Alamy (Dickens) / IStock (Fire)
Alamy (Dickens) / IStock (Fire)

How Dickens Fueled Spontaneous Combustion Truthers

Alamy (Dickens) / IStock (Fire)
Alamy (Dickens) / IStock (Fire)

This story originally appeared in print in the December 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.

By Sam Kean

The first thing they noticed was the smell—like someone frying rancid meat. The two men sat in their flat in central London, awaiting their midnight appointment with the old, alcoholic Mr. Krook, who lived downstairs. As they chatted uneasily, ominous sights and smells kept distracting them. Black soot swirled through the room. A pungent yellow grease stained the windowsill. And that smell!

At last, after midnight, they descended the stairs. Mr. Krook’s shop—crammed with dirty rags, bottles, bones, and other hoarded trash—was unpleasant even in daytime. But tonight they sensed something positively evil. Outside Krook’s bedroom near the back of the shop, a cat leaped out and snarled. When they entered Krook’s room, the odor choked them. Grease stained the walls and ceiling as if it were painted on. Krook’s coat and cap lay on a chair; a bottle of gin sat on the table. But the only sign of life was the cat, still hissing. The men swung their lantern around, looking for Krook, who was nowhere to be seen.

Then they saw the pile of ash on the floor. They stared for a moment, before turning and running. They burst onto the street, shouting for help. But it was too late: Old Krook was gone, a victim of spontaneous combustion.

When Charles Dickens published this scene in December 1852—an installment from his serialized novel Bleak House—most readers swallowed it as fact. After all, Dickens wrote realistic stories, and he took great pains to render scientific matters like smallpox infections and neurological disorders accurately. So even though Krook was fictional, the public trusted that Dickens had portrayed spontaneous combustion with his customary precision.

Most of the public, anyway. A few readers were outraged by the scene. After all, scientists had been laboring to debunk old nonsense like clairvoyance, mesmerism, and the idea that people sometimes burst into flames. And key discoveries about heat, electricity, and other phenomena provided strong support for their view, showing that the human body, far from being otherworldly, was subject to all physical laws of nature. But the science was still behind. And there were enough mysteries for old wives’ tales to retain a foothold. This only made both sides more desperate to prove their case, and within two weeks skeptics began challenging Dickens in print, inciting one of the strangest controversies in literary history.

Leading the charge was George Lewes, a Victorian-era Richard Dawkins—always ready to attack superstitions. Lewes had studied physiology as a young man, so he understood the body. He also had a foot in the literary world as a critic and playwright and as George Eliot’s longtime lover. In fact, he counted Dickens as a friend.

But you wouldn’t know that from Lewes’s response to the story. Writing in the newspaper The Leader, he acknowledged that artists have a license to bend the truth, but protested that novelists can’t just ignore the laws of physics. “The[se] circumstances are beyond the limits of acceptable fiction,” he wrote, “and give credence to a scientific impossibility.” He accused Dickens of cheap sensationalism and “of giving currency to a vulgar error.”

Dickens swung back. Since he published a new installment of Bleak House each month, he had time to slip a rejoinder into the next episode. As the action picks back up with the inquest into Krook’s death, Dickens mocks his critics as eggheads too blind to see plain evidence: “Some of these authorities (of course the wisest) hold with indignation that the deceased had no business to die in the alleged manner,” Dickens wrote. To them, “going out of the world by any such by-way [was] wholly unjustifiable and personally offensive.” But common sense eventually triumphs, and the coroner in the story declares, “These are mysteries we can’t account for!”

In private letters to Lewes, Dickens continued his defense, mentioning several historical cases of spontaneous combustion throughout history. He leaned especially hard on the case of an Italian countess who had reportedly combusted in 1731. She bathed in camphorated spirits of wine (a mixture of brandy and camphor); the morning after one such bath, her maid walked into her room to find the bed unslept on. As with Mr. Krook, soot hung suspended in the air, along with a yellow haze of oil on the windows. The maid found the countess’s legs—just her legs—standing several feet from the bed. A pile of ashes sat between them, along with her charred skull. Nothing else seemed amiss, except for two melted candles nearby. And because a priest had recorded this tale, Dickens considered it trustworthy.

He wasn’t the only author to write about spontaneous combustion. Mark Twain, Herman Melville, and Washington Irving all had characters erupt as well. Much like the “nonfiction” accounts they drew from, most of the victims were old, sedentary alcoholics. Their torsos always burned completely, but their extremities often survived intact. Eerier still, beyond the occasional scorch mark on the floor, the flames never consumed anything but the victim’s body. The strangest part? Dickens and others did have some science backing them up.

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Spontaneous combustion was linked to one of the most important discoveries in medical history, one that revolutionized our understanding of how the body worked—the discovery of oxygen. After chemists isolated oxygen for the first time in the late 1700s, they noticed that it played a role in both burning and breathing. With that, many scientists declared that breathing was nothing but slow combustion—a constant burning—inside us.

