Sept. 11, 2022

Spontaneous human combustion // 128 // Fact or fiction?

Spontaneous human combustion // 128 // Fact or fiction?

Spontaneous human combustion refers to the death from a fire that originates without an external source of ignition and people believe that the fire starts inside the victim's body.  Many cases have been cited as SHC, but it's never been scientifically proven.  If this is a real phenomenon, why doesn't it happen more often?



Today's topic is human spontaneous combustion or SHC. People have been debating this for several centuries. Can a human just spontaneously combust, or burst into flames without being ignited by an external source? The first known accounts of SHC actually date all the way back to 1641 and it became more well known in the 19th century when the author Charles Dickens used it to kill off a character in the novel “Bleak House.” Critics accused Charles of legitimizing something that just doesn't exist, but he pointed out that there had been 30 historical cases of this at the time. Throughout time, police and fire departments have found burned corpses, but nothing around them is burned.

The Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholin (Bar-Toe-lin) has been credited with penning the first written account of SHC in 1663. He described a woman in Paris who went up in ashes and smoke while she was sleeping and the straw mattress she was on, was totally fine.

The human body is composed mostly of water and its only highly flammable properties are fat tissue and methane gas. Many scientists have completely dismissed the idea of SHC and they say that there must be an undetected flame source in these cases, such as a match or a cigarette. Typically, the deceased victims are actually found near a fire source, so it appears that they may have set themselves on fire while they were smoking or trying to light a flame, but some people aren't so sure about this. Those that believe strongly in SHC, have pointed out that the human body has to reach roughly 3,000 degrees to be reduced to ashes and it seems impossible that the furniture or other items around these people aren't burning up too. Proposed causes of this phenomenon include bacteria, static electricity, obesity, stress, and most consistently, excessive consumption of alcohol, but this hasn't been substantiated by science yet. It was actually used during prohibition to show how evil alcohol was, if you drink it, you may spontaneously combust!

A British biologist, Brian J. Ford, hypothesized in August 2012 that a buildup of acetone in the body (which can result from alcoholism, diabetes, or a specific kind of diet) could actually lead to spontaneous combustion. People and things are not supposed to just start on fire by themselves, but some items actually do under the right circumstances, including coal dust, piles of compost, and used oily why not people? There is a widespread belief that SHC is caused by methane build up in the intestines. This is a flammable gas produced by gut bacteria and the enzymes are proteins in the body that act as catalysts to induce and speed up chemical reactions. If this is true, why don't we see spontaneous combustion in cows? They are known for producing large amounts of methane. 

Researcher Joe Nickell examined many of these unexplained SHC cases in his book Real-Life X-Files and found that it may not be so mysterious. Most of the victims were elderly, alone, and near flames such as cigarettes, candles, or open fires when they died and several were last seen drinking alcohol and smoking. If the person were drunk and fell asleep, they many not wake up to put the flames out and their clothing can act as a wick. The body can be set ablaze by its own body fat and burn for hours, but it also burns in a limited area. The flames draw on the body's fat to fuel the fire. There is also a rare medical condition called Stevens-Johnson syndrome that can be mistaken for SHC in extreme cases. It's a skin disease that can be triggered by a toxic reaction to medications and it can cause the appearance of severe burns and blisters, which can be fatal.

There aren't many cases of SHC throughout history, but it's never been caught on tape or surveillance camera. It seems to only happen to a single person that is left alone near a fire source. It's been suggested that the fire begins with the static electricity building up inside the body or from an external geomagnetic force. Larry Arnold is a self proclaimed expert on SHC and he has suggested that it's due to a subatomic particle called pyroton which interacts with the cells to create a mini explosion, but there is still no scientific proof that this particle actually exists.

In the photos of SHC victims, the corpses torso and head are typically heavily charred, but some of the extremities are intact, such as the hands, feet, or part of their legs. Also, the room or items around the person will have minimal damage, but there may be a greasy residue on the furniture and walls. Forensic scientist John DeHann (duh-hahn) did an experiment in 1998 for a live show on BBC. He wrapped a pig corpse in a blanket, lit the blanket on fire and the body fat added more fuel to the fire. It was a slow, intense burn, that lasted a few hours. When he finally put the fire out, most of the pig's flesh and bones had turned into ash, but the rest of the room was largely untouched and the pig's feet remained intact. Extremities don't contain as much fat as the core of the body, so that's why the middle of the body burns. 

