You Shall Burn for This: the Phenomenon of Spontaneous Human Combustion

by Timothy Chilman


<After almost eleven months of weekly updates, I’ve run out of stuff to write about. The next update will be in two weeks. If anyone can suggest something, I’d be very grateful if they were to email me.>

Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is the phenomenon whereby a human body catches fire for no apparent reason. More than 200 cases have been reported within the last 300 years, almost always resulting in the death of the victim.

The cover of the first installment of Bleak House

In fiction, Charles Dickens wrote of a character suffering SHC in his 1852 novel, Bleak House. Dickens’ character, Krook, was a heavy drinker who found the gin he imbibed warmed his stomach rather more than usual, and then he caught fire. Dickens caused some consternation by fueling the belief that excessive drinking could cause SHC. In response to criticism that he was encouraging nonsense, in the second edition of Bleak House, Dickens wrote that he knew of 30 instances of SHC, although he mentioned only two, which had both occurred over a century earlier. He said, “I have no need to observe that I do not willfully or negligently mislead my readers and that before I wrote that description I took pains to investigate the subject.” These stories likely came from Jonas Dupont’s 1763 work, De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis, which was a collection of cases of SHC, most of which involved alcohol. Alcohol, however, does not burn with the heat associated with SHC.

SHC featured in the novel, Jacob Faithful (1834) by Charles Marryatt and three novels by the nineteenth century Russian author, Nikolai Gogol. More recently, in The X Files, Scully suggested SHC in one instance, causing Mulder to remark: “Dear diary, today my heart leaped when Agent Scully suggested spontaneous human combustion.” In the film, Repo Man, a person spontaneously combusts and a government agent comments: “It happens sometimes. People just explode.” In South Park season 3, episode 2, some of the residents of the town die from SHC after holding in their farts for too long.

Famed science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke, said, “There's one mystery I'm asked about more than any other: spontaneous human combustion."

Arthur C. Clarke, the author of 2001: a Space Odyssey, said, “There’s one mystery I’m asked about more than any other: spontaneous human combustion. Some cases seem to defy explanation, and leave me with a creepy and very unscientific feeling. If there’s anything more to SHC, I simply don’t want to know.”

SHC confounds police and fire investigators as partially burned corpses are found next to unburned furniture or rugs. Where the victim was abed, the bedding does not catch fire. No possible source of ignition such as a cigarette is present. People nearby do not report hearing cries of pain or calls for help. The body is reduced to ashes with the exception of a leg or foot, while the remainder of the room is untouched by flame. The victim’s body is generally more severely burned than is true of a normal house fire. Usually, SHC occurs indoors, and victims are often female, overweight, and alcoholic.

The human body is mostly comprised of water, and there is little within it which burns readily: only fat and methane, although these contain enough energy to entirely consume a body. During cremation, bodies are subjected to a temperature of 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit for around two hours, and even this does not break down bones, which must be ground.

If the dead person had recently eaten a vast quantity of hay infested with bacteria, it is possible that enough heat could be generated to ignite the hay, but virtually all that would burn would be the gut and intestines. If the corpse of a person who had eaten newspaper and drunk oil had been left to rot for several weeks in a well-heated room, the gut might ignite. A burning sensation in the hands, arms, or feet can be an early sign of osteoporosis. The website, The Skeptic’s Dictionary, says that osteoporotic bones burn at a lower temperature than they would otherwise, however this condition is otherwise unknown to Google.

A chemical reaction on a person’s clothing can cause fire, as in the case of a women whose clothes caught fire who had placed in her pocket a shell which was covered in sodium from a fireworks display on the beach where the shell was found. The woman later inserted a wet handkerchief to her pocket, which could have causeed the ignition of the sodium. One man left his workplace and burst into flame upon lighting a cigarette. He had been in the habit of using a compressed air hose to blow detritus from his clothing, and on this occasion he had used pure oxygen, which considerably increased the flammability of his clothing.

