Spontaneous Human Combustion: Fact or Fiction?
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I remember the first time I ever heard the phrase Spontaneous Human Combustion. I was eleven years’ old, it was 1981 and my English teacher was trying to encourage us to do some decent writing by using a set of macabre and creepy newspaper articles on spontaneous human combustion (SHC) in order to ‘inspire’ us. I don’t know about the other kids, but far from inspiring me, it horrified me. For years I was terrified that I was going to burn to death, slowly and horrifyingly, from the inside out, unable to shout for help as the words died, burning, in my melting throat. Brr!
The possibility of a person being able to die from spontaneous whole body emoliation, or SHC, has been hotly debated for hundreds of years. It was first recorded in 1641 when Italian Knight Polonus Vorstius reportedly started vomiting fire after drinking two ladles of wine, and then later used by Charles Dickens, in his novel, Bleak House, as a device for gruesomely disposing of one of his characters. When lambasted by critics for writing about a type of death unsupported by scientific evidence, he quoted some thirty-plus cases that were already known about at the time.
In more recent times, there have been many cases reported worldwide, with over 200 deaths attributed to SHC worldwide; from Hawaii, through the mainland USA to Australia and Ireland, Great Britain.
Let us look at some of the most intriguing cases;
Danny Vanzandt (65yrs), February 20th 2013, Oklahoma, USA.
Danny was discovered by his neighbours, who initially thought his burning body was a pile of trash and tried to put the fire out. In fact, his body had been burning for over 10 hours and was reduced to ash, with the floor below him remaining intact. The rest of his house was untouched and local fire officers began to suspect that his death was the result of SHC. However, in a twist to the tale, coroners delivered the verdict that it appeared that Danny had a heart attack and then fell on his lighted cigarette, which ,in turn, set him on fire.
Michael Faherty (76yrs) December 22nd 2010, Galway, Ireland, Great Britain.
The coroner’s inquest stated that Mr Flaherty had been found on his back with his head near to an open fireplace. There was no evidence of an accelerant and the only damage was to the body and a small patch on the ceiling and on the floor beneath him. West Galway coroner, Dr Ciaran McLoughlin, said “This fire was thoroughly investigated and I’m left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation,” It was the first time that a verdict of death by SHC had been recorded in Ireland.
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Young Sik Kim (76 yrs)December 1956, Honolulu, Hawaii.
A horrified neighbor discovered blue flames coming out of the stomach of Young Sik Kim, when she paid a friendly visit to the wheelchair-bound elderly man. Sadly, the lady could do nothing to help him and by the time the fire service arrived, Young’s body was burnt to ashes, with only his feet having escaped the flames.
John O’Connor (76yrs) March 24th 1997, Gortaleen, Northern Ireland, UK.
John was found sitting in his chair, which had not been burned, when an apparently intense heat consumed his body in 1997. All that was left of him was his head, upper torso and feet.
Doris Lee Jacobs (73yrs) August 19th 1966 Occano, California.
Doris burned to death in her trailer home. The rest of the trailer was only scorched, despite Doris being burned on over 95% of her body. The fire service were perplexed, as only her body had been burned.
John Irving Bentley (92 yrs) December 5th 1966, Pennsylvania, USA.
The elderly doctor had been found with burns over 90% of his body. His pipe was a distance from his body and his metal walker was nearby but had not been scorched. There was a hole in the floor where he had burned but no other part of the house had been touched. His body was reduced to ash, except for part of his head and one leg, still in his boot.
Countess Cornelia Zangari Bandi (66 yrs) March 15th 1731, Cesena, Papal States, Italy.
The Italian countess had gone to bed the night before after a good meal and drinking some brandy. Her maid went to see her the next morning and found her burnt remains in her bed. It was reported that only part of her head and legs remained, along with three fingers. The room was covered with soot and a stinking, fatty liquid. An oil lamp was placed nearby, covered with soot but containing no oil. This is considered to be one of the first reported cases of SHC.