There have been several cases where a rare phenomenon called ball lightning has suddenly struck an unsuspecting victim and in other cases, static electricity and combustible fabric or liquids caused something similar to spontaneous combustion. There are videos of static electricity starting combustion at gas station pumps. Surveillance cameras have documented people at the pump being engulfed in flames. The environment around the pump as well as the person can collect and spark enough static electricity to ignite the fumes from the pump. 

Polonus Vorstius: In the 14th century, there was a victim of SHC named Polonus Vorstius and he was an Italian knight. This is the first known case of SHC. Polonus enjoyed women, singing, and drinking. Reports say that he drank two laddles of strong wine, vomited fire, then he erupted into flames in front of his parents and this was later written about in a book about SHC called Ablaze! By Larry Arnold. The translation was done very poorly because the account was written in a book in old Latin in 1645 by Danish physician, mathmetician, and theologian (theo-lojan), Thomas Bartholin and when Larry Arnold translated the story, there were many mistakes and it turned the story into something different. 

It's noted that Larry believed the Latin word Polonus was actually the knight's name, but that's actually the Latin word for Poland. So, the story was written with the wrong name and location. The person who was quoted as telling the story was wrong, the Queen was ruling in the wrong location, and the Knight's father was given the incorrect name. 

Cornelia Zangheri Bandi: In the 17th century, a 66-year-old noblewoman named Countess Cornelia Zangheri Bandi was found lying halfway between her bedchamber and window. She was a brandy drinker and reports say that she used to sprinkle camphorated brandy on her body to relieve her physical pain.  On the night of her death, her maid accompanied her to her room and they spent a few hours together just talking and praying. The maid left the room so she could sleep and the next morning, the maid went to check on Countess Cornelia because she wasn't up at her usual time. All that was left of her were three fingers on one hand and both lower legs. Soot was covering most of the scene and there was a plate with uneaten bread. There was a greasy layer covering the room that was described as a thick gluish moisture that couldn't be taken off and it smelled bad.

Nicole Millet: In 1725, an innkeeper discovered the remains of his wife in the kitchen of the inn. Nicole Millet's body had burned to a pile of ash, but the wooden utensils in the kitchen were not burned. There were conflicting reports stating she was discovered on a bed of straw, but people were immediately suspicious of her husband who was tried and found guilty of murder. He appealed the conviction and argued that the crime was actually due to a “visitation from God.” He won the appeal. 

Phyllis Newcombe: On August 27th, 1938, 22-year-old Phyllis Newcombe was dancing with her fiance Henry McAusland at the weekly dance at the Shire Hall in England and suddenly, she burst into bluish flames. Phyllis dropped to the floor and was flailing around. Investigators were not able to find a cigarette or lit match anywhere on the path that Phyllis took, so it was reported as an SHC case.

In 2001, Willem Nienhuys (Neen-hows) researched this case and he discovered that the facts were wrong. He says that Phyllis was in fact at the dance with her fiance. As the couple left the dance, her dress caught on fire outside on the stairway. The fire started on the hemline and rapidly spread up her dress. She turned and ran back to the dance hall and collapsed inside. Several men threw coats on top of her to smother the flames, but the ambulance took over 20 minutes and Phyllis was severely burned on her legs and body. She died a few weeks later on September 15th due to an infection in her wounds.

Phyllis's fiance said he believed her dress may have been lit by a cigarette butt that she came in contact with. To test this theory, her father brought a piece of material in that was used to make the dress. The coroner, Mr. L.F. Beccles, demonstrated that the material would immediately flare up if exposed to an open flame, but it did not light up when it was exposed to a lit cigarette. The dress had been cleaned 6 weeks prior to the dance, so it was suggested that maybe a chemical caused the combustion, but they ultimately ruled that it was an accidental death due to the clothing starting on fire.

