or thanks to a judge who was gullible I'll. Let you decide
that's a luxury. We have when we're talking about stories that our three centuries old after all, a distance that age gives us a bit of freedom in our interpretation when the story is just a few decades old.
the age of photography, forensic science and modern medicine. It gets more tricky and not because it's hard to believe, though, by the opposite. Sometimes the evidence is so overwhelming, so documented and yet so bizarre that it takes on a life and death of its own.
Mary had to visitors on July. First of nineteen fifty one her son Doktor Richard Research, had been to her apartment that even
and they ve been joined by marries landlady MRS Pansy Carpenter. The merry
Was sixty seven years old and she lived
alone in her apartment in Saint Petersburg Florida. So this was probably a friendly social call. Mary
guess left about nine p m that evening she stayed in her recline or in the living room, and they let themselves out, and that was that they accept for waking up at five in the morning to the smell of something burning. Mrs Carpenter had allow
Lee Night sleep. There was a knock on her door at eight a m that morning and she opened it to find the telegraph boy standing there. This was the nineteen fifties well before personal computers and cellphones. So this was basically the mid century equivalent of
text message except. This message was for Mary researcher landlady sign.
for it and then walked up to marries room to deliver it to her. Personally, she knocked a few times and waited
but Mary was either asleep or already out. She figured she would
set it on the kitchen table and remind her later, so she grabbed the Doorn up and then pulled away. The mental knob was hot to the touch. Not only did her
but it set off often alarm inside her head what if there was a fire, so she dashed back down the stairs where to house painters were at work in another of the apartment units and asked for their help. If followed her up and quickly forced the door open.
A wave of he rolled out through the door and the apartment inside showed signs of fire well sort of really. It was just a corner of the living,
centred around the reclined that Mary loved to sit in the chair was in there anymore. All of the wood and fabric had burned away, leaving just a few springs in a blackened pile on the floor and Mary had been in the chair. When
Third, we know this, because when the police environment arrived, they found her unburned foot lane near by
there. Then the burn marks around the ankle, the foot and the fabric of the slippery was inside were both unharmed
they found a few other pieces of Mary in the pile of ash, her liver was their charred and fuse to some vertebrae and her skull was still intact, or at least nearly intact. You see it had somehow
then shrunk. Some anecdotal report say it was the size of a teacup, but the official medical examiners report just says that it was much smaller than it should have been an FBI. Forensic team was called in. They took over and started to really examined the apart.
As a result, things became even more and more confusing and mysterious, if that's even possible, to determine
Mary had been smoking and that she'd been sedated with a sleeping pill, something her son confirmed was part of her evening routine.
They also determine that in order for her body to incinerate so completely a fire of at least three
thousand degrees would have had to burn for over three hours and that's a lot of heat, so you'd expect the apartment to show signs of a fire like that. There were some body was mostly heat related and all of the visible damage was located about four feet off the ground or higher. Above that invisible line candles had melted into puddles of wax a mirror hand crack from the heat, the plastic light switches had melted and greasy soot covered the walls, the Greece. They determine
who was for marries body, Judge Wade about one hundred seventy pounds at the time of her death. The idea was that perhaps a cigarette ignited, her clothing or bathrobe, then her
Body would have burned like a candle wick using her fat as a fuel source. Some scientists think it's possible.
But it would still produce an intense amount of heat and presented some problems for the investigators, because, yes, there was heat damage higher up on the walls and that
Creasy residue right beside the spot where the reclined had once stood. There was a pile of newspapers that remain untouched by the flames. The investigators were baffled. How could a human being burned so thoroughly had only a handful of bones remained and not ignite everything else in the apartment
Towards the end of the investigation, the police brought in a physical anthropologists, Dame Doktor Wilton Grognon, due to his research. He had a
Wealth of experience with the physical elements of events like Mary Resource death later he would write that he could not conceive of such complete cremation without more burning of the apartment. As for the skull that two left doktor Krugman utterly baffled in a newspaper, in your view, shortly after the investigation he told the reporter, I have participated in the investigation of some thirty fire deaths in the past twenty years. Never have I seen a human skull shrink
intense heat. In fact, the opposite has always been true. Krogman later said that the case still haunted him years later, it was the inexplicable nature of it all the mystery. The clues in physics had just didn't seem to line up. You later wrote
the apartment and everything in it should have been consume, are regarded as
the most amazing thing I have ever seen as I review it, the short hairs on my neck bristle with big fear,
where I living in the middle ages, I would mutter.
Something about black magic there's a dance we do with topics like spontaneous human combustion. We want to unravel the truth, to untie the knot and make sense of it all
it's very human of us very logical and rational. I fully support that kind of behaviour. On the other hand, though, we cling to mysteries like a beloved child. Had toy, don't kill the moon, don't shatter the dream. Just let me
level for a little bit longer inside this warm cosy, blanket of unexplainable conundrum. That's you I'm right there with you trust me. We love knowing and we hate knowing
and these stories of Knights and countesses and widows and drunks who have all burst into flames and been reduced to a handful of ash. Well, they do something to us, don't they
That's my authors, like Herman Melville, Mark TWAIN and Charles Dickens, all you spontaneous human combustion to kill off characters in her novels.
Maybe science will one day point to the true source of these events.
Someone in a lab somewhere will be able to reproduce the circumstances and results in brush every last bit of mystery off the box that we use to store these tales in or maybe not because sometimes you just never find the answers you stories are full of the unexplainable.
and that pushes us toward wonder whether we tell ourselves that some natural external source cause the fire or that it came from within, are still left with too many questions why these people? Why was there so little damage outside the location of the body? Why weren't, the houses or apartment
Bert down around them and, like all of the unexplainable tales that Tiggle at the back of our minds, we know we'll never get all the answers. Thankfully, though, the world sometimes tosses news stories are way to remind us that these things still happen and that love it or hate it was still
no the answers, but two thousand eleven in Ireland, the fire department entered the home of an elderly man named Michael flared,
they were responding to a smoke alarm there it when they entered. They found a small pile of human ash on the floor other than some heat damage close to the ash and
of it. On the ceiling. There were no other signs of a fire. The coroner listed, the cause of death as spontaneous human combustion.
Back in nineteen, sixty six another elderly man, Doktor John Bentley from Pennsylvania, suffered a similar fate in his bathroom is creamy
It remains were found beside the toilet in his home. His walker had toppled into the fire. The rubber grips were completely untouched
In nineteen eighty six Kendall mom was worried about his retired Father George, who hadn't called him that day. So he went over to check on him you're trying defined the door knob hot to the touch the windows coded in a dark side, so he led him
then George had died in bed while watching television, but there wasn't much left of him to examine the pile of
was contain too the mattress and nowhere else, forensic investigators to turn.
In that, a fire of nearly three thousand degrees had incinerated the man over the span of ours, which explains the ash, of course, but it does
and explained the box of matches on the bedside table that were unburned and perfectly intact. But the fact that George MOT wasn't a smoker. Yes, the tv melted, the rest of the house was untouched by the fire had to
taking place. As I said a moment ago, the only thing left
George Mott was a small pilot ash and a leg and a skull skull that hadn't exploded or a fallen apart. Mind you. It had shrunk.
This episode of war was written and produced by me. Aaron monkey with research help from Mars set Crockett more is much more than upon guess. There's a book series in bookstores around the country and online, and the second season of the Amazon Prime Television show was recently released, check them both out. If you want more lore in your life, I also make two other upon guests: Erin, monkeys, Cabinet
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Transcript generated on 2022-03-12.