Spontaneous Human Combustion?

Photo of John Bentley, who died from spontaneous combustion (also in PA) in 1966.

According to this story, published by the Scranton Tribune on December 16, 1896, Sarah Mullen's unusual death was caused (according to the coroner) by "inhaling flame".  However, the evidence presented by the newspaper seems to indicate that Mrs. Mullen may have died as a result of spontaneous combustion.  Read the following article and draw your own conclusions:

Young Son Makes a Ghastly Find

A ghastly sight met the gaze of Edward Mullen, a 16 year old  lad, as he entered his mother's home on Hemlock Street late yesterday afternoon.  Seated at a table in the summer kitchen attached to the house was the dead body of his mother, Sarah Mullen, a widow of about 60 years old, whose upper body was burned to a crisp and whose clothing was still smoldering.

The flesh was blackened and so badly burned that it was with difficulty the body could be handled later.  The hair was burned from the head and the features were not recognizable.  There was no other person in the house when the son arrived.

A daughter, Tessie, reached the house a few moments following her brother and she too saw the gruesome sight.  

Mrs. Mullen is the mother of five children, two of whom do not live in the city.  She was in Clarke Bros.' store on the West Side during the afternoon and returned home about 4 o'clock bringing with her a quantity of articles purchased.

Probably an Accident

From the appearance of the rooms, the woman's death was probably due to accidental burning.  On the ground floor are three rooms, the kitchen in the rear connecting with a summer kitchen.  Mrs. Mullen had evidently started a fire in the stove in the main kitchen.  She used kerosene, a can of which stood near the stove.  

In lighting the fire the flames spread to her waist.  She rushed from the room and into the rear kitchen, where she was overcome by shock and flung herself into a chair alongside a common wood table.

Death was probably painless, as her son found her with her elbows resting on the table and her head pressed between her hands.  Her lower clothing was not burned, but from the waist up the body was literally broiled.  Smoke was curling upward from the sickening mass when the son made his discovery.....

...Coroner Longstreet and Deputy Pennypacker were engaged until a late hour at Rendham* on the sensational case of death from fright, which is reported elsewhere... Death the coroner said was caused by inhaling flame.

*Present-day Old Forge

(view the complete newspaper article here)



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