We still do not know how Phyllis actually started on fire that night, but during the study, Willem Nienhuys (Need-hows) presented a theory. He believes that a lit match had fallen to the floor on the front of her dress and he thinks that her fiance, Henry did it. Henry testified that he had been walking five steps in front of Phyllis that night when her dress caught on fire and he was the only person that suggested that a cigarette may have caused the fire. Perhaps he lit his cigarette with a match, dropped the match on the ground, and saw the fire only seconds later. 

Mary Reeser: On July 2nd, 1951, the most well known case happened and it's often referred to as the case of the “cinder woman”. The last time Mary Reeser was seen alive was on July 1st. Her son, Dr. Richard Reeser, and her landlady, Mrs. Pansy M. Carpenter both said goodnight to her around 9 PM and they when they left Mary's apartment in St. Petersburg, Florida, Mary was sitting in her easy chair. Around 5 AM, the landlady, Mrs. Carpenter woke up and smelled smoke. She believed that the water pump in the garage was overheating, so she turned the pump off and went back to bed. At 8 AM, she woke up and there was a boy at her door stating he had a telegraph for Mary Reeser. Mrs. Carpenter knocked on Mary's door and there was no answer. She touched the doorknob and realized it was fiery hot, so she ran for help. She found some house painters working nearby and they were able to break the door down.

They were met with a blast of heat, but the only portion of the apartment that was burned was the corner where the chair sat. That's when they realized that Mary's body was sitting in the chair and she burned to death. Reports say that her skull had shrunk to the size of a teacup and all that was left was some vertebrae and her left foot with a slipper. Her apartment wall was covered in a greasy substance from about a four foot level on up, a mirror had cracked, plastic switches and a plastic tumbler in the bathroom had melted, and two candles on the dresser had unburned wicks and there was a pool of pink wax, but everything else in the apartment was fine. When the wall outlet melted, Mary's clock stopped at 4:20 AM. Investigators determined that Mary fell asleep with a cigarette in her hand, but they never found remnants of a cigarette and the electrical outlet melted, but it was after the fire had begun, so it wasn't an electrical issue. If Mary was holding a cigarette, it wouldn't have produced a fire as hot as 2500 degrees which is necessary for a thorough cremation.

According to Joe Nickell's article, “Not So-Spontaneous Human Combustion”, He said that Mary was last seen sitting in an overstuffed chair, wearing flammable nightclothes, smoking a cigarette. She took two sleeping pills and said she planned on taking two more.

The electrical outlets had melted AFTER the fire had begun, so that couldn't be the source of the fire. An FBI pathologist tested a carpet sample for gasoline or other accelerants and there were none. They even considered the possibility of the fire starting from lightning, but there wasn't any that night. Months after Mary's death, the Chief of Police and the Chief of Detectives signed a statement saying Mary died from falling asleep with a cigarette in her hand even though they had already technically ruled out this possibility during the investigation. 

John Irving Bently: In Pennsylvania, a retired physician, Dr. John Irving Bently was found in the bathroom and all that remained was one leg. On the morning of December 5th, a meter reader named Don Gosnell let himslef into Dr. Bently's home. This was something he typically did. When he got to the basement, he noticed a sweet smell and a light blue smoke. He saw a pile of ashes on the ground and when he went upstairs to the bedroom, he saw a slippered foot and part of a leg lying on the bathroom floor. 

It was initially believed that this was a case of SHC or a freak accident and maybe the hot ashes from John's lighting pipe started the bathrobe on fire and that ignited the pack of matches in his pocket. The fire had actually burned a hole in the linoleum floor and dropped a pile of ashes on the basement floor, so that's why they meter reader saw that when he first arrived. The hole in the bathroom floor created a stack effect, a process of ventilation of cooler air resulting in a hotter, longer burning flame and that explains why John's body was totally destructed and his leg was left alone because it was the farthest from the hole. 

Jean Lucille Saffin was a woman with an intellectual disability who burst into flames in her kitchen in 1982. She was with her father, Jack and he saw his daughter start on fire. He shouted for his son in law to help and they got her to the hospital, but she died 8 days later from broncho-pneumonia that was caused by her burns. The family actually suggested that this was SHC, but the coroner said there was “no such thing” and gave an open verdict.

