Spontaneous Human Combustion

Spontaneous Human Combustion: A Burning Mystery

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For some time, people have debated whether or not human beings could spontaneously combust, or burst into flames, without an external heat source. However, over the past 300 years, there have been more than 200 reports of such incidents occurring. This phenomenon is called Spontaneous Human Combustion (or SHC) and it occurs when a person supposedly burns to death by a fire believed to have started from within the body of that person.  Of the hundreds of accounts on record, there seems to be a similar pattern. 

A solitary victim is often consumed by flame, usually inside his or her home. However, the extremities, such as the hands, feet, or parts of the leg often remaining intact. The torso and head are charred beyond recognition and, in rare cases, the internal organs of a victim remain unscathed.

The room the victim was in usually shows little to no signs of fire, aside from a greasy residue left on furniture and walls. Often there is a sweet, smoky smell in the room where the incident has occurred.

Historical Examples of Death Claimed to be Caused by Spontaneous Human Combustion

The history of SHC can be traced back to medieval literature and some even believe there are several passages in the bible making reference to it.

In 1641, the Danish physician, Thomas Bartholin (1616-1680), described the death of Polonus Vorstius in his book Historiarum Anatomicarum Rariorum , a collection of strange medical phenomena.

Vorstius was an Italian knight who, while at his home in Milan, Italy in 1470, drank some strong wine and started vomiting flames before bursting into fire. This is considered to be the first recorded account of spontaneous combustion in human history. 

Illustration of person spontaneously combusting

Illustration of person spontaneously combusting ( Public Domain )

In 1673, French author Jonas Dupont, published a book entitled De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis which is a collection of cases and studies on the subject of SHC.

One famous incident from France dates back to 1725, when a Parisian innkeeper was awoken by the smell of smoke and discovered that his wife, Nicole Millet, had been reduced to ashes while lying on a straw pallet which itself had been untouched by the flames. 

All that remained of Madame Millet, a chronic alcoholic, was her skull, a few bones from her back and lower legs. Wooden items found around her were undamaged. Her husband was charged with murder and initially found guilty. 

On appeal, however, the judges agreed with his defense of “spontaneous human combustion,” thanks in part to the testimony of a surgeon named Dr Claude-Nicolas Le Cat. Le Cat was at the inn when the smell of smoke awoke the house and Nicole’s body was discovered. Her death was later declared to be the consequence of “a visitation of God.”

Spontaneous Human Combustion became popularized in the 19th century after famous English author, Charles Dickens, used it to kill off one of his characters in the novel Bleak House . When critics accused Dickens of trying to validate something that didn’t exist, he simply pointed to existing research showing 30 historical cases at the time. 

Illustration of the spontaneous human combustion case in Bleak House by Charles Dickens

Illustration of the spontaneous human combustion case in Bleak House by Charles Dickens ( Public Domain )

Common Characteristics of Victims of Spontaneous Human Combustion as Put Forth in 1938

The topic of SHC received coverage in the British Medical Journal in 1938 when an article by L.A. Parry cited a book published in 1823 called Medical Jurisprudence .  It stated that cases of spontaneous human combustion shared several common themes including:

  • the victims were chronic alcoholics;
  • they were usually elderly females;
  • the body had burned spontaneously, but some lighted substance had also come into contact with it;
  • the hands and feet usually fell off;
  • the fire had caused very little damage to many other combustible things in contact with the body;
  • the combustion of the body has left a residue of greasy and fetid ashes, very offensive in odor.

Alcoholism seems to have played a heavy role in early references to SHC, partially because some Victorian era physicians and writers believed spontaneous human combustion was caused by it.

The Wick Effect: A Scientific Explanation for SHC

There are several theories as to what causes SHC apart from the above-mentioned alcoholism. These include: flammable body fat, acetone buildup, static electricity, methane, bacteria, stress, and even divine intervention. 


Interesting note:

In modern cases victims often used sleep medication. Which would imply victims are paralyzed when burned.

Good point, Nathan. The historical cases point to alcoholism as a factor, which would have much the same effect. The person doesn't feel the initial burning and are overcome by smoke inhalation.

PBS had a very good documentary on SHC, it may have been an episode of Nova.

IronicLyricist's picture

any “modern” cases of shc could be attributed to haarp.. in the 60s and 70s when it was being frist tested there was a rash of cases of shc that died down.. coincidence???

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manipulatable by thought ability supressed in humans since birth

Brian Eno has a song on his 1973 album, Here Come the Warm Jets, called "Baby's On Fire", whose title figure is a woman who is a victim of SHC.

I've read of one case where an incident of SHC not only happened outdoors, but the victim was able to suppress the flames and survived. I'll have to find my source for the details.

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