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That time a man fighting a fire died after accidentally swallowing molten lead (1755).

Lead taken from the stomach of a keeper after the fire of 1755

A no more unusual circumstance than swallowing molten metal can be imagined but in fact, there are many recorded cases of people swallowing molten metals (both by accident and as a method of torture). After a particularly unusual incident in Plymouth, a series of experiments were conducted on dogs, cats, and fowl to determine the effects of swallowing molten material. The case that sparked the interest within the medical community was the death of Henry Hall who accidentally swallowed molten lead while fighting a lighthouse fire in 1755.

The Eddystone Lighthouse fire – Henry Hall swallows a mouthful of lead

Edystone Winstanley lighthouse 1813

94-year-old Henry Hall was a lighthouse keeper who worked on the Eddystone Lighthouse in the English county of Devon. At around 2:00 AM on December 2, 1755, Hall discovered that a spark from a lamp had set the lighthouse roof on fire. He heroically attempted to extinguish the fire by tossing buckets of water upward, about 12 feet above his head, onto the underside of the fiery roof. Soon, two other lighthouse keepers joined the effort and the three tucked their heads while blindly hurling buckets of water overhead at a frantic pace.

During the battle with the blaze, Hall looked upward to check their progress. As he glanced upward, a shower of molten lead fell from the lighthouse roof onto his head burning his head, neck, and shoulders. As his mouth was open, molten lead fell down into his throat which he involuntarily swallowed.  Despite the intense pain, Hall continued fighting the fire until the blaze grew so large the three men were forced to retreat from the lighthouse tower (which continued to burn for the next five days).

The doctors doubt Henry Hall’s story is true – until he dies 12 days after the fire

Figure of lead swallowed by lighthouse keeper Henry Hall

Several hours later, at around 10:00 AM, the three men were spotted by a passing boat. Sailors threw ropes to the men and hauled them onboard. They were taken to East Stonehouse, Plymouth where Hall was treated by Dr. Henry Spry.

According to Dr. Spry, “Hall spoke with a hoarse voice, scarce to be heard, that melted lead had run down his throat into his body”.  Hall added that he was suffering from intense internal pain. At first, Dr. Spry did not believe Hall’s claims feeling that anyone who swallowed molten lead would have surely died on the spot. Hall, however, appeared to be perfectly fine (other than the burns about his head and neck).

In the days following, Hall was able to eat, drink, and take medicine. After several days, it appeared as if Hall was on the mend and the claims of swallowing molten lead were mere ramblings from an elderly old man. However, on the sixth day, events took a tragic turn. Hall’s health began to decline and by the 10th day, Hall could no longer eat or drink. He died on December 8, 1755.

Hall’s autopsy reveals a seven-ounce layer of solid lead and turns a doctor into a mad scientist

Dr. Spry conducted an autopsy on Hall and to his surprise, inside the confines of Hall’s stomach was a seven-ounce layer of solid lead (see photo above). Dr. Spry immediately wrote an account of the incident and sent it to The Royal Society who met the report with great skepticism.

In response to their skepticism, Dr. Spry initiated a subsequent series of experiments on dogs and chickens, pouring melted lead down the animals’ throats to test their reaction. The results of Dr. Spry’s efforts proved that indeed, it was possible to survive, for a limited period of time, after such an extreme and bizarre event. Spry’s animal experiments would go down in history as the first fully documented and reported British scientific experiments on animals.

The hunk of lead removed from Hall’s stomach is now in the collections of the National Museum of Scotland. Henry Hall’s cause of death was ruled “death by lead poisoning”, the first such documented case of lead poisoning.

Additional information

Original Henry Hall medical report

Below is the full account of the incident written by Dr. Spry in 1755.

Original label removed from the lead in the 1930's

On Thursday the fourth of December, 1755, at three in the afternoon, Henry Hall, of East-stone-house, near Plymouth, aged 94 years, of a good constitution, and extremely active for one of that age, being one of the three unfortunate men, who suffered by the fire of the light-house at Eddy-stone, nine miles from Plymouth, having been greatly hurt by that accident, with much difficulty returned to his own house. I being sent for to his assistance found him in his bed, complaining of extreme pains all over his body; especially in his left side, below the short ribs, in the breast, mouth and throat. He said likewise, as well as he could, with a hoarse voice, scarce to be heard, that melted lead had run down his throat into his body.

