Spontaneous Human Combustion

06Sep09

 41041270 Fire Ap203[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.

Suggested Causes

The Wick Effect

Combustion3The 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.

Self-Induced

Karen-Russo Spontanous1Cigarettes 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.)

Bacteria

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.

Notable Cases

Mary Reeser

491236989 224D5004E6On 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

Parasicologia-Combustion-Espontanea4.JpgRobert 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-1966-1John 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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32 Responses to “Spontaneous Human Combustion”

  1. 1 imcrystalclear

    Very strange indeed. I saw a television special on this, I think on the discovery channel, and it was really interesting. The debate continues about its validity and I haven’t made up my mind yet. Once again, you’ve peaked my curiosity and I will now start googling again.

  2. I’ve seen a documentary on the wick effect, and I have to say it’s an impressive explanation.

    Re: Robert Francis Bailey… I’ve read that abdominal surgery can sometimes result in a blue flame or fireball erupting from the patient’s body when a pocket of intestinal gas ignites.

  3. 3 Kimberly

    I remember reading about spontaneous human combustion when I was younger. It is a fascinating topic, with arguments both ways. The photos in this article were absolutely chilling.

  4. Oh – speaking of the pictures – if you click them you will get a full sized version. That goes for all photos on the site.

    • 5 katiebooski

      omg haha. im scared to see a bigger picture of these.. its 3 am and i am creeped out!

      • I understand – I was freaked out putting them together in the middle of the day!

  5. 7 milqytoast

    I wonder if animals have been documented to spontaneously combust?

    • No – but worse than that, animals explode!

      • 9 erickarthik

        Yup, there was a documentary on Discovery about a whale in Taiwan which exploded in the middle of the street.

        Interesting article. I saw an episode of South Park which has the exact same Spontaneous Combustion and here i thought it was just a joke 😛

        • 10 Sarah

          Why was the whale in a street?

          • 11 erickarthik

            hehe ya. the local authorities were transporting a dead whale to a nearby aquarium when this thing happened. It looked as if a bomb was planted inside the whale or something. but later after an intense investigation it was declared that it was a natural phenomenon in animals.

          • 12 donnell

            i seen the show, it went thru the stages of what happens to animal after it dies and how it swells and the weather at the time of them moving the whale and how long it sat here or there during its travel from one place to the other. it was interesting and would of been gross to be there in the path of the explosion of the whale

  6. 13 NySneasel

    I’ve heard of this before. I eemember reading in a book about a woman who spontaneously combusted in her car, but left only a small light burn on the white leather seats. If I can find the book, I could tell you more about it.

  7. 14 Zenayda

    This is such a strange phenomenon but I’ve never been able to make up my mind about it. It’s quite scary because I think being burned to death must be one of the most horrible ways to die. Those photos are so disturbing – John Irving Bentley’s particularly so because of his walker.

  8. 15 Cait

    I remember seeing something about this on TV a few years ago. It scared the bejeesus out of me, I was terrified that it would happen to me LOL!

  9. 16 gabi319

    Why is it that a leg is all that’s left in most (or many) cases of SHC? With both Mr. Bentley and Ms. Reeser, the leg looks intact. I can’t even see burn marks on the calf normally caused from proximity to such intense heat. But then again, I didn’t exactly blow up the picture for a closer look, lol.

    • I think it must be connected to the internal body gasses – which are not found in the legs. As the fire burns upwards it destroys the upper limbs, but not the lower. I could be wrong of course 🙂

  10. 18 Alberto

    This topic has haunted me since I first heard about it when I was 8 (I think there was a documentary on it). At one point I thought it could happen to me because steam came out of my hands when I washed the dishes (still not sure know why there was steam; cold water and warm hands?). Anyway, once again this is a great article. Thanks!!

  11. 19 EuripidesTheYounger

    skeptic.com deals with this–and many other phenomena–in detailed, cited scientific fashion and solves (or at least plausibly explains) many of the events others would prefer to chalk up to mystical or supernatural reasons.
    It’s something to think about the next time you’re home alone with a beer and a cigarette, isn’t it? 😉

  12. 20 Kimisnowscared

    Great article, been intrested in this subject since I first read about it about 10 years ago. Thanks for the photos.

