Recently, we read a bit about women, drinking, gin, and the odd outbreak of spontaneous combustion that seemed to strike women in the early modern era. The topic of spontaneous combustion was of particular interest to the class. These stories spread via newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to the cases we read about in Jessica Warner’s Craze, there were other cases, like this one reported in the The New-York Weekly Journal, March 7, 1736. In this account, titled, “Extract of a Letter from Verona,” a 62 year-old woman, who “had been used to wash and rub herself every Day with Spirits of Camphire, as a proper Means to prevent Colds and Coughs…” met a harrowing end on March 14, 1731. The extract reads:
“On the 14th of March 1731, in the Evening, she went up, according to Custom, to her Room, without any unusual Token or Symtom, but only that she seem’s somewhat sad or melancholy. There was not the least Fire or Light in her Room, and the Air was clear and serene the whole Night. In the Morning this Woman was found near her bed burnt to Ashes, all but the Shinbones and Feet, and three Fingers of one Hand : The Ashes were damp and clammy, and stunk intolerably. The Walls of the Room, together with the Bed and the other Furniture, were covered with a fine but moist Dust, which had even penetrated into the Chamber that lay above it. The Ceiling was almost cover’d with a Sort of Moisture of a dark, yellow Colour, which gave a very offensive Smell. Those Parts of the Body that remained unconsum’d were of a blackish Hue; nothing of whatever else was in the Room was consum’d; only the Tallow of two Candles was quite melted, but the Wick was not burnt : The blackish Hue of the Remains of the Body, the Consumption of the other Parts, and their Reduction to Ashes, were evident Proofs of a Fire…”
What was to blame for this woman’s violent end? Why, the spirituous liquors the woman used to prevent colds, of course.
These cases of spontaneous combustion are curious, to say the least, but such stories served as enduring cautionary tales warning against the ill effects of liquor on a woman’s body.
For anyone interested in reading further about women, the 18th c. “Gin Craze,” and spontaneous combustion, see the following article by Siobhan Phillips, “Intoxicating Women: Travels in Gin and Gender.”