SPONTANEOUS HUMAN COMBUSTION
(Investigator 75, 2000 November)
Spontaneous human combustion is a mysterious phenomenon in which, for no apparent reason, the human body simply bursts into flames and is consumed.
Although the occurrences are infrequent there are many references to them, one of the earliest being that of the Roman poet Titus Lucretius Carus (98-55 B.C.) who, in his Nature of Things, refers to a man "trapped and entangled without warning in the flame from heaven." Charles Dickens in Bleak House incorporates a scene into the plot where a character spontaneously bursts into flames; and as recently as August 1982, a woman in Chicago erupted into flames while walking down a sidewalk.
The pattern of immolation is similar in all cases, the victim simply bursts into flames, only the torso is consumed, and the area around the body is usually unaffected. A typical case is described in the New Scientist, May 15, 1986, by a police officer, John Heymer,"I opened the door and stepped into a cooling oven. There was a steamy sauna-like heat ... the walls were radiating heat ... condensation was running down the windows. The light bulb was bare because the plastic lampshade had melted, oozed down over the bulb and fallen to the floor. The walls, ceiling and all surfaces were coated with a greasy black soot. On the floor about one metre from the hearth, was a pile of ashes ... emerging from the ashes was a pair of human feet clothed in socks. The feet were attached to short lengths of lower leg encased in trouser leg bottoms ... in the ashes were the incinerated remains of a man. Of the torso and arms nothing remained but ash. Opposite the feet was a blackened skull. Less than a metre away, a settee, fitted with loose covers, was not even scorched. Plastic tiles which covered the floor beneath the ashes were undamaged."Is there any explanation for this mysterious phenomenon? It has been suggested that the alcohol content of a person's body may be one, although this has been disputed, but it is known that under certain conditions a body will burn its own fat with little or no damage to the surrounding objects.
There are never any eye witness accounts to testify to the conditions prevailing at the time a case of spontaneous human combustion has occurred, and only speculative and circumstantial evidence to support the argument for its very existence.
Spontaneous Human Combustion ceases to be a mysterious phenomenon when case histories are examined objectively however. In nearly all reported cases, vital details which may have contributed to the event are omitted. In the case of Henry Thomas, there was a lit coal fire in the room and there was some form of material burning in the room at the time of Thomas' death.
Often attempts are made to compound the ‘mystery' by pointing out that the torso, including bones, is reduced to ash and yet in many cases the limbs are not consumed. The explanation is well within our existing knowledge of physics and has been demonstrated in laboratories using animal bones and fat. Once the clothes of an unconscious person have been ignited, enough heat is generated to evaporate water from the outer parts of the torso, and then they act as wick on which the body fat will burn for several hours.
Taylor's Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence, (1965), states that"there is no mystery with regard to how a person catches alight: in all such cases, a candle, fire, or some ignited body has been at hand, and the accidental kindling of the clothes of the deceased has been at least a possibility, if not a probability, and no further explanation has been required as to the origin of the fire."
The suggestion that the alcohol content of a victim increases the likelihood of combustion is only true in respect of a person's carelessness while in a state of drunkeness – knocking over inflammable liquid or falling asleep while smoking in bed. It is certain that alcohol in the body plays no direct part in combustion.
The human body, due to its high water content requires immense heat to dispose of it. Crematoria for instance takes about one hour at a temperature of 900C to oxidize a body with a forced draft, without a forced draft a temperature of 1600C is required for many hours. These conditions do not exist under normal circumstances.
That the media contributes to the perpetuation of belief in SHC is evident in the case of the woman who allegedly burst into flames in Chicago. When the matter was investigated by Dr Robert Stein, the Cook County Medical Examiner, he found that the woman's skin had been scorched but her bones and organs were intact. She had been dead for about twelve hours before she was found, and her clothing had been doused with gasoline.
In another case which made the front page of the St. Petersburg Times on June 30 1991, reporter Jacquin Sanders wrote, "Burning death remains mystery", dealing with the gruesome demise of Mary Reeser, who literally melted away to nearly nothing one summer night in 1951. According to Sanders, this case of SHC (defined by him as when "for no known reason the human body suddenly catches fire"), "nothing could explain the fury of flames that consumed a human body, shrank its skull and then, as if obeying some unearthly power, simply stopped, pulled back, disappeared."
Nickell and Fischer (1987) however, give a far more prosaic explanation in the Skeptical Inquirer (Summer 1987), in which they conclude, "What probably happened was that the chair's stuffing burned slowly, fuelled by the melting body fat and aided by the partially opened windows." David Wolf, a forensic anthropologist theorized that Mrs Reeser's skull probably burst in the fire and was destroyed. "The roundish lump (the "shrunken skull") could have been merely a globular lump that can result from the musculature of the neck where it attaches to the base of the skull."
While unreliable circumstantial evidence abounds, as in the cases cited above, there have never been any eyewitness accounts to testify that Spontaneous Human Combustion actually occurs.
Allen, W.S. 1951. "Weird Cremation." True Detective. December
Arnold, L. 1981, "Human Fireballs." Science Digest. October.
Gee, D.J. 1965. "A Case of Spontaneous Combustion." Medicine,
Science and the Law Vol. 3. p.37.
Heymer, J. 1986. "A Case of Spontaneous Human Combustion." New Scientist. p70-71. May 1986.
_______ 1988. "A Burnt-Out Case." New Scientist. pp 68-69. May.
Nickell, J.1988. Secrets of the Supernatural. Prometheus Books.
_______ and Fischer, John F 1987. "Incredible Cremations: Investigating Spontaneous Combustion Deaths." Skeptical Inquirer 11(4) 352-357.
_______1984. "Spontaneous human combustion." Fire and Arson Investigator. 34(3):4.-11. 34(4):3-8.
Sheaffer, R. 1982/3. "Spontaneous Human Combustion." Skeptical Inquirer. 7(2):17.
Simpson, K. (Ed.) 1965. Taylor's Principles and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence. pp 340-342. Churchill Ltd. London.
[From: A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age, Harry Edwards.]
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