There are some pretty bizarre things in this world. Some of these things defy explanations such as spontaneous human combustion (SHC). Spontaneous human combustion is a phenomenon where a person seems to burst into flames without being ignited by an external source.
Is this a real anomaly? Is it possible for a human body to spontaneously burst into flames? Fortunately, history has placed over 200 cases at our feet to explore. Cases that go back as far as the 1600s. In fact, in the 1800s the phenomenon was so popular Charles Dickens used it to kill off one of his characters in the novel “Bleak House”, leaving the victim completely burnt up and looking like a “small charred and broken log of wood.” Let’s look at some of these cases and explore the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion.
In 1663 the Dutch anatomist Thomas Bartolon is credited for the first recording of this strange phenomenon. He wrote about a woman in Paris who went up in ashes and smoke while sleeping. He observed that the straw mattress on which the woman was sleeping was unmarred by the fire.
In 1951 67-year-old Mary Reeser became a victim of spontaneous human combustion. Mary lived alone. On the day that Mary died, her landlady knocked on her door to deliver a telegram. When there was no answer she tried the door. The doorknob was hot so she called the police.
When the police arrived they discovered that whatever fire had occurred was already out. They found Mary’s remains on a chair. Her body had mostly been reduced to ash. All that remained was her slippered foot, her spine, and her skull. The skull was one of the most unusual aspects of the case. According to investigators, it had shrunk to the size of a teacup.
One strange thing investigators noticed about the scene was that there was very little damage done to the room. There were a few plastic objects that had melted just enough to morph their shape, but nothing else was damaged. They didn’t even find much smoke damage in the room. The fire investigation found that the temperature had to have reached at least 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit to do the damage that was done to her body.
At the inquest, an FBI investigator speculated that since she was known to take sleeping pills, she may have fallen asleep while smoking. This was quickly refuted by other investigators who claimed that the fire from a cigarette could not cause the extreme temperatures that cremated her body.
In 1966 Irving John Bently, a 92-year-old retired scientist, became another victim of spontaneous human combustion. His body was discovered on the morning of December 5 when a meter-reader entered Irving’s home to check the meter. Due to Irving’s advanced age, the meter-reader was given permission to enter unannounced as needed. As he went to the basement, he noted a blue smoke that he described as sweet-smelling. It was then that he noted a small pile of ash on the floor. There were no burn marks on the floor, just a pile of ash. There was however a large square hole in the ceiling above. Seeing this, he decided to investigate.
The upstairs bedroom was full of smoke and he found the remains of Irving in the bathroom. All that was left was a pile of ash and the lower half of the scientist’s right leg. The foot was still wearing a slipper. Panicked, he quickly called for help.
There were numerous theories about the scientist’s strange death. Some speculated that Irving had accidentally set himself on fire with his pipe. However, the pipe was found unlit by his bedside table. Others, noting that his clothing was found smoldering in the bathtub, concluded that his clothes must have caught fire from matches in his pocket. Maybe Irving had awoken to find his clothes on fire, and ran to the bathroom to remove his clothes, but died before he could extinguish the fire. This theory seems false as the matches in his pocket were unlit and fire hot enough to fully cremate a body was unlikely to have been started by an unlit match.
In 1967 Robert Francis Bailey became another victim of spontaneous human combustion. Robert was alone in an abandoned building when his body caught fire.
He was a well-known alcoholic and it was believed that he was seeking shelter from the cold on the night when he entered the abandoned building. A person walking by called the fire department when he saw a bright light coming from inside the building.
The fire crew made good time and were at the abandoned building within five minutes of the call. They found Robert on the floor, curled up in the fetal position. He had a four-inch slit in his stomach from which flames were coming out. The fire crew said that the flames came out like a blow torch.
Robert was still alive when the crew arrived, writhing in pain and biting the stair post. The fire crew emptied several fire extinguishers before the flames died out. Robert succumbed to this ordeal and the fire crew had to pry his jaw open around the post to remove his body from the scene.
As typical with spontaneous human combustion, there were several odd aspects to the scene. Nothing else in the room, other than Robert’s body, was on fire and there was little fire damage to the room despite there being several highly flammable substances on the premises. Even Robert’s clothing was odd, as the parts that were charred only include the shirt covering his stomach and a bit of the floor below his body.