  13. Ага. Фактов всегда достаточно – не хватает фантазии. Желаю автору ее поболее 🙂

  14. 22 domingo

    This is proof positive of the spirit world.

    These poor folk are innocent victims of demons breaking into our world. Older people in particular are susceptible to demonic persecution and many types of so called “dementia” are little more than demonic possession.

    Younger children dont burn up but disappear. They were known by Sumerian priests as “fire people”.
    When the poor soul burns up spontaneously it is a certain indicator that one of the fire devils surrounding Lucifer has crossed into our physical world.

    We never hear about the unpublicised fire people. Many disappearances, particularly of children, are wrongly attributed to alien abduction. It is much more probable that these disappearances are due to the individuals being “fire-people” unable to control the spirit influence which destroys them.

    • 23 *laughing*

      “Fire demons”?!
      “We never hear about the unpublicised fire people.” – uh, that’s because they’re… unpublicised.
      How can you say dementia is demonic possession? They’ve already shown us masses of evidence (such as the fat sheaths on the neurons degrading) that cause many of these diseases.
      Many disappearances are people being kidnapped and murdered, not demons swallowing them in the fires of hell.
      I think we’d notice. Here’s a good “proof” for you: http://dwindlinginunbelief.blogspot.com/2006/08/who-has-killed-more-satan-or-god.html

      God has killed at least 2,391,421 people. Satan – 10. And they were God’s fault too, as they were part of a bet. See Job 1:1-19.

      Science wins.

  15. 24 MAMI & 11 YEAR OLD DAUGHTER

    MAMI: I AM TEACHING MY DAUGHTER ABOUT HOW WE ARE NATURAL ENERGY, WITH ELECTRCITY RUNNING THROUGH OUR BODY AT AL TIMES. TO PROVE THIS FACT TO HER I FOUND THIS SITE. THIS IS SOMETHING I HAVE KNEW ABOUT SINCE I WAS HER AGE. THANK U.
    AT FRIST IT SRACED ME BUT KNOW I REALIZE HOW COOL ARE BODIES ARE.

  16. Провокационный пост. Поэтому такие и комменты 🙂

  17. 26 Kelly

    Ew. I now feel like I am going to vomit, that is honestly some scary and disgusting stuff. Ugh, that’s really freaky. Interesting, but I don’t think I’ll be reading up on anymore of this stuff!!!!

  18. 27 yep

    WTF!! I’m researching this crap for my health project and this is what i need but seriously thats pretty messed up does anyone kno why pple just catch on fire?

  19. 28 katerinaelaena

    Talk about making an explosive exit…Spontaneous Human Combustion is definitely a scary way to go out, though intriguing for those left to explore the idea… I saw the picture with the exploded whale in the streets and man, taht was disgusting! I pity those who had been taking a casual stroll at the time of the explosion =(

  20. 29 arlyn

    why is it that the leg is the last to be burst in flame? maybe some scientist are correct that it is our fats that are making this kind of flame with the help of some bacteria.

    just curious to know.

  21. 30 Morris

    I would suggest people do a little research and learn what kind of temperatures it takes to turn a human body to ashes. I think you will quickly discover the “wicking effect” won’t come anywhere close to those kind of temperatures; fat burns at a very low temperature. Not only that but the fire has to be extremely concentrated because not only do parts of the body remain unburned but there is practically never any damage to surrounding articles, except for possibly some smoke damage.

  22. 31 SmartAss

    look if you think about it scientists are trying to discover wot causes spontanius combustion but the human body is an amazing thing scientists dont no every single thing aboutt the human body i think it will alwaysbe a mystery

  23. 32 Kane

    I’ve heard of people exploding… some person exploded walking down the street or something and then the pieces of body that landed on the ground burst into flames…..
    I’ll post that story if you like ;o)


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