Spontaneous human combustion: Fact or myth?

Updated: Mar 30, 2020



So, picture this: It’s early evening, and you’ve had a long day. You’re stressed and tired, but glad you’ll finally get a few hours to relax before bed. You position yourself in front of the TV, maybe the living room fireplace to read a book. But right in the middle of a story, you burst into flames.


Doesn’t sound fun, does it? Some people believe this exact same thing has happened hundreds, maybe thousands of times throughout history. Let’s explore the phenomenon know as spontaneous human combustion.



So to start off, what exactly is spontaneous human combustion? Let’s go to Wikipedia to find out. I know Wikipedia isn’t the most reliable source, but they had the most succinct explanation I could find.


”Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is the concept of the combustion of a living (or recently deceased) human body without an apparent external source of ignition.”


(By the way, I will be calling it “SHC” from now on because that’s a lot easier to write.)


Spontaneous combustion actually does happen with inanimate objects, usually things like rags soaked in oil, hot laundry or moist hay. It’s a proven thing and the cause of about 14,000 fires every year. But can it occur in humans? Let’s find out.


There are estimates all over the place as to how many times throughout history this has happened. Some sources reported numbers as low as 200, others said there were thousands. I’m going to cover a few of the more notable ones here so you can get a sense of what goes on in these scenarios. Just a heads up though: Some of these cases are kind of old, and it was difficult to find reliable information on them. But I did my best, so on to the cases:

the Italian knight & the Parisian women



the Italian knight & the Parisian women


Thomas Bartholin

The earliest source of information I could find on SHC was from a Danish anatomist named Thomas Bartholin. In 1641, Bartholin wrote about an Italian knight named Polonus Vorstitus, who died in 1470 after drinking wine, then subsequently vomiting flames and bursting into them.


In 1663, Bartholin gave another alleged account of SHC. This one was of a woman in Paris who burned alive in her sleep in 1470. The straw mattress she slept on had no fire damage. Another, similar account, told of a Parisian woman in 1725 who was found burned to death either in her straw bed or in her kitchen. Her husband was convicted of her murder, but won his appeal by saying he committed the crime due to a “visitation from God.”

Countess Cornelia Bandi

1731 brought another reported case of SHC out of Italy. One night in March, 62-year-old Countess Cornelia Bandi went to bed as usual. The next morning, the Countess’s maid was confused when she didn’t wake up at her normal time. When the maid went into the Countess’s room to check on her, all she found was a heap of ashes and two legs on the bed.

Matilda and Patrick Rooney

The next major case I want to talk about doesn’t happen until 1885. On Christmas Eve, Matilda Rooney caught fire in the kitchen of her home in Illinois. Her entire body was completely burned, with the exception of her feet.


Matilda’s husband, Patrick, was found suffocated from the fumes in another room. Investigators were baffled; there were no signs of foul play and, other than the bodies, nothing out of the ordinary was found in the home. Even the kitchen where Matilda died had no fire damage.

Mary Reeser


Mary Reeser

Mary Reeser is probably one of the most well known cases of alleged SHC. On the night of July 1, 1951, her son and granddaughter visited in her home in St. Petersburg, Florida. They left her sitting in an armchair, having taken at least two sleeping pills and seemingly looking forward to a relaxing night.


But the next morning, her body was found by her landlady. All that was left of her were her feet, a charred skull and a pile of ashes where her armchair had been.


Several items from the room were sent to the FBI for further testing. No substances that could have started the fire were found on them. Her death was determined to be accidental by “fire of unknown origin.”




Dr. John Irving Bentley

A few years later, in 1966, the body of 92-year-old Dr. John Irving Bentley was found in the bathroom of his Pennsylvania home by a meter reader. Most of his remains were found in the bathtub, but one of his feet and part of a leg were found elsewhere in the house (I couldn’t find out where). The fire had burned a hole in the wooden floor, but there was no other fire damage in the house.

Margaret Hogan

At 9:30 am on March 27, 1970, the body of 89-year-old Margaret Hogan was found burned to death in an armchair at her house in Dublin, Ireland. There was no other fire damage to the house. Her cause of death was list as ‘burning,’ but the cause of the fire couldn’t be determined. There was speculation that she had been struck by lightning or even committed suicide.


Conor Brady, a then-reporter for the Irish Times, thought Margaret’s death might be a result of SHC, but faced resistance from the higher ups when trying to report it. The coroner said her death “would conform to what is called spontaneous combustion.”

Jeannie Saffin

In 1982, 61-year-old Jeannie Saffin was sitting with her elderly father in their home in London when her upper body burst into flames. The wooden chair she’d been sitting in was undamaged. Jeannie was taken to the hospital but, sadly, later died from third degree burns. Her death was listed as “broncho-pneumonia due to burns.”