Mary Reeser (67 yrs) July 2nd 1951 St Petersburg, Florida, USA.
Mary’s landlady went to deliver a telegram to her and, on trying the door, found the handle to be very warm. She called the police, who found the remains of the body smouldering in a chair she had been sitting in. Only her skull, backbone and part of her foot remained (which was still placed in her slipper). It was noted that some plastic objects on a nearby table had softened and lost their shape, due to the heat.
These are truly incredible cases, but there are some even more remarkable cases where the victims of spontaneous human combustion have survived!
Frank Baker, decorated war veteran, in Vermont, June 1995;
Frank was getting ready to go fishing, with his friend Peter one sunny day in 1995. They were having a chat, drinking a few beers, when Frank spontaneously set on fire. He said he, quite understandably, “freaked out”. He valiantly tried to fight it, having no idea what was happening. Luckily Peter managed to extinguish the flames and immediately went to the doctor’s. The doctor was nonplussed. He said, “Looking at it, you burned from the inside out!” Frank had been nowhere near any source of heat or flame, he was not smoking, at the time.
Bizarrely, this happened more than once. Another day, the friends went fishing again. It happened again, whilst they were on the boat. Frank said he was screaming, with his arms on fire. Again, Peter put him out.
Poor Frank says he now lives in fear of it happening again. “It seems to be beyond rational understanding and someone should try to find out what causes it,” he said.
And he was not the only one, there are other cases (some witnessed) that have been reported of people bursting into flames whilst going about their normal business;
- On November 4th 2015, A Mauritian woman in her 40’s busts into flames on a park bench in Flensburg, Germany.
- On August 27th 1938, 22-year-old Phyllis Newcombe was dancing with her fiancé at the weekly dance in Chelmsford, Essex, when suddenly she was enveloped in ‘bluish flames’ and crumpled to the floor. It was reported that Phyllis survived the initial ordeal but then succumbed to her injuries via a septic infection which she later developed.
- Mr. H., Professor of Mathematics in the University of Nashville, 1836, put out a spontaneous flame on his left leg, which left a burn about the size of a ten cent coin. (It is interesting to note that Mr H suffered from severe stomach acid problems- could there be any connection?)
- On December 15th 2017, John Nolan burst into flames in broad daylight whilst walking down the street in Harringay, North London. There were no accelerants found on his body and specialist fire investigators could find no obvious reason for Mr Nolan to catch alight.
These are just a few cases. Many more can be found on the internet and in historical newspaper reports. So, what is going on? What causes Spontaneous Human Combustion? Is it science fact or science fiction?
Let’s look at some possible causes;
Too much booze?
In Victorian times, a popular given reason for SHC was that the victim was an alcoholic or had ingested too much alcohol before they set on fire. The human body, however, is not inflammable. It is made of 90% water. In 1851, J.Liebig (designer of the chemical condenser) investigated the theory and 50 other reported cases.
‘Liebig pointed out that anatomical specimens were typically preserved in 70% ethanol, yet cannot be set on fire. Drunkards did not have inflammable corpses. Liebig set fire to anatomical specimens soaked in alcohol, and showed that the spirit burned off, leaving the tissues unharmed.’
(Brian J.Ford, McCrone Institute- Solving the Mystery of Spontaneous Human Combustion).
This proved that the alcohol theory was scientifically invalid and so must be discounted as a cause of SHC.
The Wick Effect
One of the most popular theories on the cause of SHC is the wick effect, where the body catches fire due to an external source and the fat and clothes on the body act like a candle wick, often burning slowly for hours. The theory is, that often, the victims are elderly, incapacitated, drugged or drunk and they cannot save themselves from the fire. This has been used as an explanation for many cases of SHC, especially when the victim is suspected of dying immediately before burning, for example, in the case of a heart attack or stroke. Many reports have cited that black soot and a greasy fatty substance have been found covering the nearby vicinity of the body, which gives weight to the Wick Effect Theory.