The body of Adolf Hitler was supposedly still identifiable after more than five gallons of fuel had been applied to it.

Many murderers have attempted to burn the bodies of their victims, but once the accelerant is consumed, the fire ceases. Adolf Hitler’s body was supposedly still identifiable after more than five gallons of fuel had been applied to it.

The wick effect has been suggested as an avenue by which bodies could burn in rooms without the whole room burning. After a body is ignited by an external source, this theory says that the body’s clothes act as a wick and fat fuels the fire, so the body burns like an inside-out candle with sufficient heat that even bones could be destroyed. No victim of SHC has ever been reported to have been nekkid. Fat contains much energy due to the presence of long hydrophobic chains.

Limbs could be left intact because the lower half of a body is cooler than the top.
Greasy stains are often reported where SHC is thought to have occurred, and these could be caused by residue from the individual’s body fat.

To illustrate the wick effect, Dr. John de Haan of the California Criminalistic Institute wrapped a dead pig in a blanket, poured a small quantity of gasoline onto the blanket, and then ignited it. The flames of the fire were no more than 20 inches high, so the fire did not spread, but even bones were destroyed after five hours of burning. The fat content of a pig is very similar to that of a human being (and they taste the same, too). According to Dr. de Haan, the damage to the pig was “exactly the same as that from supposed spontaneous human combustion.” Dr. de Haan ascribed the cause of SHC to murder. A National Geographic special attempted to replicate this experiment, but failed, probably because a door had been left open and the resultant draft led to the ignition of everything in the room. It has been claimed that if the room had been enclosed, as in the cases of many elderly victims of SHC, the pig would have smoldered for hours without the rest of the room catching fire.

Professor Michael Green, a retired pathologist for the British Home Office, said, “The way the body burns – the so-called wick effect – seems to me and to my colleagues to be the most scientifically credible hypothesis.” Professor Green specifically ruled out divine intervention: “I think if the heavens were striking in cases of spontaneous combustion then there would be a lot more cases.” The experiment featured in the episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation entitled, Face Lift.

The wick effect is less likely because the smoldering it features contrasts with the rapidity and ferocity of flames in cases of SHC. The combustion would not be spontaneous if, as in the case of the wick effect experiment, accelerants had been present.

Professor Green also said that there had to be some external source of ignition, and static electricity has been suggested. Professor Robin Beach of Brooklyn founded the scientific detective agency, Robin Beach Engineers Associated. One of the agency’s first clients was the owner of a factory in Ohio where as many as eight small fires occurred every working day. Beach asked each of the factory’s employees to step onto a metal plate while holding an electrode. A voltmeter gave a reading. When one worker, a young woman, stepped onto the plate, there were 30,000 volts of electricity. When the woman was transferred to an area of the plant where she did not come into contact with combustible materials, fires became much less common. The professor postulated that static electricity can build up in the one person in 100,000 who has abnormally dry skin. Explosions have been reported in hospital operating theaters where the air was filled with anesthetic vapor. The professor suggested that the skin of employees of ordnance factories be tested to ensure they would not be subject to this effect.

Beach’s theory does not adequately explain SHC, as the flames usually are found to have come from within. Also, static electricity is generated when two surfaces brush against each other, which is unlikely to result to any great extent where a person sits in an armchair.

Dr. John Fisher and Dr. Joe Nickell investigated a number of cases of SHC, and found that where the destruction of the body was minimal, the only significant source of fuel was the person’s clothes, but where destruction was widespread, other fuel sources fed the flames. If bodies are not entirely consumed, the pair claim, it is because the victims were seated, and flames move upward.

Thomas Bartholin, author of Historiarum Anatomicarum Rariorum

Possibly history’s first case of SHC was an Italian knight named Polonius Vorstius in 1470. He had been drinking strong wine, then belched fire in front of his parents. He died. In 1613, a pamphlet was distributed by John Hilliar named Fire from Heaven, which spoke of the incident. The episode was recounted again in Thomas Bartholin’s 1641 work, Historiarum Anatomicarum Rariorum, a collection of strange medical phenomena. Bartholin had spoken to Vortius’ direct descendants.

