Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is the alleged burning of a person’s body completely or partially without any apparent, identifiable reason and/or external source of ignition. The combustion may vary in severity from as mild as simple burns and blisters to the skin to a complete incineration of the body.
SHC was first documented in early texts as the Bible, but, scientifically speaking, these accounts are too old and often second hand to be seen as reliable evidence.
Over the past 300 years, there have been more than 200 reports of persons burning to a crisp for no apparent reason.
In 1673 for the first time Frenchman Jonas DuPont published a collection of cases of SHC in the form of a book called “De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis” after encountering records of the Nicole Millet case, in which a man was acquitted of the murder of his wife when the court was convinced that she had been killed by spontaneous combustion. Millet, a hard-drinking Parisian was found reduced to ashes in her straw bed, leaving just her skull and finger bones. The straw matting was only slightly damaged. DuPont’s book on this strange subject brought it out of the realm of folkloric rumour and into the popular public imagination.
April 9, 1744, in Ipswich England, 60 year old alcoholic Grace Pett, was found on the floor by her daughter in a state of “a log of wood consumed by a fire, without apparent flame.” Nearby clothing was undamaged in this case.
Then many authors started putting such stories in their books. One such author was Captain Marryat who, in his novel “Jacob Faithful”, borrowed details from a report in the Times of London of 1832 to describe the death of his lead character’s mother, who is reduced to “a sort of unctuous pitchey cinder.”
Twenty years later, in 1852, Charles Dickens used Spontaneous Human Combustion to kill off a character named Krook in his novel “Bleak House”.
George Henry Lewes, philosopher and critic, declared that SHC was impossible, and derided Dickens’ work as perpetuating an uneducated superstition. Dickens then responded to this statement in the preface of the 2nd edition of his work, making it quite clear that he had researched the subject and knew of about thirty cases of SHC. The details of Krook’s death in Bleak House were directly modelled on the details of the death of the Countess Cornelia de Bandi Cesenate by this extraordinary means; the only other case that Dickens actually cites details from is the Nicole Millet account that inspired DuPont’s book about 100 years earlier.
On July 2, 1951 the Mary Reeser case found the public interest in Spontaneous Human Combustion. She was found reduced to a pile of ashes, a skull, and a completely undamaged left foot in her apartment in St. Petersburg, Florida.
On May 18, 1957, Anna Martin, 68, of West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was found incinerated, leaving only her shoes and a portion of her torso. The medical examiner estimated that temperatures must have reached 1,700 to 2,000 degrees, yet newspapers two feet away were found intact.
On December 5, 1966, the ashes of Dr. J. Irving Bentley, 92, of Coudersport, Pennsylvania, were discovered by a meter reader apparently ignited while he was in the bathroom and burned a 1 by 1.5 metre hole through the flooring, with only a portion of one leg remaining intact. Nearby paint on the bathroom wall was untouched.
In 1944 Peter Jones, survived this experience and reported that there was no sensation of heat nor sighting of flames. He just saw smoke. He stated that he felt no pain.
THEORIES ABOUT SHC:
Spontaneous Human Combustion is not a natural phenomenon. There are many theories put forward to explain this bizarre phenomenon – two most prominent of which are – the non-spontaneous “wick effect” fire, and the rare discharge called “static flash fires”. Although scientifically it can be shown that the human body contains enough energy stores in the form of fat and other tissues to consume it completely, in normal circumstances bodies will not sustain a flame on their own.
Many Spontaneous Human Combustion victims were chronic alcoholics. But experiments in the 19th century demonstrated that flesh impregnated with alcohol will not burn with the intense heat associated with Spontaneous Human Combustion.
Many victims were overweight but a few were lean and thin also. It was proposed then that body fat stores could have lead to spontaneous combustion.
It was also taken as a sign from God, as divine punishment.
Electrical fields that exist within the human body might be capable of ‘short circuiting’ somehow, that some sort of atomic chain reaction could generate tremendous internal heat. Build-up of static electricity was also proposed as one of the hypotheses for triggering spontaneous combustion of human beings. Similarly, an explosive combination of chemicals formed inside the digestive system – due to poor diet was also considered as a possible cause.
No satisfactory explanation of Spontaneous Human Combustion has yet come to be accepted as full proof reason.
REMAINS OF A HUMAN BODY AFTER SHC:
The body is normally more severely burned than one that seen after a normal fire. The burns are not distributed evenly over the body; the extremities are usually untouched by fire, whereas the torso usually suffers severe burning. It suggests temperatures of above 2000 to 3000 degree Fahrenheit occurring suddenly in human torso.
In some cases the torso is completely destroyed, the bones being reduced completely to ash.
In some, small portions of the body (an arm, a foot, maybe the head) may remain unburned.
Objects immediately associated with the body are charred but the fire never spread away from the body. SHC victims have been seen burnt up in bed without the sheets catching fire, clothing worn is often barely singed, and flammable materials only inches away remain untouched.
A greasy soot deposit covers the ceiling and walls, usually stopping three to four feet above the floor.
Objects above this may show signs of heat damage (melted candles, cracked mirrors, etc.)
All reported cases have occurred indoors. Some events of Spontaneous Human Combustion were witnessed but some were not. The victims were always alone for a long period of time. Witnesses who were nearby (in adjacent rooms) report never hearing any sounds, such as cries of pain or calls for assistance.
In the witnessed combustions – people are actually seen by witnesses to explode into flame; most commonly. Here the witnesses agree that there was no possible source of ignition and/or that the flames were seen to erupt directly from the victim’s skin. Unfortunately, most of the known cases of this type are poorly documented and basically unconfirmed. Sometimes there are no flames seen by the witness.
Non-fatal cases – Unfortunately, the victims of these events generally have no better idea of what happened to them than do the investigators; but the advantage to this grouping is that a survivor can confirm if an event had a simple explanation or not. Thus, there are far fewer cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion with survivors that can be explained away by sceptics without a second look.
Spontaneous Human Combustion is till date an unsolved mystery.