Wednesday, January 19, 2011

From the Ashes of Hannah Bradshaw

As the eighteenth century waned, the Age of Enlightenment settled over Europe, and its impact could be felt as far away as America. One of its byproducts was an explosion of literature with previously taboo themes: social upheaval, ruling class tyrannies, and supernatural influences. The American press catered to the public’s increasingly macabre tastes by printing grisly stories next to war reports and shipping news. One such tale appeared in the January 3, 1771 of the New York Journal.
The Journal informed its readers that on the evening of December 31, a young charwoman visited her employer, thirty-year-old Hannah Bradshaw, in the latter’s Division Street lodging house. Bradshaw was almost certainly a prostitute: author William Dunlap remembered her as being “a woman of large dimensions, masculine person, coarse manners, and notorious in the neighborhood for her boldness, habitual intemperance, and the vices allied to, and engendered by it.” Her nickname, ‘Man-o-War Nance’ allegedly derived from her fondness for sailors and the dives they frequented.
When the two women parted company at seven o’clock, Bradshaw was slightly drunk but otherwise in good shape. She asked her visitor to return the next day to clean her room.
The charwoman dutifully arrived early on New Year’s Day. To reach Bradshaw’s room, she trudged up a rickety wooden staircase on the outside of the building. When no one answered her repeated knocking, she presumed at first that her employer was sleeping off a spree. But when 11:00 a.m. arrived without a response, she became worried and summoned a male lodger to help her break the room’s window and climb inside. There she saw what the Journal described as “the most shocking spectacle imaginable.”
A charred and smoking hole, four feet in diameter, yawned in the middle of the wood floor. Near its edge lay a leg fragment with the flesh still attached and an assortment of bones, some of which had been reduced to ashes. A blackened partial skeleton lay in the dirt of the crawl space below. The intestines remained intact, as did some flesh on the head, shoulder, and leg. A foul-smelling, greasy matter coated the walls and ceiling, and the heat generated by the strange blaze had even drawn the turpentine from the wainscoting. A rush-bottomed chair was burned on the leg nearest the hole, but nowhere else.
Hannah Bradshaw’s bizarre death appears to be the first (recorded) American case of the phenomenon now referred to as spontaneous human combustion. Whether it exists as described (a human being bursting into flames triggered by internal causes) continues to be a source of debate. In Bradshaw’s case, authorities did not know what to think. An overturned candle holder lay a short distance away from the fragmented body, but it did not appear to be the source of the blaze: the candle burned itself out without harming the flooring. So was she murdered by a client who burned her body afterward, or did she really combust?
It’s interesting to note that Hannah Bradshaw died not long before the dawn of the Gothic novel, which used equally creepy mysteries to chill the reader’s blood. William Dunlap, who recalled her in his written history of New York City, was a close friend of Charles Brockden Brown, the American novelist and pioneer of Gothic fiction. Since the two men almost certainly discussed it, Bradshaw’s death may have been an impetus for the literary genre that made violent death and emotional alienation a staple of popular fiction.

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