Spontaneous human combustion
| Style over substance|
|Random examples|Superstitious Spontaneous Human Combustion (or SHC for short) is a pseudoscientific phenomenon in which the human body will burst into an all-consuming flame without any apparent source of ignition. The popular perception of the phenomenon is of someone bursting into flames, almost randomly, and being consumed within seconds or minutes. The reality is less dramatic, although the results are the same.
The first recorded case occurred in 1663 when a Danish anatomist reported that a French woman had been consumed by flames while she slept, leaving her straw bed untouched. Hundreds of reported cases follow a similar pattern; the victims are almost always alone and coroners have always noted a sickly sweet smell in the room where the incident occurred. Interestingly, while the torso and head are usually burnt to ashes, the extremities and surrounding objects such as newspapers and clothing are typically untouched. These unusual circumstances have led to SHC receiving a lot of attention from those interested in the paranormal.
Charles Dickens depicted SHC in his 1852-1853 novel Bleak House, with 'Krook', the rag and bottle merchant spontaneously combusting. Dickens claimed that there had been about 30 cases of SHC, including that of Cornelia de Bandi Cesenate.:x Even as the novel was published, there was criticism of Dickens' paranormal explanation for the phenomenon.
In contrast to a lot of pseudoscience, spontaneous human combustion is a very real phenomenon. People have really been found burned to ashes in very odd circumstances. These events are rare, and the circumstances around them seem to be very out of the normal; however, they do not "defy explanation" as many proponents of mystery and woo would suggest.
- In 1951, a 67-year-old widow, Mary Reeser, was at home in St. Petersburg, Florida. On the morning of July 2, a neighbor discovered that the widow's front door was hot. When she broke into the apartment with the help of two workmen, they found the victim in an easy chair with a charred circle around her. Her head had been burned down to the size of a teacup. The only other parts of her that remained were part of her backbone and part of her left foot. Other than Reeser's charred remains, there was very little evidence of fire in her apartment. The police report cited an explanation for the cause of death: a dropped cigarette, which ignited Mrs. Reeser's highly flammable rayon-acetate nightgown.
- On December 5, 1966, the burnt remains of Dr. John Irving Bentley, 92, were discovered by a meter reader. Dr. Bentley's body apparently ignited while he was in the bathroom and burned a 2½-by-3-foot hole through the flooring, with only a portion of one leg remaining intact.
- On January 6, 1980, a man's body was discovered in a living room in Wales. The corpse was almost totally destroyed by a fire that had barely damaged the armchair in which he sat; nearby plastic objects were completely undamaged. The fire had been of a sufficient intensity to leave a greasy coating of vaporized flesh on the ceiling.
- In 2011 an Irish coroner ruled that 76-year old Michael Faherty died at his home in Ballybane, Galway on 22 December 2010 as a result of spontaneous combustion. The man had been found in the sitting room lying on his back with his head closest to an open fireplace. The fire had been confined to the sitting room and the only damage was to the body, which was totally burnt, the ceiling above him and the floor underneath. Forensic investigators found no traces of an accelerant or indications of foul play.
Even in strong fires, there are often bodily remains to be found and crematoriums still need to pulverize remaining bones, despite prolonged burning at high temperature. The idea that all remains could crumble into dust makes SHC look like an extremely spectacular event. With spontaneous combustion, most of the body is entirely destroyed and the fire is very much localised, so there is clearly something different going on.
Various theories have been proposed to explain spontaneous human combustion including having excessive amounts of alcohol in the system, static electricity and even a new type of subatomic particle that causes the cells to explode. These don't really go anywhere, though. In the case of excessive alcohol, blood certainly doesn't become flammable even if a person is nicely pickled from a full quart of vodka. The toxic properties of ethanol cause death at about 0.5% concentration — and given that you need well over 50% concentration to set fire to a water/ethanol mixture this can't be the cause. Static electricity too is fairly benign. While static discharges can be the trigger for fuel explosions they can't set light to the human body, otherwise stepping out of a car wearing the wrong pair of shoes would be far more dangerous. And, well, exotic particles is just silly.
Paranormal investigators would prefer that the explanations remained mysterious (hence the "spontaneous" part), as nothing is better than a good mystery you can put your own spin on — whether it be aliens, ghosts, or magic. This is why bizarre theories like exotic particles and static electricity are proposed. These are so outlandish and so improbable as natural causes that they might trick people into believing that supernatural causes are viable. However in the end, the most likely natural explanation is far more mundane than paranormal investigators lead you to believe, and this is backed up with experiments.
So, consider the facts that are known about SHC. The fire is intense enough to burn bone and completely destroy all flesh. This is something not observed in normal house fires because they're usually very rapid, and so we can conclude that, despite the "spontaneous" label giving hints of something rapid, it must be a slow process. Then we can observe what does remain. In the case of Dr. Bentley, his foot and bare leg survived. The fire also seems localised, with only the body burning, so despite the intensity and longevity of the fire it must be somehow confined to the body alone.[note 1] So considering that the fire is intense, long and is localised to the body but not unclothed areas, we can piece together clues to explain SHC. The most likely explanation is that the victim's clothing acts as a wick and body fat serves as a source of fuel. This is very much like how a candle works, although in reverse; indeed wrapping wick-like material on the outside of a candle still leads to the same effect. The burning clothes are maintained by liquid fat causing a controlled, slow and very intense burn — intense enough and prolonged enough to cause the damage seen but without spreading the fire. This contrasts with the paranormal explanations and descriptions that view the combustion as rapid and dramatic, with almost no explanation. The explanation would also account for the sweet smell noted by those who find the body, as sugars and fats within the body have slowly been vaporized over the course of the event.
But what of the various stories that cite people bursting into flames? Stories still persist of it happening suddenly, as if a human body did just catch alight for no reason before vaporizing in seconds. Well, pics or it didn't happen.
In a nutshell
- spontaneous human combustion, entry in The Skeptic's Dictionary
- Not-So-Spontaneous Human Combustion, Joe Nickell, Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 20.6, November/December 1996
- Fiery Tales That Spontaneously Destruct, Joe Nickell, Skeptical Inquirer Volume 22.2, March/April 1998
- A Scientific Explanation for Spontaneous Human Combustion by Terri Sundquist: Promega Connections, 9 September 2011
- Of course, who knows how many cases of "SHC" actually lead to a house fire, making the cause look fairly normal after the event?
- Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853). Bernhard Tauchnitz
- The Material Interests of the Victorian Novel by Daniel Hack (2005) University of Virginia Press. ISBN 081392345X.
- See the Wikipedia article on Mary Reeser.
- See the Wikipedia article on John Irving Bentley.
- Irish Times: Court finds pensioner's death in fire caused by spontaneous combustion (23-Sep-2011)
- See the Wikipedia article on Death of Michael Faherty.
- The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe: How to Know What's Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake by Steven Novella et al. (2018) Grand Central Publishing. ISBN 9781538760536.
- Ablaze! The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion by Larry E. Arnold (1995) M. Evans. ISBN 0871317893.
- Debunking the Spontaneous Human Combustion Myth: Experiments in the Combustibility of the Human Body by Angi M. Christensen (2000) Master's Thesis, University of Tennessee.