At the inquest, a hypothesis was formed that the fire could have possibly been caused by Robert dropping a cigarette onto his shirt that was soaked in alcohol. However, the lack of surrounding damage, and the speed and ferocity of the flames made the theory unlikely. Also noted was the fact that a fire caused by a dropped cigarette would not have been bright enough to have attracted the attention of a passerby.
In 1982, 61-year-old Jeannie Saffin also perished from spontaneous human combustion. Jeannie’s case is one of the most frequently discussed cases because, unlike most victims, Jeanie was not alone. Several people witnessed what happened to her.
Jeannie was born with significant physical disabilities, so even as an adult she still lived with her parents. On September 15, 1982, she was in the kitchen with her father and brother-in-law. Things were normal and both men were absorbed in other things until a bright light caught their attention. As they turned they were horrified to see that Jeannie was on fire.
Both men immediately began dousing her with water in an effort to put out the flames. Then they called for an ambulance. Jeannie was treated for severe burns in the hospital for eight days before she died from her injuries. Her actual cause of death was listed as broncho-pneumonia secondary to burns.
At the inquest, investigators struggled to figure out how Jeannie had caught fire and they tried the best they could to piece together the circumstances. Jeannie’s family insisted that her death was a case of spontaneous human combustion. Jeannie’s father said he witnessed flames shooting out of her mouth that made a terrifying roaring noise and looked like a dragon breathing fire. Her father also claimed that the clothing Jeannie had been wearing was completely untouched by the fire.
The coroner was skeptical and rebuffed the family’s claims, insisting that humans cannot spontaneously catch fire. Researchers later came up with a theory that maybe the fire was caused by the pilot light on the family’s kitchen stove. They suggested that windows left open in the kitchen could have caused a cross-breeze that pulled the flame towards Jeannie setting her on fire.
On March 26, 1986, George Mott died in a mysterious fire. George was a retired fireman who suffered from lung disease that required him to use an oxygen tank. George’s son Kendall became worried the morning of the 26th when his father hadn’t answered repeated phone calls.
Due to George’s health problems, he was home most of the time, and Kendall would check in on him. After not being able to summon his father by phone. Kendall decided to personally go to his father’s house and check in on him. When he arrived he noticed that all of the house’s windows had a strange brown color to them, and after opening the door, the air on the inside of the house was smokey and smelled burnt. George, a former smoker, had quit due to his lung disease, so the smell was unexpected.
When Kendal finally found his father, or what remained of him, he quickly called the authorities. All that remained of George Mott was a pile of ashes and a few pieces of bone. Authorities noted that the damage was similar to what would happen to a body that had been professionally cremated.
As strange as the death seemed, what was more perplexing, were the inconsistencies in the room. A nearby television had melted, yet the bedding where George’s body was burned, remained largely untouched. There was a book of matches on the bedside table, but they hadn’t ignited. Investigators also noted that George’s oxygen tank and face mask were undamaged and the tank was still running.
How could this have happened? The official theory was that George had decided to light a cigarette. He may have then removed his mask, leaving it untouched. While this theory possibly explains a fire it doesn’t explain how a fire, hot enough to cremate a body, incinerated him, yet left his bedding undamaged.
Sometimes People Survive
As terrible as the thought of dying in a spontaneous fire would be, what if you spontaneously combust and live. This has happened. Cases are rare, but there are a few recorded instances where the victim lives for at least a short time.
In 1776, an Italian friar by the name of Don Dio Maria Bertholi seems to have somehow spontaneously combusted. In October, he was in the small town of Filetto conducting some town business. He had retired for the evening and was staying at his brother-in-law’s house. Not long after going to bed, the other household members were alarmed to hear Bertholi screaming as if in great pain.
Rushing to his aid, they found the friar surrounded by what they described as an aura of blue flame. The flames behaved strangely. As the relatives approached the flames, they said that it looked like the flames actually cringed away from them, as if the flames were aware of them, before dissipating completely. Bertholi was left moaning in agony. One report of the incident reads:
Perceiving the cries of the priest, they repaired instantly to the apartment; and, on entering it, found him extended on the paved floor, and enveloped in a thin flame, which receded as they approached him, and at length entirely vanished. They placed him, as soon as possible, upon his bed, and administered to him every kind of aid that was at hand. Although the friar had survived the incident, he was suffering serious burns, and when he was able to articulate what had happened, he explained that it felt as if an unseen hand had struck him, after which he had erupted in flames. Oddly, it was found that although his body was burned and his silk cap had been burned to a crisp, his shirt and trousers were undamaged, and his hair had remained unscathed too despite burns on his face. Making it stranger still was that, although there had been quite a bit of fire, the room had no smoke or odor of the fire, and nothing in the vicinity had been damaged.
