Popular Science

Charles Dickens's belief in spontaneous combustion sparked Victorian London's hottest debate

Excerpt: Caesar's Last Breath.
lit match

Can people burst into flames spontaneously? No, but it sounds cool.


The following is an excerpt from CAESAR’S LAST BREATH: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us by Sam Kean.

Midnight finally struck, and they descended the stairs. Walking through Mr. Krook’s shop — crammed with rags, bottles, bones, and other trash — was unpleasant even during the daytime. Tonight they sensed something positively evil. Outside Krook’s bedroom near the back of the shop, a black cat Leaped out and hissed. Grease stained the walls and ceiling inside the bedroom as if 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. They swung their lantern around, searching for Krook.

They finally spotted a pile of ash on the floor. They stared stupidly for a moment — before turning and running. They burst onto the street and shouted for help, help! But it was too late. Old Krook was dead, a victim of spontaneous combustion.

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