If slow fires burned inside us all the time, why couldn’t they suddenly flare up? Especially in alcoholics, whose very organs were dripping with gin or rum. (Plus, not to put too fine a point on it, we all pass flammable gases several times each day.) As for what sets the fires off, perhaps it was fevers or raging hot tempers.

Lewes, however, wouldn’t back down. He dismissed Dickens’s sources as “humorous, but not convincing,” noting that several were more than a century old. It didn’t help that Dickens enlisted the support of a celebrity doctor who promoted the fad pseudoscience of phrenology as well. Lewes also pointed out, rightly, that no factual accounts of spontaneous combustion had been written by eyewitnesses: They were all collected secondhand, from a cousin’s friend or a landlord’s brother-in-law.

Most damning of all, Lewes cited recent experiments in physiology that revealed how the liver metabolizes booze, breaking it down for elimination. As a result, the organs of an alcoholic aren’t soaking in alcohol. Even if they were, science had shown that the body is roughly 75 percent water, so it couldn’t catch on fire by itself. Not to mention, it was obvious to doctors by then that fevers don’t burn nearly hot enough to ignite anything.

Not surprisingly, Dickens dug in. His relationship with science had always been ambivalent: He couldn’t deny the marvels that science had wrought, but he was fundamentally romantic and thought science killed the imagination and undermined Christian life. He also detested society’s growing dependence on data and reductionism. Artistically, Dickens considered the scene with Krook so central to the novel (which involves a ruinous court case that consumes the lives and fortunes of everyone involved) that he couldn’t stand it being picked apart. And the more defensive Dickens got, the more disgusted Lewes became. They bickered for 10 months, before mutually dropping the matter when the final installment of Bleak House appeared in September 1853.

History, of course, has judged Lewes the winner here: Outside of the tabloids, no human being has ever spontaneously combusted. In reality, practically every “spontaneous combustion” case has found the person to be near a fire source like candles or cigarettes. They likely accidentally lit themselves on fire, and clothing, fat tissue, methane gas, and (if it’s built up from alcoholism) acetone kindled the unfortunate blaze. Still, Lewes and other scientists didn’t understand as much as they assumed. For instance, they believed that the combustion of energy inside us took place inside the lungs and not, as we now know, inside cells themselves.

Dickens’s popularity no doubt delayed the death of spontaneous combustion in the popular mind. (One medical text was still discussing claims of spontaneous combustion as late as 1928.) But Dickens was certainly right about one thing: that in human affairs, spontaneous combustion does happen. Friendships and reputations can ignite instantly and leave little in their wake. Dickens and Lewes eventually patched things up and seemingly never spoke of the matter again. But for much of 1853 the fires burned awfully hot.


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10 Facts About Aspirin
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Aspirin may be one of the world's best-known wonder drugs, able to do everything from cure a headache to reduce a fever, but its powers stretch beyond your medicine cabinet.

1. It's not the same as acetaminophen (used in Tylenol), ibuprofen (used in Advil and Motrin), or naproxen (used in Aleve).

2. There’s more than one way to take an aspirin. Americans swallow their tablets whole. The British dissolve theirs in water. And the French prefer theirs as suppositories.

3. The ancient Egyptians took their painkillers in the form of tree bark. Egyptian doctors used to give their patients willow bark to relieve pain because it contains salicin—the raw ingredient in aspirin.

4. Aspirin broke into the European market in 1763, after British clergyman Edward Stone chewed on some willow bark and felt a renewed vigor. He shared the stuff with his parishioners and relieved 50 cases of rheumatic fever in the process. After Stone reported his discovery to the Royal Society of London, the race was on to package the miracle cure.

5. A century later, French chemist Charles Gerhardt published an article on how to synthesize salicin in the lab, creating acetylsalicylic acid. Nobody paid attention.

6. Forty years after that, in 1897, German scientist Felix Hoffman followed Gerhardt’s process and took credit for inventing aspirin. Hoffman worked for Bayer Industries, which introduced the medicine in 1899 as the first mass-marketed drug.

7. In the mid-1940s, aspirin became a huge hit in Argentina thanks to radio jingles sung by future First Lady Eva Perón. Her country became the biggest per-capita consumer of aspirin in the world.

8. The wonder drug doesn’t just cure headaches; it can also revive a dead car battery. Just drop two tablets into the battery, let the salicylic acid combine with the battery’s sulfuric acid, and you’ve got an instant jump! Just make sure you don’t have any salt on your hands. Adding sodium to the aspirin-and-car-battery combo can cause an explosion.

9. So how does aspirin work? No one knew for sure until the 1970s, when British scientist John Vane discovered that aspirin reduces the body’s production of prostaglandins—fatty acids that cause swelling and pain.

10. Here’s another reason to eat your fruits and veggies: When the body gets a healthy dose of the benzoic acid in those foods, it makes its own salicylic acid, or aspirin.

A version of this story appeared in Mental Floss magazine.

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Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.

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