The physician who came to examine Bertholi found him in a very rough state. The French physician, François-Emmanuel Fodéré described the incident in much detail.
On the following morning, the patient was examined by M. Battaglia, who found the integuments of the right arm almost entirely detached and pendant from the flesh; from the shoulders to the thighs the integuments were equally injured; and on the right hand, the part most injured, mortification had already commenced, which notwithstanding immediate scarification rapidly extended itself. The patient complained of burning thirst, and was horribly convulsed, he passed by stool putrid and bilious matter, and was exhausted by continual vomiting accompanied by fever and delirium. On the fourth day, after two hours of comatose insensibility, he expired; during the whole period of his suffering, it was impossible to trace any symptomatic affection. A short time previous to his decease, M. Battaglia observed, with astonishment that putrefaction had made so much progress that the body already exhaled an insufferable odor, worms crawled from it on the bed, and the nails had become detached from the left hand.
What happened to Bertholi? In the end, no one was able to ascertain exactly what happened. There was no explanation offered and it just remains a very bizarre phenomenon and historical oddity.
In 1822, on a summer day in the countryside of France, a local resident named Ranateau had an unforgettable experience. He allegedly felt a sudden, sharp pain in his right index finger, and as he casually glanced at it, trying to figure out where the pain was coming from, he realized in terror that his finger was actually on fire. Upon waving his finger, his whole hand ignited.
In a panic, Ranateau wildly batted his hand on his pants trying to put out the fire, only to end up setting them on fire. As he clapped his hands together, his left hand ignited as well. At this point, Ranateau ran to his house screaming for his wife to bring him a bucket of cold water.
Plunging his hands into the water failed to douse the flames. He continued to try and douse the flames by shoving his hands in wet mud and even milk, but nothing would stop them. By this time, a crowd of curious onlookers came to see what had happened. One of these spectators brought him some holy water which finally killed the flames.
Oddly enough, Ranateau’s clothes, where he had touched them, were burned, but his hands remained intact, suffering only minor burns considering how long they had been on fire. This case appeared in an 1822 French medical journal and has been labeled as unsolved.
Over the years, more than 200 persons have been burned to ashes with no apparent cause. While rare, cases of spontaneous human combustion are still reported today, and news articles from all over the world still occasionally report incidents. While the phenomenon continues to be a mystery, scientists, doctors, and authors alike have theorized how spontaneous human combustion can occur. Stick around after the break and we will discuss some of the most common theories of how human beings can spontaneously burst into flames.
Characteristics of Spontaneous Human Combustion
Although cases of spontaneous human combustion are rare and the victims differ in circumstances and situations, there are some basic similarities with most cases. Here are some similarities:
- The body of the victim is usually nearly completely consumed.
- Most persons are former smokers or current smokers.
- Firestarters like matches or cigarettes are often found close by.
- A majority of the cases take place in the victim’s own home.
- The head and torso are often nearly burnt beyond recognition, the extremities including the hands and feet often remain intact.
- The victim’s rooms reveal very little signs of fire, apart from a greasy residue sometimes left on the walls, windows, or furniture.
Like most strange phenomena, people try to understand it and classify it. Spontaneous human combustion is not different and over the years, there have been many theories of how spontaneous human combustion is possible. Here are a few of the most common.
As people put together theories, they often look for natural causes. Many of the natural causes are frequently built around cigarettes. Many people who are reported to naturally combust have a connection to cigarettes and matches. If someone were to have a heart attack while smoking where he or she would become immobile. It is therefore possible that a cigarette could ignite fatty tissues and burn the immobile person. Of course, as has been discussed before, it would take in excess of 1600 degrees Fahrenheit to cremate a person to the point of ashes and bone. It seems unlikely that a cigarette could start a fire of this magnitude.
One theory for spontaneous human combustion is that it is a consequence of a person having excessive amounts of alcohol in their system. This theory became popular when Charles Dickens used it to explain a strange spontaneous human combustion death in his famous novel “Bleak House”.
