1861 wasn’t a good year for skirt fires. At the ending of Charles Dickens’ 1861 novel Great Expectations, (Spoiler Alert) Miss Havisham dies when her forty-year-old tattered wedding dress catches fire after touching a hot coal from the fireplace. In the real world, Mrs. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, wife of the famous American poet, also died from burns after her dress caught fire from a fallen candle. In an attempt to put out the flames, her husband suffered facial burns, which resulted in his growing whiskers for the rest of his life to hide the scars. Worst of all, the Continental Theatre in Philadelphia burned to the ground in 1861 killing nine ballerinas whose gauze skirts caught fire on stage after one ballerina’s skirt touched a gas lamp. Fact is, a large skirt of a combustible material in a world heated and lighted by open fire was not a safe fashion choice in 1861.
Long skirts had always been a fire hazard for as long as there had been long skirts, but since the 1820s women’s skirts began growing in width by the addition of starched petticoats. By the early 1850s, upwards of six or more petticoats were being used to achieve the widening style, making women unaware of their enormous circumferences in relation to oil lamps on tippy tables, and fireplaces without screens or fenders.
In the mid 1850s a petticoat reinforced with wire hoops and/or woven horsehair bands, called crinoline, removed the necessity of multiple layers of petticoats. The style was praised for being a more hygienic and healthy way to achieve the fashionable silhouette, until it was realized that the hooped underskirts also expedited fire by the addition of a draught that caused a fire to burn faster. And to make skirts extra-flammable, the solvents employed for dry cleaning silk dresses at that time were all petroleum-based.
The New York Times first reported a crinoline casualty in 1858 when a young Boston woman suffered a fate similar to Miss Havisham, The article referred to nineteen similar cases being reported in the London Court Journal (an unreliably sensationalist newspaper) during the first six weeks of 1858 and extrapolated an average of three deaths per week from crinoline conflagrations (not the most scientific way to create a statistic, and based on information I suspect was invented or inaccurate in the first place.)
Regardless of the validity of the statistics, there are many documented cases of women perishing from skirt fires: Margaret Davey, a 14-year-old London kitchen maid was reported in The Times on 13 February 1863 that her dress, “distended by a crinoline,” ignited as she stood on the fender of the fireplace to reach some spoons on the mantelpiece, and later died as a result of extensive burns. A similar case was reported later that year, when 16-year-old Emma Musson died after a piece of burning coke rolled from the kitchen fire to ignite her crinoline. The snippets show up throughout the era when crinolines were at their height (or rather width) of popularity.
Occasionally, reports even show up later. While filming the civil war story Warrens of Virginia in 1923, the silent film star Martha Mansfield was sitting in a car between takes when a passerby flicked a match, mistakenly thought to be extinguished, into the automobile, igniting her highly flammable gauze costume. Mansfield died the following day from her injuries.
Addendum June 24: Oscar Wilde’s two half sisters also died from their skirts catching fire. In 1871 they were attending a ball and the back of one of the girl’s dresses caught fire from touching the fireplace. In 1871 women are still wearing wire frame crinolines, but reduced in size from their enormity a decade earlier. As they were at a ball, it was more likely a train that caught fire as it whisked by the fire. http://www.irishidentity.com/extras/gaels/stories/wilde.htm