Woman’s demise points to spontaneous combustion

Mysteries
fire

Editor’s note: The fourth in a series of reports on strange mysteries with connections to Christmas. Watch for more, concluding on Christmas Eve.


MYSTERY WIRE — A Christmas Eve incident from 1885 remains one of the most famous cases of spontaneous human combustion on record.

The remains of Matilda Rooney were found in the kitchen of her Seneca, Illinois, house. She was reduced to 12 pounds of ash that included the charred remains of a human foot, burned into a blackened hole in the floor. There was no other fire damage apparent in the kitchen.

Matilda’s husband, Patrick, was discovered dead in a bedroom. Officials determined he died of smoke inhalation.

The scene was discovered by a farmhand, John Larson, who worked for the Rooneys and spent the holiday with them. He told authorities he had awoken in the night with a coughing fit, but he went back to sleep. In the morning, he noticed soot on his pillow and found Patrick Rooney’s body.

A doctor who came to the house to perform an inquest determined that the hole in the kitchen contained Matilda Rooney’s remains.

Authorities estimated that the fire that consumed Matilda Rooney burned at about 2,500 fahrenheit, but it did not spread.

How did it happen? Investigators said excessive alcohol consumption could have caused Matilda Rooney to spontaneously combust, and local legends quickly attributed her death to divine retribution for drinking too much on Christmas Eve.

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