In the New Science Magazine, biologist, Brian J. Ford, proposed a theory where a condition called ketosis, which occurs due to alcoholism, diabetes, or a low-carb diet could result in a large production of acetone which is highly flammable.
MCAS (Mast cell Activation System)
Dr. Lawrence Affrin came up with a curious theory for spontaneous human combustion. This theory has to do with a rare condition called Mast Cell Activation System (MCAS). In this condition, mast cells spontaneously release over 200 inflammatory molecules known as mediators, including the substance noradrenaline. Dr. Affrin backs his theory up with a case report of a man with MCAS who grew ill and appeared to actually be smoking in the presence of several witnesses. The release of large amounts of a mast cell-derived substance could turn on a regulatory protein called UCP-1 in greater-than-normal amounts. One of the places that these mast cells are stored is in our fat stores. Under the right circumstances, a flood of mast cells released from the fat tissues could activate the UCP-1 switch which could cause heat to be generated up to 194 degrees Fahrenheit. Once the fat tissue is ignited, it would, in theory, burn itself out including the bone and marrow.
Pyrophoric Liquid Buildup
One interesting theory was proposed by British chemist Dr. John Emsley. He suggested that spontaneous human combustion could be a result of an overproduction of a pyrophoric liquid, called diphosphane, in the gut. He proposed that the self-combustion of diphosphane would result in the ignition of the hydrogen and methane gasses in the gut, which would explain why, in some cases, why witnesses said they saw blue flames originating from the abdomen.
Biologist David Pascod also postulated that spontaneous human combustion could be caused by internal chemical reactions from build-up gasses in the body. However, his theory requires that these flammable gasses have to mix with air to ignite. Dr. Pascod stated that “Although very rare, the breakdown of phosphorous compounds in the body can generate gases in the gut which automatically ignite when they come into contact with air. When the gasses escape from the body they burst into flame.”
There are some people who believe that spontaneous human combustion is a result of being struck by lightning. Chemical engineer John Abrahamson suggested that ball lightning could be the instigator of spontaneous human combustion. He said, “This is circumstantial only, but the charring of human limbs seen in a number of ball lightning cases are very suggestive that this mechanism may also have occurred where people have limbs combusted.”
One previously popular theory was developed by author and Electrical Engineer Larry E. Arnold in his 1995 book “Ablaze!”. He proposed the existence of a subatomic particle he called “pyrotron”. Arnold wrote that the flammability of a human body could increase in certain circumstances like high blood alcohol levels. He believed that extreme stress was the likely trigger for many combustion cases. In his theory, the process of combustion may require no external oxygen sources to spread the fire throughout the body, since it may be an “oxidation-reduction” reaction. Arnold’s hypothesis has been criticized as being based on selective evidence.
Author Michael Harrison suggested in his 1976 book “Fire From Heaven” that spontaneous human combustion is connected to paranormal activity, mainly poltergeist activity. He argued that “the force which activates the ‘poltergeist’ originates in, and is supplied by, a human being”. He believed that both fatal and non-fatal cases of spontaneous human combustion belong to the extensive range of poltergeist phenomena.
A current theory, favored by the scientific-minded is that spontaneous human combustion is brought on by something called the “wick effect”. In this hypothesis, a small external flame source, such as a burning cigarette, starts the process by charring the clothing of the victim. Then, this flame splits the skin releasing subcutaneous fat that is then absorbed into the burned clothing, acting as a wick. This type of combustion can continue for as long as the fuel or fat is available. This hypothesis has been tested successfully with cadavers and pigs and is consistent with some of the evidence recovered from cases of spontaneous human combustion.
It’s not surprising that the human body typically has enough fat to fully combust a body. In fact, even the leanest of people typically have several pounds of fat in their tissues. The protein in the body also burns but doesn’t have as much energy as the fat which accounts for why the limbs may not be fully consumed.
You may be asking yourself but what about the water in the body wouldn’t that stop the burning? Well, not if the combustion were slow, lasting hours. In this case, the water could evaporate slowly away over time, and in an enclosed environment, like a house, the water would then recondense nearby, possibly on furniture or windows. The outside extremities wouldn’t burn because they have the least amount of fat unless they were resting on the abdomen.
With more than 200 cases it seems that Spontaneous Human Combustion is a terrifying reality and regardless of the many theories presented, one thing is certain. The cause of Spontaneous Human Combustion is still unknown and the phenomenon remains very much a mystery.