People that believe this was SHC have cited that Jean's body was burned inside her clothing, meaning the clothing was not burned. In a written statement given at the time of her death, it was reported that her clothes were severely burned and the police had to remove her burned clothing when they arrived. 

Both Jack Saffin and his son-in-law Don Carroll repeatedly claimed that Jean was nowhere near any flames or source of ignition in the kitchen except the pilot light on the gas stove. Don Carroll says he saw flames coming from her mouth and she made roaring noises like a dragon. There was no smoke or damage to the kitchen. This interpretation is what lead people to believe it was a case of SHC. 

According to hospital records, there were not any burns in Jean's mouth and the majority of her burns were due to the burning or melted nylon from her clothing. It was later suggested that her father may have accidentally started the fire. It's believed that Jack Saffin was getting rid of the tobacco from his pipe so he could refill it and the embers of the pipe tobacco landed on Jean's clothing. The kitchen window and door were open and this would create a cross breeze as the embers landed on her flammable nylon clothing.

Michael Faherty: In 2010, an Irishman named Michael Faherty was burned to death in his home. He was 76 years old and died three days before Christmas. In the early hours of December 22nd, his neighbor, Mr. Mannion, woke up to the sound of a smoke alarm. When Mr. Mannion went outside, he observed heavy smoke coming from Michael's house. He tried knocking on the door, but Michael didn't answer, so Mr. Mannion got some of the local residents up an the fire brigade was called and this is the same thing as fire fighters here. When they entered the home, Michael's body was discovered on the floor. He was lying on his back with his head near the fireplace. His entire body was burnt, but there was no damage to the ceiling or the floor beneath him.

Forensic experts say the fire was not caused by an accelerant, the fireplace, or foul play. Pathologist Grace Callagy (cal-uh-gee) noted that Michael had suffered from Type 2 diabetes and hypertension, but he did not die from heart failure. It was concluded that “The extensive nature of the burns sustained precludes determining the precise cause of death.” The coroner did classify the death as SHC and referred to Professor Bernard Knight's book on forensic pathology, which states that a high number of alleged incidents of SHC had taken place near an open fireplace or chimney. The coroner made the following statement: “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.”


According to the Super Powers Encyclopedia, almost every human has the potential for the full range of supernatural powers located within their junk DNA which is a product of their higher dimensional souls. In genetics, the term junk DNA refers to regions of DNA that are non-coding. It's basically the components of an organism's DNA that do not encode protein sequences. Only about 2% of a person's DNA is made of base pair sequences for genes, so the other 98% is junk DNA, but it plays a very critical role. Scientists have hypothesized that the non-coding DNA could actually be used to treat cancer and other things. If they could be re-coded, it could stimulate the immune system to give your body the tools it needs to fight back.

It's believed that SHC could be a supernatural power. Pyrokinesis (Pyro-kin-eesis) is the ability to control, extinguish, or create a fire using your mind. So, this is a supernatural theory where the cause of SHC is a malfunction in the latent psychokinetic psionic powers. This technique allows someone to speed up the vibrations of atoms in matter to alter temperature. If someone was doing this at a low level, they may be able to alter a candle with their mind, a higher level, perhaps they could put the flame out or relight it with their mind...but it can also mean that you could accidentally take things too far and cause SHC. 

We went over the wick effect at the beginning of the story, but it's one of the top theories. When a small area of clothing or hair starts on fire, it burns the skin and releases fat. The fat melts, and is absorbed into the clothing which in turn, acts like a candle wick and the fat is the fuel source. If the person is an alcoholic, or diabetic, their body has acetone in it due to the process known as Ketosis. 

Another cause of SHC could be a strong source of metaphysical energy overloading the body. This could come from a practitioner of magic, or higher dimensional being. Extremely strong sources can expose a human to metaphysical radiation that infects the body, damages the chakra's (chuk-ruh), and causes a malfunction at the lowest quantum level. The place where physical energy meets the metaphysical energy of your soul. 

When someone is injured or killed by fire and there's no immediate cause, it's often classified as SHC and the cases are never fully investigated due to negligence. Being gassy is actually an explanation for the cause of SHC. Flatulence contains flammable gas. If you set fire to your own farts, it's called pyroflatulence.