Spontaneous Human Combustion: A Burning Mystery
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.
Historic Cases of 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.
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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 (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 spontaneous human combustion.
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 (Public Domain)
Common Characteristics of Spontaneous Human Combustion Victims
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.
The theory explaining SHC which is most approved by science is called the “wick effect.” It likens the body of an SHC victim to a candle. A candle is composed of a wick on the inside surrounded by a wax made of flammable fatty acids. Fire ignites the wick and the fatty wax keeps it burning.
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In the human body, the body fat acts as the flammable substance, while the victim's clothing or hair is the wick. A cigarette might set fire to a person’s clothing then split their skin, releasing subcutaneous fat, which in turn is absorbed into the burned clothing. As the fat melts from the heat, it soaks into the clothing, acting as a “wax-like substance” to keep the "wick" burning. The burning continues for as long as there is fuel available. Proponents of this theory say it explains why victims' bodies are destroyed yet their surroundings are barely burned.
The three stages of the Wick Theory (arzbmad16/Slideshare)
There is More to Consider About This Phenomenon
Author and biology professor Brian J Ford offers another explanation for SHC. He says that an acetone build-up is likely at the root of this bizarre phenomenon:
“When a person is ill they sometimes naturally produce traces of acetone in the body, and acetone is highly inflammable. I experimented with scale model humans using pig flesh that had been marinated in acetone; they burn like incendiary bombs. Alcoholism can cause people to produce acetone, as can many diseases. My conclusion is that an unwell individual produces high levels of acetone which accumulates in the fatty tissues and can be ignited, perhaps by a static spark or a cigarette.”
Something that should be taken into consideration is the fact that cases of SHC almost always occur indoors, to lone humans, and often near sources of heat. For example, there are almost no known instances of spontaneous human combustion happening in the middle of the street.
Another point to consider is that the phenomenon only seems to happen to humans, there are no known reported cases of animals suddenly catching fire.
Also, the "wick effect" doesn’t seem to fully explain why the victims remain motionless during the episode of combustion and burning, nor does it provide enough explanation why surrounding furniture is so often unaffected by the fire.
Furthermore, believers in SHC point to the fact that the human body has to reach a temperature of roughly 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit (1,648 degrees Celsius) in order to be reduced to complete ashes, which has been the case with many of the victims found. By comparison, cremating a human body is carried out at a temperature between 1400 and 1800 degrees Fahrenheit (982 degrees Celsius).
Modern Spontaneous Human Combustion Cases
Cases of SHC aren’t simply the stuff of old wives tales or confined strictly to books of antiquity. For instance, a more modern example took place in Ireland in 2010.
The burned body of an elderly man was found lying with his head near the fireplace of his apartment in a room that had virtually no fire damage. There were no burn marks on the floor, on the ceiling directly above him, or anywhere else in the room. An Irish coroner would later rule that spontaneous combustion was the cause of the death of 76-year-old Michael Faherty.
Another modern case of possible SHC occurred in 2017. The Independent reported that a 70-year-old man suddenly burst into flames “in unexplained circumstances in a London street.” The Fire Brigade’s investigation “found no evidence of an “accelerant” that would have spread the flames” and the man’s death was treated as “unexplained.” Could this be another case of spontaneous human combustion?
Many people believe that there is much about the human body which makes it unique among earthly beings and there are aspects of humans that are still unknown to us. One such feature is the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion, which remains an unsolved mystery.
Spontaneous human combustion remains an unsolved mystery. (Matthew/CC BY NC ND 2.0)
Top Image: Spontaneous Human Combustion is an unexplained phenomenon. Source: lucas le coadou/EyeEm /Adobe Stock
By Bryan Hill
Updated on October 15, 2020.
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