At 9:32 Thursday morning, a local news-gathering organization in Chicago, the City News Bureau, issued this bulletin:

"A woman was killed Thursday as she was walking in the 4000 block of South Wells and for no known reason burst into flames, police said."

Later in the day, CNB issued an insert to its bulletin, suggesting that a possible cause for this strange incident might be . . .


For decades, high-school science students have learned that piles of oily rags can spontaneously turn into raging fires, given the right atmospheric conditions. But human bodies would seem to be a different matter.

Except that there is, in fact, a corpus of writing that infers the opposite.

Herman Melville, in his novel "Redburn," describes a drunken sailor from whom, "two threads of greenish fire, like a forked tongue, darted out between the lips; and in a moment, the cadaverous face was crawled over by a swarm of wormlike flames."

Charles Dickens, in "Bleak House," invents a character named Krook who spontaneously combusts. The first edition of the book includes a sketch of the incident, titled "The Appointed Time," wherein poor Krook's spectacles and pipe are lying abandoned at the foot of their master's easy chair, all of this in a room filled with smoke. Pre-publication readers of the book questioned the incident; in the preface, Dickens countered by stating that he had studied the topic seriously and had found "there are about 30 cases on record, of which the most famous is that of the Countess Cornelia de Baudi" described in 1731.

"Fires From Heaven," a recent book by Michael Harrison on spontaneous human combustion, cites at least eight examples, including:

* The countess, who seems to have disappeared in a heap of ashes by her bedside, with her legs remaining behind (and intact);

* A University of Nashville mathematics professor who, in 1835, saw a flame burst from his leg;

* Mr. and Mrs. Patrick Rooney of Seneca, Ill., who died on Christmas Eve, 1885, when Mrs. Rooney combusted and Mr. Rooney died of asphyxiation;

* Phyllis Newcombe, who burst into flames in front of a roomful of people at a dance in 1938.

Still other incidents are mentioned in an October 1981 article in Science Digest, including the case of Dr. Irving Bently, who in the winter of 1966 burst into flames calculated to have reached a temperature of 3,000 degrees--although the rubber tips on the doctor's walker did not melt.

Meanwhile, back in Chicago on Thursday night, United Press International moved a story implying that spontaneous human combustion might have been the cause of death of the unidentified woman. After all, hadn't an eyewitness seen her walking along the street one moment and go up in flames the next?

Maybe not. The Associated Press wouldn't touch the story with a 10-foot pole. "Since the human body is 98 percent water, I had a hard time believing it," said AP managing editor Wick Temple.

Yesterday, Cook County Medical Examiner Dr. Robert Stein said after an autopsy that the mystery woman was dead before she burned, and added that the Chicago crime lab had found traces of hydrocarbon accelerants on her clothing.

"There's no such thing as spontaneous combustion here," Dr. Stein said.

He offered no clue as to what did her in: no bullet wounds, no stab marks.

And over at the City News Bureau, managing editor Jim Peneff insisted that "the information as we printed it is correct. We wouldn't have created it on our own."

So where did the spontaneous combustion theory come from?

"We got it from the police," Peneff said