Can a person just burst into flames? The jury’s out as far as most scientists are concerned, but there still remain some strange, unexplained cases…
For hundreds of year, there have been reports of people suffering mysterious, fiery deaths. Most follow a similar pattern. The victim seems to have been consumed by flames and reduced totally to ash, usually inside their home. There’s often no sign of fire damage to their immediate surroundings, and a sweet, smoky smell accompanies the incident. The name for this phenomenon is spontaneous human combustion.
Peculiarities of SHC are that, while the body and head are charred beyond recognition, hands, feet, and/or part of the legs may be unburned. Also, the room around the person shows little or no signs of a fire, apart from a greasy residue sometimes left on furniture and walls. In rare cases, the internal organs of a victim remain untouched while the outside of the body is charred.
So how does it happen? Some suggest it’s due to a ‘wick effect’ – that a small external flame, say a burning cigarette, the victim’s clothing, splitting the skin and releasing subcutaneous fat which is, in turn, absorbed into the burned clothing, acting as a wick.
But scientists say a temperature of 1,600 –2,000 degrees Fahrenheit over two to three hours is needed to cremate a human body. And that, to produce the chemical reaction needed to make it catch fire would take some doing. It’s a mystery that’s been around a long, long time.
A very early mention of SHC is that of Italian knight Polonus Vorstius, in the late 1400s. After drinking ‘two ladles’ of very strong wine one night, he apparently vomited fire – then burst into flames.
Another early account came from Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholin in 1663, who described how a woman in Paris ‘went up in ashes and smoke’ while she slept. The straw mattress on which she slept was unharmed by the fire.
The Countess Cornelia Di Bandi, who lived in Cesena, Italy in the 1700s, was found lying between her bed and her window one morning, with everything except her lower legs and three fingers burned. In her room, two candles had burned down, yet their wicks were left intact.
In 1958, the remains of a woman identified only as Mrs E M, aged 69, was found dead of ‘preternatural combustibility’ in Hammersmith, west London. Though from the position of her body, it appears she may have simply fallen into the fireplace, an ordinary wood, gas, or coal fire is not hot enough to reduce a human body to ash. The wooden chair shows no signs of being burned or scorched.
In 1964, Olga Worth Stephens, age 75, was driven into Dallas, Texas, by her nephew. He parked the car and went to buy a cold drink, leaving his aunt in the vehicle. A few minutes later she apparently burst into flames. She was pulled from the car badly burned and taken to hospital but died eight days later. According to the Dallas Morning News, reporting her death, she’d been treated for ‘burns received in mysterious circumstances.’
In 1967, bus passengers in Lambeth, South London, noticed blue flames in the window of a derelict house and called the Fire Service. Inside the building, they supposedly found the body of Robert Francis Bailey, a homeless man. A fireman reported seeing a slit in the man’s abdomen from which blue flames were issuing. It seems the neither the house or its fittings were damaged. The only thing on fire was Bailey himself.
In 1980, Henry Thomas, aged 73, was found burned to death in his council house on the Rassau Estate, Ebbw Vale, south Wales. His entire body was incinerated, leaving only his skull and a portion of each leg below the knee. His feet and legs were still clothed in socks and trousers. Half of the chair in which he had been sitting was also destroyed.
In September 1982, Jeannie Saffin aged 61, burst into flames in the kitchen of her home in Edmonton, London. Her father, seated at a nearby table, said he saw a flash of light out of the corner of his eye and turned to Jeannie to find she was enveloped in flames. An inquest was held into her death and police enquiries ordered by the coroner, who finally said he must rule the death as ‘misadventure or open verdict’.
In December 2010, the death of Michael Faherty in County Galway, Ireland, was recorded as ‘spontaneous combustion’ by the coroner. The doctor made a statement at the inquiry into the death: ‘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.’
See Frank Baker, US Army Vietnam veteran, the only known survivor of SHC.
Keep that extinguisher handy if…
…you’re a chronic alcoholic
…you’re over 60
…you lead an inactive life
Fictional human combustions
In his 1842 novel Dead Souls, Nicolai Gogol writes of a blacksmith catching fire from within, from ‘too much drink’.
Herman Melville‘s 1849 novel Redburn tells of the spontaneous combustion of a sailor. Melville describes how ‘greenish fire, like a forked tongue’ comes from the mouth of a drunken man as fire consumes him.
Better watch that fag, Johnny!
In an episode of The X-Files entitled Trevor, investigator Dana Scully, played by actress Gillian Anderson, examines charred human remains and suggests the victim might have spontaneously combusted. It’s a case of SHC revisited for Gillian A – she plays Lady Dedlock in the BBC version of Bleak House, where the unfortunate Johnny Vegas, aka Mr Krook, meets his fiery end!
The 2013 mockumentary movie Spontaneous Human Combustion tells the story of struggling actress Elizabeth Fahrenheit – aka Tickles the clown, who, to make ends meet, does kids’ parties. The singleton seeking love has more problems than most of us though – every time she’s erm, intimate with a date, the man spontaneously combusts.
So, while scientists, investigators of the unexplained and SHC believers remain at odds over the phenomenon it seems that, at any time, someone, somewhere may still be unfortunate enough to fall victim to a mysterious fiery end…