Having taken the proper care of his right leg, which was much bruised and cut on the tibia, I examined his body, and found it all covered with livid spots and blisters; and the left side of the head and face, with the eye, extremely burnt; which having washed with linen dipt in an emollient fomentation, and having applied things used in cases of burning, I then inspected his throat, the root of his tongue, and the parts contiguous, as the uvula, tonsils, &c., which were greatly scorched by the melted lead. Upon this I ordered him to drink frequently of water-gruel or some such draught; and returning to my own house, sent him the oily mixture, of which he took often two or three spoonfuls.

The next day he was much worse, all the symptoms of his case being heightened, with a weak pulse; and he could now scarce swallow at all.

The day following there was no change, except that, on account of his too great costiveness, he took six drachms of manna dissolved in an ounce and half of infusion of senna, which had no effect till the day following; when just as a clyster was going to be administered, he had a very fetid discharge by stool.

That day he was better till night, when he grew very feverish.

The next day, having slept well the preceding night, and thrown up by coughing a little matter, he was much better.

He began now to speak with less difficulty, and for three or four days to recover gradually; but then suddenly grew worse; his pulse being very weak; his side, which grew worse daily from the first, now reddened a little swelled; to which I applied the emplaster of gums. But all methods proved ineffectual, for the next day being seized with cold sweats and spasms in the tendons, he soon expired.

Examining the body, and making an incision thro’ the left abdomen, I found the diaphragmatic upper mouth of the stomach greatly inflamed and ulcerated, and the tunica in the lower part of the stomach burnt; and from the great cavity of it took out a great piece of lead of the shape and weight here described.

It will be thought difficult to explain the manner, by which the lead entered the stomach: but the account, which the deceased gave me and others, was, that as he was endeavoring to extinguish the flames, which were at a considerable height over his head, the lead of the lanthorn being melted dropped down, before he was aware of I, with great force into his mouth then lifted up and open, and that in such a quantity, as to cover not only his face, but all his clothes.


19 Dec. 1755

Original text documenting animal experiments using molten lead

Below is the text of the original report of experiments that Dr. Spry conducted on animals in an effort to test the effects of swallowing molten lead.

Underside of lead swallowed by lighthouse keeper Henry Hall

To the Right Hon. George Earl of Macclesfield, President to the Royal Society.

Plymouth, Jan. 30, 1756.

My Lord,

As the late case I took the liberty of troubling your lordship with, was so very singular, as to make it by some gentlemen greatly doubted, on account of their imagining, that the degree of heat in melted lead was too great to be borne in the stomach, without immediate death, or at least more sudden than happened in this case; I herein can not only convince your lordship of its fact, by my own and (if requisite) the oaths of others, but also by the following experiments, which from similarity of circumstances must not only render that probable, but (in the most convincing manner) the absolutely possibility of my assertion.

I extracted in three pieces, from the stomach of a small dog, six drachms one scruple of lead, which I had poured down his throat the day before.

N.B. The mucous lining of the esophagus seemed very viscid, and the stomach much corrugated, though its internal coat was no-ways excoriated.

The dog had nothing to eat or drink after; nor for twenty-four hours before the experiment, when, being very brisk, I killed him.

I also took from the stomach of a large dog (in several pieces) six ounces and two drachms of lead, three days after thrown in.

The pharynx and cardiac orifice of the stomach were a little inflamed and excoriated; but the esophagus and stomach seemed in no manner affected.

I gave this dog an half pint of milk just before I poured down the lead; very soon after which also he eat thereof freely, as if nothing ailed him; which he daily continued to do, being very lively at the time I killed him. From the crop of a full grown fowl, I (in company with Dr. Huxham, F.R.S.) extracted of lead one solid piece, weighing two ounces and a half, together with nine other small portions, weighing half an ounce which lead was thrown down the fowl’s throat twenty-five hours before.

The fowl was kept without meat for twenty-four hours, before and after the experiment, eating (being very lively just before we killed him) dry barley, as fast, and with nigh, if not quite, the same ease as before.

The mucus on the larynx and esophagus was somewhat hardened.

The external coat of the crop appeared in a very small degree livid; and the internal, somewhat corrugated.

The barley was partly in the esophagus, though mostly in the craw, which was almost full with the lead.

I took two ounces one scruple from the crop of another fowl, three days after the experiment, which fowl was very brisk to the last.

