When I was no older than 8 years old, I watched a “Rescue 911” episode that featured an old woman who spontaneously combusted. She lived in a nursing home, and was rocking back and forth in her rocking chair near the window… she goes to light up a cigarette and next thing she knows, she’s blown to pieces.
For some unknown reason this episode gave me a sheer panic attack. I’ve never known why it impacted me so greatly; perhaps the allure of the unknown was with me at the time? Anyhow, I thought I’d look further into the stories, realities, and myths behind spontaneous human combustion as it has ever since perplexed me.
According to Wikipedia (which normally isn’t a reliable source but when it comes to theories of the unknown, sometimes it is all one can get), there are a couple of possible explanations for spontaneous human combustion.
One of which is the “’wick effect’, where the clothing of the victim soaks up melted human fat and acts like the wick of a candle.” Another hypothesis is that the “clothing is caused to burn by a discharge of static electricity.”
I found both of these hypotheses quite boring in that neither highlight the likelihood that the combustion takes place within the body itself…. So I decided to look at the scientific rules of spontaneous combustion:
How Spontaneous Combustion occurs:
According to HowStuffWorks.com (I know, I know, once again not a “professional” source but it had very complete information), there are some additional theories:
One of the most popular proposes that the fire is sparked when methane (a flammable gas produced when plants decompose) builds up in the intestines and is ignited by enzymes (proteins in the body that act as catalysts to induce and speed up chemical reactions). Yet most victims of spontaneous human combustion suffer greater damage to the outside of their body than to their internal organs, which seems to go against this theory.
Other theories speculate that the fire begins as a result of a buildup of static electricity inside the body or from an external geomagnetic force exerted on the body. A self-proclaimed expert on spontaneous human combustion, Larry Arnold, has suggested that the phenomenon is the work of a new subatomic particle called a pyroton, which he says interacts with cells to create a mini-explosion. But no scientific evidence proves the existence of this particle.
I then realized that in most reported cases of spontaneous combustion, nothing surrounding the victim catches on fire. Perhaps the floor beneath him/her, but the house never burns down. Upon looking further into this, I found this statement from HowStuffWorks.com: What makes the charred bodies in the photos of spontaneous human combustion so peculiar is that the extremities often remain intact. Although the torso and head are charred beyond recognition, the 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, aside from a greasy residue that is 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.
Interestingly enough, this phenomenon can be explained, scientifically, by the aforementioned “wick effect.” (For a visualization on how this works, please see the flash demonstration on http://science.howstuffworks.com/shc1.htm.)
Tales of Spontaneous Combustion
These are just a few of the many hundred reported cases of "spontaneous human combustion":
In 1938, a 22-year-old woman named Phyllis Newcombe was leaving a dance at the Shire Hall in Chelmsford, England. As she descended the staircase of the hall, her dress suddenly caught fire with no apparent cause. She ran back into the ballroom, where she collapsed. Several people rushed to her aid, but she later died in the hospital. Although the theory was that Newcombe's dress had been ignited by a cigarette or a lit match thrown from the stairwell, no evidence of either was ever found. Coroner L.F. Beccles commented on the incident, "From all my experience I have never come across a case so very mysterious as this."
In 1951, a 67-year-old widow named Mary Reeser was at home in St. Petersburg, Florida. On the morning of July 2, a neighbor discovered that Mary's front door was hot. When she broke into the apartment with the help of two workmen, they found Mary in an easy chair with a black circle around her. Her head had been burned down to the size of a teacup. The only other parts of her that remained were part of her backbone and part of her left foot. Other than Mary's charred remains, there was very little evidence of fire in her apartment. A forensic pathologist, Dr. Wilton Krogman, said of the incident, "[It's] the most amazing thing I have ever seen. As I review it, the short hairs on my neck bristle with vague fear. Were I living in the Middle Ages I'd mutter something about black magic." But the police report cited a far less supernatural explanation for the cause of death: a dropped cigarette, which ignited Mrs. Reeser's highly flammable rayon-acetate nightgown.
In 1982, a mentally handicapped woman named Jean Lucille "Jeannie" Saffin was sitting with her 82-year-old father at their home in Edmonton, in northern London. According to her father, a flash of light caught his eye. When he turned to his daughter, he saw that her upper body was enveloped in flames. Mr. Saffin and his son-in-law, Donald Carroll, managed to put out the blaze, but Jeannie died of her third-degree burns about a week after entering the hospital. According to Carroll, "the flames were coming from her mouth like a dragon and they were making a roaring noise." There was no smoke or fire damage in the room. Some have wondered if an ember from her father's pipe ignited Jeannie's clothing.
Fictional References to Spontaneous Combustion
In the novel Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens, the character Krook is killed by spontaneous combustion, "engendered in the corrupted humors of the vicious body itself". Jules Verne describes in his novel Dick Sand, A Captain at Fifteen (1878) that when a fictional African "King of Kazounde" tasted a punch set aflame, "An act of spontaneous combustion had just taken place. The king had taken fire like a petroleum bonbon. This fire developed little heat, but it devoured nonetheless." Verne has no doubt about SHC being the result of alcoholism: "In bodies so thoroughly alcoholized, combustion only produces a light and bluish flame, that water cannot extinguish. Even stifled outside, it would still continue to burn inwardly. When liquor has penetrated all the tissues, there exists no means of arresting the combustion."
Examples of spontaneous combustion occur in three works by the nineteenth-century Russian author Nikolai Gogol. In the story "St. John's Eve" from Gogol's "Village Evenings Near Dikanka" (1831-32) the guilty character Petro the orphan spontaneously combusts when confronted with a vision of a child he had killed. In the story "Vii," a huntsman in a Cossack village combusts after an encounter with a witch: "And once, when they came to the stable, instead of him there was just a heap of ashes and an empty bucket lying there: he burned up, burned up of his own self." In the novel Dead Souls, the landowner Korobochka laments that her serf-blacksmith burned up: "Something inside him started burning somehow, he'd had too much to drink. A blue flame just came out of him, and he smoldered and smoldered all over, and turned black as charcoal, and he was such a really skillful blacksmith!"
In the first chapter of the novel Jacob Faithful (1834) by Frederick Marryat there is a vivid account of the hero's mother perishing "in that very peculiar and dreadful manner, which does sometimes, although rarely, occur, to those who indulge in an immoderate use of spirituous liquor. Cases of this kind do, indeed, present themselves but once in a century, but the occurrence of them is too well authenticated. She perished from what is termed spontaneous combustion, an inflammation of the gases generated from the spirits absorbed into the system."
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