In a 1961 study, Dr Gavin Thurston put forward a number of conclusions regarding SHC and the Wick Effect;
- That under certain conditions a body will burn in its own fat with little or no damage to surrounding objects.
- The combustion is not spontaneous, but started by an external source of heat.
- This has occurred where the body has been in the path of a draft up a chimney from a lighted fire. Oxygenation of the flue prevents outward spread of the fire.
Dr D.J Gee, a lecturer in forensic medicine at the University of Leeds, England, did some experiments to test out Thurston’s theories. He discovered that human fat would only burn and somewhere around 250 degrees centigrade, however, a cloth dipped in liquid fat would keep on burning even at a low temperature of only 24 degrees. Fat rolled in cloth produced combustion which steadily worked its way along and gave off a smoky yellow flame and a great deal of soot. Although the experiment was not conclusive, it did support the theory of The Wick Effect as suggested by Thurston.
However, Larry E.Arnold from Parascience International, is not convinced. During a documentary on SHC (The Unexplained Files), Larry conducted an experiment to test out The Wick Effect theory.
“Wholly emulated human beings need at least to reach a temperature of 1000 degrees celsius, in order to reduce it to ash,” Larry claimed.
To prove his theory, he wrapped a ham shank in cloth, then set fire to it. As it burned, he measured the temperature, which initially reached a mere 437 degrees and then 700 degrees at its hottest. After 15mins, the burning had stopped. On unwrapping the ham, he discovered that the meat had not even been singed.
Larry concluded that The Wick Effect can’t produce the intensity of heat to burn a body to ash. In a cremation, it takes 90mins to 2hrs at a temp of 1300 degrees Celsius to burn the remains. Even that can’t completely reduce a body to ash. The remains are then ground up in a high speed grinder before being put in an urn.
During Spontaneous Human Combustion, a body is reduced to ash by burning alone, which seemingly can’t be explained by The Wick Effect.
The Acetone Explanation
Professor Brian J. Ford is a cell biologist, who studied at Cardiff University, Wales. He suggested that there is a compound found in the human body that could burst into flames spontaneously- acetone. Acetone is highly flammable and when people are ill, the levels can rise significantly.
Professor Ford explained that the smallest spark can ignite acetone. If there is enough acetone in the skin, it can become combustible, even to a small friction spark. To illustrate his theory, he conducted an experiment where he made a sale model of a human being from pork, dressed it in miniature clothes, and soaked it in acetone.
When set on fire, it burns with an intense heat. The combination of fat and acetone becomes combustible within victim’s body. Within half hour the model is reduced to ashes.
However, according to skeptic, Joe Nickell (Phd) (Skeptical Inquirer.org), there is a serious flaw in Professor Ford’s theory. Nickell suggested that Ford used a high concentration of acetone. He believed it is not possible to have these levels of acetone in human beings and have them survive.
Nickell said, “Science cannot find any mechanism by which the human body can burst into flames. And all such scenarios that attempt to explain how the body could combust are all so much science fiction and pseudoscience and nonsense.”
So, who are we to believe? Mainstream science still does not acknowledge that the phenomena exists, yet the cases seem to speak for themselves.
I’ll leave you to ponder on a quote from Larry.E.Arnold, “It’s easy for science to dismiss Spontaneous Human Combustion because it belies common sense, the human body is 70 -80% water, it’s like trying to ignite a swimming pool.”
Is SHC a genuine phenomenon that needs further study, or a form of pseudoscience not worthy of consideration? I don’t know the answer, but I do agree with Larry. As with so many areas of so-called paranormal phenomenon, we will never find the answers unless we investigate…and as no large corporate scientific body seem to be bashing down the door to be the first to put a wad of money into investigating the phenomena properly, I suppose it will be just left to us small investigators to chronicle cases and put our boots on the ground, as we always do. As they say, ‘from small beginnings come great things’. Kendal Mint Cake, anyone?