Allowing, for a further satisfaction, that the experiment be tried, it is requisite in making thereof, that the melted lead be poured into a funnel, whose spout being as large as the throat of the animal (whose neck must be kept firmly erect) will conveniently admit of, must be forced down the esophagus, somewhat below the larynx, lest any of the lead might fall therein; and according to the quantity, either by totally, or partly obstructing the aspera arteria, cause immediate, or a lingering death; which accidents happened, in my first experiments on two dogs, directed me to proceed in the above manner.

At present I have a dog with lead in his stomach, which I intend to keep, to prove how long he may live.

My lord, your lordship may depend on it, that so far from my asserting anything in the least degree uncertain, that, as I always have, I always shall act with so much circumspection and integrity (especially in these tender points, where my character is at stake) as to be able easily to prove what I may assert, as in the present case, so very extraordinary, that scarce any of the faculty (unless particularly acquainted with me) would give credit to, till I demonstrated it by the above experience; which, I doubt not in the least, will be sufficiently satisfactory to your lordship, and to the honorable Society; to serve which venerable body, as much as lies in my power, will, at all times, give the greatest pleasure to,

My Lord,

Your Lordship’s most obedient,

And most humble servant,

Edmund Spry.

Letter between doctors confirming Dr. Spry’s experiments

The letter below was written by Dr. John Huxham to Mr. William Watson explaining the results of animal experiments that were conducted after Henry Hall died from swallowing molten lead.

Dear Sir,

I think there are few things remarkable, in art or nature, in this part of the country, that do not, sooner or later, come to my knowledge. Our worthy commissioner, Fred. Rogers, Esq; sent me the lead you mention, three days after it was said to be taken out of the man (Hall) who was said to have swallowed it. I immediately sent for Mr. Edward Spry, an ingenious young surgeon, of this town, who attended this Hall during his illness, and extracted the lead from his stomach (as was reported) when dead. Mr. Spry solemnly assured me, that he did actually take the lead, that was sent me, out of the man’s stomach, and offered to make oath of it. This hall lived twelve days after the accident happened, and swallowed several things, solid and liquid, during that time; and spoke tolerably plain, tho’ his voice was very hoarse. And he constantly affirmed, that he had swallowed melted lead.

However, as the story seemed very extraordinary, and not a little improbable, I did not chuse to transmit any account of it to the Royal Society, as I could have wished for more unexceptionable evidence; for Mr. Spry had no one with him, when he did extract the lead, but one woman, Philips, the daughter of Hall, and another woman, who were also in the house, not being able, as said, to see the operation, but immediately called in after it, and Mr. Spry shewed them the lead. I sent a very sensible gentleman to enquire into this affair, and he had this account from them.

This Mr. Spry, is to the best of my knowledge, a person of veracity, and I think would not utter an untruth. But, what is more, last Wednesday, he brought me a live young cock, into the crop or craw of which, he had the day before poured somewhat more than three ounces of melted lead. The cock indeed seemed dull, but very readily pecked and swallowed several barley-corns, that were thrown to him. I had the cock killed and opened in my view, and in the crop we found a lump of lead weighing three ounces (less twenty grains), and some other little bits of lead. I make no doubt the cock would have lived several days longer, if it had not been then killed. There seemed a slight eschar in the cock’s mouth, occasioned by the melted lead, and the crop seem’d as if parboiled. This experiment is very easily made, and seems to confirm the probability of Mr. Spry’s account.

I never dispute a matter of fact, when I am fully convinced, that it is so; but I think it my duty to enquire narrowly into the circumstances of it, before I admit it as such. With respect to the present case, you now know as much of it as

Dear Sir,

Your most faithful and

Obedient humble servant,

J. Huxham.

Plym. Sat. even.

Jan. 31, 1756.

Image Credits

In-Article Image Credits

Original label removed from the lead in the 1930's via Julie Orford - National Museums Scotland
Figure of lead swallowed by lighthouse keeper Henry Hall via Altered Dimensions
Underside of lead swallowed by lighthouse keeper Henry Hall via Julie Orford - National Museums Scotland
Lead taken from the stomach of a keeper after the fire of 1755 via National Museums Scotland
Edystone Winstanley lighthouse 1813 via Wikipedia Commons by Jaaziell Johnston, John Smeaton with usage type - Public Domain. 1813

Featured Image Credit

Lead taken from the stomach of a keeper after the fire of 1755 via National Museums Scotland


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