Spontaneous Human Combustion
[Warning: contains graphic images] Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is a name used to describe cases of the burning of a living human body without an external source of ignition. There is speculation and controversy regarding SHC – some regard it as a unique and currently unexplained phenomenon, while others feel that cases described as SHC can be understood using current generally-accepted scientific principles. There are about 200 cited cases worldwide over a period of around 300 years; however, most of the alleged cases are characterized by the lack of a thorough investigation, or rely heavily on hearsay and oral testimony. In many of the more recent cases, where photographic evidence is available, it is alleged that there was an external source of heat present (often cigarettes), and nothing occurred “spontaneously.”
There are many hypothesized explanations which account for the various cases of spontaneous human combustion. These generally fall into one of three groups: paranormal explanations (e.g. a ghost or alien caused it), natural explanations that credit some unknown and otherwise unobserved phenomenon (e.g. the production of abnormally concentrated gas or raised levels of blood alcohol cause spontaneous ignition), and natural explanations that involve an external source of ignition (e.g. the victim dropped a cigarette).
Objections to natural explanations usually revolve around the degree of burning of the body with respect to its surroundings. Indeed, one of the common markers of a case of SHC is that the body – or part of it – has suffered an extraordinarily large degree of burning, with surroundings or lower limbs comparatively undamaged. [Source]
A small percentage of SHC cases involve a victim who survives the mysterious phenomenon. They most commonly involve the sudden eruption of mysterious flames or smoke on the victim’s skin when there is supposedly no identifiable external source of fire. A small proportion of these fall into the category of ‘mysterious burns’ – the victim develops unexplained burn marks on their skin (which commonly begin with small discomforts that grow into large painful burn marks), for which there is no known external cause.
The Wick Effect
The wick effect is the name given to the partial destruction of a human body by fire, when the clothing of the victim soaks up melted human fat and acts like the wick of a candle. The wick effect is a phenomenon that has been proven to occur under certain conditions, and thoroughly observed. The wick effect theory essentially says that a person is burned through his/her own fats after being ignited, accidentally or otherwise. The clothed human body acts like an “inside-out” candle, with the fuel source (human fat) inside and the wick (the clothing of the victim) outside. Hence there is a continuous supply of fuel in the form of melting fat seeping into the victim’s clothing.
Cigarettes are often implicated as the source of ignition. Usually, the victim is alone at the time of death, and it is thought that natural causes such as heart attacks may lead to the victim dying, subsequently dropping the cigarette. However, some of the victims did not smoke.
Another self-induced theory is that the victim is an alcoholic and has been smoking while drinking or shortly after drinking a strong spirit. There are claims that this raises the blood alcohol level to a point where it ignites; however, this ‘explanation’ is implausible, since ethanol typically burns only if the concentration is greater than about 23%, whereas a fatally toxic level is about 1%. (To reach a blood alcohol level of 20% would mean drinking many bottles of pure vodka, for example.)
As it is common knowledge among farmers that haystacks sometimes burst into flames for no apparent reason, there were some who attempted to explain the SHC phenomenon by the same logic. It is now known that conditions for growth are optimal for bacteria growing in the middle of a haystack, to the extent that they occasionally reproduce at such incredible rates that their collective body heat causes the dry straw to catch fire. For a while it was speculated that similar processes in the human body might cause it to ignite; however, it has been shown that such conditions are not achievable in the human body4. In the event that there was an uncontrolled burst of microbial growth, the human being would succumb to massive infection even before the body became hot enough to combust.
On the night of July 1 – July 2, 1951 Mary Reeser burned to death in her apartment and the nickname “The Cinder Lady” was given to her posthumously by the local media. Reeser’s remains, which were largely ashes, were found among the remains of a chair in which she had been sitting. Only part of her left foot (which was wearing a slipper) remained. Plastic household objects at a distance from the seat of the fire were softened and had lost their shapes. Reeser’s skull had survived and was found among the ashes, but was ‘shrunken’ (sometimes with the added descriptive flourish of ‘to the size of a teacup’). Even though the body was almost totally cremated, requiring very high temperatures, the room in which it occurred showed little evidence of the fire.
The FBI eventually declared that Reeser had been incinerated by the wick effect. A known user of sleeping pills, they hypothesized that she had fallen unconscious while smoking and set fire to her nightclothes. “Once the body starts to burn,” the FBI wrote in its report, “there is enough fat and other inflammable substances to permit varying amounts of destruction to take place. Sometimes this destruction by burning will proceed to a degree which results in almost complete combustion of the body.”
Robert Francis Bailey
Robert Francis Bailey was a homeless person who allegedly died by spontaneous human combustion. At 5:21am on 13 September 1967, an unnamed member of a group of female office workers phoned the London Fire Brigade. While waiting for their bus to work, they had noticed flickering blue flames visible through an upper window of 49 Auckland Street, Lambeth, London. They presumed it was burning gas. The first fireman to the scene said:
“When I got in through the window I found the body of a tramp named Bailey laying at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the second floor. He was lying partly on his left side. There was a four-inch (102 mm) slit in his abdomen from which was issuing, at force, a blue flame. The flame was beginning to burn the wooden stairs. We extinguished the flames by playing a hose into the abdominal cavity. Bailey was alive when he started burning. He must have been in terrible pain. His teeth were sunk into the mahogany newel post of the staircase. I had to prise his jaws apart to release the body. The fire was coming from within the abdomen of his body. […] There’s no doubt whatsoever, that fire began inside the body. That’s the only place it could have begun, inside that body.”
At inquest, it was found that the cause of Bailey’s death was ‘asphyxia due to inhalation of fire fumes’. Bailey had suffocated on the fumes of his own combustion. A search of his body revealed no portable sources of ignition (lighters, etc) or inflammable substances. He was a non-smoker.
John Irving Bentley
John Irving Bentley (1874–1966) was a physician who burned to death in the bathroom of his house in Coudersport, Pennsylvania. Bentley was last seen alive on December 4, 1966, when friends visiting him at his home said goodnight to him at about 9:00 P.M. On the following morning, December 5, Don Gosnell, a meter reader, let himself into Bentley’s house and went to the basement to check the meter—since Bentley could only move about with the help of a walker, Mr. Gosnell had permission to enter as necessary.
While in the basement, Gosnell noticed a strange smell and a light blue smoke. Intrigued, he went upstairs to investigate. The bedroom was smoky and in the bathroom he found Bentley’s cremated remains. All that was left intact of the aged doctor was the lower half of his right leg with the slipper still on it. The rest of his body had been reduced to a pile of ashes on the floor in the basement below. His walker lay across the hole in the floor generated by the fire. The rubber tips on it were still intact, and the nearby bathtub was hardly scorched. Gosnell ran from the building to get help, screaming “Doctor Bentley’s burned up!”
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