Countess Cornelia Bandi’s last day

Title page of book on the death of Cornelia Bandi.

The story of the death of Countess Cornelia Bandi is simple. She went to bed at about 5 o’clock in the morning of March 15, 1731, but six hours later her remains were found next to her bed and competely burnt from the legs up. The room and adjoining rooms were covered in greasy soot and showed evidence of exposure to considerable heat. Apparently she had got up from bed and died almost instantly, and the oil lamp which she had been holding set her night dress and then her body alight.

Similar accidents had occurred before, often to alcoholics, and the events were seen as a kind of supernatural punishment. But Cornelia was a very pious woman, so this explanation seemed untenable. The story appeared in book form (see links below). The book starts with a careful (second or third hand) description, which I have rendered a bit more easy to read. I also organized a new translation with the help of friends. An older translation appeared in the Philosophical Transactions vol. 43 (1744). The explanation that it was a form of lightning is clearly nonsense. But what really happened? The following presents the conjectured events in slightly romanticized form. The conjecture about lung oedema is to make it more concrete, it might have been another acute condition.

1. Parere sopra la cagione della morte della Signore Contessa Cornelia Zangari ne’ Bandi Cesenate. 2nd edition (1733).
2. idem 1st edition (1731).
3. idem 4th edition (1758).
4. reference 1., page 1-13
5. Opinion about the cause of death of Mylady the Countess Cornelia Zangari ne’ Bandi of Cesena, translation of reference 4.

Countess Cornelia Bandi’s son (maybe the later cardinal Giovanni Carlo Bandi, who was 21 years old at that moment) returned from his travels, after midnight on March 14, 1731. Only after his arrival supper was prepared and served. During the meal Cornelia was feeling unwell. She was 62, and she lived a quiet life, directing her household. Her husband Francesco had died in 1724 at the age of 54. But now she suddenly felt oppressed, quite unlike anything she had experienced ever before. Hardly even able to breathe and move she was dazedly sitting through the supper. After the meal her son asked her if she wanted someone to watch over her during the night. She rejected the offer – suddenly the vision of gossip about her condition was too much for her. Weakly she said that she didn’t want to derange the daughter of her maid (the maid herself was out) and that she hoped for the consolation of her crucifix.

Her son retired to his quarters, and she to hers. The maid’s daughter helped her undress and put on her night clothes, but then Cornelia asked her to remain to talk about household matters. Every now and then they fell silent and then she recited from her prayer book. She feared for her life, but somehow the soothing talk of the girl and the homely subjects they talked about put her a little at ease. The household had no problems whatsoever, so there was really not much to discuss, let alone anything of any urgency, but she enjoyed listening to the familiar dialect of the girl.

When they had been talking and praying thus for two or three hours it was nearly five o’clock in the morning. The girl helped her get into bed, lit a small oil lamp near the bed, extinguished the candles that had burned down during the long hours of talk and prayer, and replaced them by new ones and left.

Soon after lying down Cornelia felt oppressed again, much more than during the supper. Her heart had been failing, and her lung tissue was now swelling rapidly with water that her failing heart couldn’t pump away. Centuries later doctors would have been able to establish acute lung oedema if a postmortem had been possible. Her body translated what happened into an urge to relieve herself on the chamber pot. She sat up, put the sheet and blankets aside, stepped out of bed, took the oil lamp, but after one step everything became black before her eyes. Her heart stopped and her last thought was a faint feeling of satisfaction – no gossiping about the last hours of her life. Her frail body crumpled together into a sitting position, but she had lost consciousness before she hit the floor and she was dead within minutes.

The oil lamp in her hand fell on her ample night clothes, and the oil streamed out, catching fire from the small flame. The clothes acted as a wick, and soon the melting fat of her body was feeding the increasing fire. The flames emitted copious amounts of soot and vaporized fat, which covered everything in the room and even penetrating into closets and adjoining rooms and the attic above the bedroom. The fat condensed against the windows which were cold from the chilly March night.

The fire lasted for several hours, slowly converting most of her body into heat, ash and greasy soot. Eventually her skull dropped between her legs, only her face (which hadn’t been covered by her night dress and cap), a few fingers of her left hand (the hand that had held the lamp was consumed) and her legs were spared. Her chin was gone by the wick effect of the chin strap of her cap. The hot smoke rose up and filled a great deal of the room, melting the new candles to a puddle, but it was not hot enough to set things afire.

By eleven o’clock in the morning the maid’s daughter started wondering why her mistress hadn’t woken up yet. Of course she had gone to sleep rather late, but she was usually up around sunrise. Coming into the room it seemed blacker and smellier and maybe warmer than usual, but these details were erased from her mind by the shock of what she saw when she opened the shutters. She shrieked and this brought other people in the house to the room.

Most of what had happened was first reported by Dr. Giuseppe Mondini (who may have left out details) and thereafter canon Guiseppe Bianchini based his booklet on Mondini’s report. Everybody was puzzled by it. Nobody could imagine that a small lamp could cause such a destruction. New discoveries about electricity were invoked and in the village an evil rumor started circulating: the countess supposedly took baths in camphorated brandy and her terrible fate was some kind of dire consequence of this lascivious habit. However, the countess was plagued with an itchy skin, partly due to her slowly failing circulation, and she was sometimes rubbed with camphorated spirits because this relieved the itch somewhat.

It was nothing compared with what posteriority would do to her name. The Bianchini report was translated and served as inspiration for a horrific episode by Dickens in Bleak House and even more ghoulish supernatural stories.