Jonas Dupont decided to write De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis after hearing of the case of Nicole Millet in 1725. She was a serious drinker who was found burned to death. Her skull, some backbones, and lower legs were unburned. The chair in which she sat, a nearby straw bed and wooden objects were untouched. Her inn-keeper husband was convicted of her murder, but the conviction was overturned after a physician who had stayed at the inn that night said it was the result of a “visitation of God.”

In Italy in 1731, the skull and unburned legs of Countess Cornelia de Bandi were found one morning. There was much soot in the room, although no evidence of fire other than on the corpse. In England in 1744, gin-loving, pipe-smoking Grace Pett was found, resembling “a log of wood consumed by a fire.” Her surroundings were undamaged. In Chelmsford, England, in 1938, Maybelle Andrews caught fire at the top of a flight of stairs before her fiance and a room of partygoers, with no known source of flame.

All that was left of Mary Reeser in 1951 was a skull on a chair and an intact foot in a slipper resting against the chair. The only damage to her flat was soot on the ceiling and walls. A pile of loose newspaper beside the chair had not caught fire. Police determined that her dressing gown had caught fire, although no flame source was found. Wilton Krogman, a professor of anthropology who investigated the case, said, “I cannot conceive of such complete cremation without more burning of the apartment itself. In fact, the apartment and everything in it should have been consumed.” He said it was “the most amazing thing I have ever seen,” that it made the hairs on his neck bristle, and that had he been alive in the Middle Ages, he would have thought witchcraft to be responsible.

In Pennsylvania in 1964, Helen Conway burned while sitting in an upholstered chair in her bedroom. Her remains were unrecognizably charred. Conway was elderly, inform, and a heavy and careless smoker whose room showed many cigarette burns, but cremation does not result from a cigarette burn. It took no more than 21 minutes for Conway to be found, ruling out the wick effect. Robert Meslin, a volunteer fireman who was present, said, “The amazing part of the incident, in my opinion, is the time element.” Meslin later became Fire Marshal. The fire chief who was present at the scene, Paul Haggarty, said he believed Conway was the victim of SHC. He said, “There is no way you could explain it. None of the firemen had seen anything like it.”

In Pennsylvania in 1966, John Bentley combusted at some point between 9p.m. one evening at his home, when his friends departed, and the morning the next day when a person called to read a meter in the house. All that remained of Bentley was a pile of ashes and a right leg next to a toilet. The meter reader noticed a strange smell and blue smoke. A metal walker was over the ash heap, with its rubber tips untouched by fire. There was a hole in the floor, but the rest of the house was unaffected. A photograph of Bentley’s remains is famous.

In London in 1967, office workers awaiting a bus around 5 a.m. noticed flames in the upper window of a building. They called police, who entered the building to find the still-burning body of Robert Francis Bailey, a homeless man. The first policeman to arrive reported that a blue flame was emitted by a four-inch slit in Bailey’s abdomen. No external source of ignition was found. Bailey did not smoke, but was known to be an alcoholic who drank methylated spirits.

Clothing salesman, Jack Angel, went to sleep in a trailer in a hotel parking lot in Georgia In 1975. He awoke four days later, with burn marks on his body. He did not feel pain, and showered and dressed as he normally would. He walked over to the hotel, and collapsed. He awoke in hospital in considerable pain. His hand was infected and had to be amputated. There was no fire damage to the trailer. He later appeared in court to sue the manufacturer of the trailer’s water heater for $3,000,000. Then, he said that he had been scalded by hot water from a pressure valve in his shower unit. The doctor who examined Angel, however, said Angel had burned from the inside out, and ie would appear he had suffered from SHC but later changed his story to allow him to litigate.

In 1980 in Wales, 73 year-old Henry Thomas burned with the exception of his legs below the knee and the skull. The clothing on the leg remnants was virtually untouched by fire. He had been sitting in an easy chair. There was a fire nearby, but no evidence that fire had spread from there to Thomas. It was suggested that Thomas’ hair had caught fire, but a police officer who analyzed the scene said he did not think a man whose hair was on fire would be unaware of the fact and could then burn to such a degree.

In London in 1982, a 61 year-old, mentally handicapped woman, Jean Lucille Saffin, burst into flames in her kitchen. Her father, sitting at a nearby table, saw a flash of light in the corner of his eye, and turned to see his daughter afire, mostly around her face and hands. He and his son-in-law put the fire out with water, but Jean died after spending eight days in a coma. The fire had lasted for only one or two minutes. No cause for the fire was found, and an unnamed policeman told the family that he believed it to be a case of SHC, although the brevity of the fire explains why no surrounding objects were damaged by fire. SHC was proposed as the cause of Jean’s death, but medical examiner, Dr. John Burton, said there was “no such thing,” and recorded no verdict.

In 1986, George Mott watched an episode of the Twilight Zone in his home in New York, and said, “Nothing weird like that ever happens to me. I wish it would.” It did. Weird New England reported that the next day, his son found the three-and-a-half pounds of bone and ash which had been his father. Mott did not smoke and no source of fire was discovered. Mott was a retired fireman.

In Donegal in the Republic of Ireland in 2010, the charred remains of 50 year-old Elizabeth McLaughlin were found in her home by her nephew, who at first thought he was looking at a burned Christmas tree. There was no fire damage other than to the immediate vicinity, which policeman Sergeant John McLaughlin (no relation) said was an “unusual aspect.” Pathologist Dr. Michael Curtis conducted the autopsy, and said there had been talk of SHC, including by the woman’s love partner at the resultant inquest, but he believed that SHC was “probably an urban myth.”

No discussion of SHC today is complete without mention of 76 year-old Michael Faherty, who died in 2011. In the United Kingdom, his tale was told by the BBC and the newspapers, the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian, the Independent, and the Daily Hate. In the United States, it was told by ABC News, MSNBC, and the Washington Post. In other countries, the story appeared in the New Zealand Times, Asian Tribune, the Irish Times, and the Irish Independent. Online, the story featured on Slate and Yahoo.

Faherty’s badly burned body was found face down close to an open fire in his living room in Galway in the Republic of Ireland. Other than his body, the floor below it, and the ceiling above it, nothing had been damaged by fire. Forensic experts did not believe the domestic fire caused the burning of Faherty. No hint of an accelerant such as gasoline or alcohol was present, nor had any person entered or departed the house at 64 Clareview Park. Damage precluded determination of the cause of death. The West Galway medical examiner, Dr. Kieran McLoughlin, returned a verdict of SHC for the first time in his 25-year career and for the first time in the Republic, after consulting medical textbooks and enacting other research. He 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.” Faherty’s daughter, Mairin, said his family was satisfied with the investigation of the case.

SHC may possibly have been at work when a man caught fire inside a private video booth at the Golden Gate Adult Superstore in San Francisco in 2011. The man ran out of the store, “engulfed in flames,” according to SFPD Lt. Kevin McNaughton. CCTV recorded the incident. Firefighters were located one block away, and they arrived and extinguished the fire. Arson investigators said it was not clear how the man had caught fire. He was treated for 90 percent burns.

Both the wick effect and static electricity can be disregarded. There is ample proof that, from time to time, human beings just, y’know, combust.


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One thought on “You Shall Burn for This: the Phenomenon of Spontaneous Human Combustion

  1. The Mythical and Paranormal Realm 05/09/2012, 7:04 pm:

    Pretty creepy to think that a person can just burst into flames and burn hotly enough to be reduced into ashes. Especially since it seems there is no satisfying explanation.