Michael Faherty

Just like Margaret Hogan, one of the more recent cases of alleged SHC came out of Ireland. In 2010, 76-year-old Michael Faherty died at his home in Galway. His body was found burned and near a fireplace; the ceiling above the fireplace was charred the floor was burned. But nothing else in the house was damaged at all. There were no traces of any accelerants found in his home, and the fireplace wasn’t thought to be linked to his death. The coroner controversially listed his cause of death as “spontaneous combustion.”


theories

So those are a few of the more well known cases. But were these deaths really caused by the individuals bursting into flames…randomly? Well, it’s not very likely. The human body is about 70 % water, and the only flammable things inside it are small amounts of fat tissue and methane gas. Let’s go over some of the more scientific theories.

methane

One theory, though, is that SHC is actually caused by a buildup of methane in the body. The idea is that methane builds up over time — possibly due to over consumption of foods like beans — and catches fire inside the human body. But it happens so slowly the person doesn’t notice and will eventually “burn from the inside out.”


Not only does this sound pretty far fetched, but there’s another issue: Cows produce far more methane than humans — this is probably why you see calls for “cow fart” regulation every now and then. However, there are no documented cases of spontaneous combustion in cows.

acetone

Another theorized culprit is acetone. Acetone can also be synthetically produced and is most notably found in nail polish remover. But it is naturally occurring and can be found in plants, gases and, yes, fires. There are also small amounts in the human body. When your body isn’t getting a lot of fat, like when you’re on certain types of diets, your liver breaks down fatty acids for energy. This process produces ketones (in a process called ketosis). One of these ketones is acetone. In fact, people on the keto diet have more acetone in their bodies than usual, since this ketosis process is the purpose of the diet. This applies to people on other low fat diets as well, or people who are fasting.



Brian J. Ford

A biologist named Brian J. Ford has extensively studied SHC and might have provided

evidence to this theory. In one experiment, he soaked pork tissue in ethanol for a week, but it wouldn’t burn. Then he soaked pork tissue in acetone, and it “burned to ash within half an hour” but the legs remained — just like in SHC cases.

alcoholism

The next theory is excessive alcohol consumption. The idea is that when someone drinks a lot, the alcohol in their body will make them more flammable. But this isn’t likely either. Even if you were really drunk, there probably wouldn’t be enough alcohol in your body to be flammable, so you’d need some other type of ignition.


However, alcohol might be a factor in some SHC deaths because the victim is drunk, not thinking clearly and may not react to a developing fire right away.

another fire source

But what seems to be the most accepted theory is that there’s another source of ignition nearby that causes victims to burst into flames. Many of these bodies are found close to a fire source, whether it’s something like a fireplace or even a cigarette, and that’s generally what’s thought to have started the fire. In the case of Michael Faherty, skeptics think the fire was started by embers from fireplace — even though it wasn’t thought to be the case by investigators. As retired pathology professor Mike Green put it: "There is a source of ignition somewhere, but because the body is so badly destroyed the source can't be found.”


Many SHC victims were also smokers and were thought to have fallen asleep while smoking. This was thought to be the case with both Mary Reeser and Dr. John Irving Bentley. In the case of Jeannie Saffin, skeptics think the fire was caused by an ember from her dad’s pipe.

On the surface, falling asleep while smoking seems crazy. You’d think people would wake up if they were on fire. But then again, I’ve slept through literal fire alarms before, so I guess it’s possible.

In fact, smoking is the leading cause of fatal fires in the United States. Most people who died in these fires were in the same room where fire started, couldn’t escape from room, were asleep or “impaired by drugs, alcohol, disability or old age.”

the wick effect

So, we’ve covered possible explanations for people being accidentally set on fire. But what about the other strange things found at the scene of many of these fires? Why are the bodies reduced almost entirely to ashes, but their feet and most of their surroundings are spared? This could be explained by something known as the wick effect.



The image to your left is a candle. It’s got a wick in the middle and the wick is surrounded by flammable fatty acids. When you light the wick of the candle, the wax and fatty acids surrounding it keep the candle burning.


According to the wick effect, when a human body is set on fire it acts like the outside of a candle and keeps burning. The persons’ clothing or hair usually acts as the wick, soaking up melted fat and causing the person’s body to smolder.


The wick effect would explain a lot of the unusual circumstances surrounding these victims and the state of their bodies and surroundings. Many of these victims had their feet spared from complete burning because there’s not as much fat there for the fire to catch onto and burn. It could also explain why victims’ bodies are almost completely reduced to ash while the rest of their surroundings are largely undamaged. Because the victim’s body was fueling the fire, it just keeps burning until it goes out naturally, as most fires do when they run out of fuel. But, of course, the fire never gets as far as the rest of the room.

1998 experiments

In 1998, an experiment was conducted on the British TV show QED. Fire experts took a pig carcass wrapped in cloth and poured petrol on it (or gas, for those of us in the U.S.).

Different sources said different things about how the experiment actually went. According to the BBC, the fire burned for five hours and the results were similar to those in SHC cases. Other than a melted TV set, the rest of set wasn’t damaged.



Before and after photos of the chair burned on the set of QED.

But according to Brian J. Ford, who did the acetone experiment we discussed earlier, the experiment was supposed to take five hours but actually took eight, and the pig’s body still wasn’t completely burned. Experts on the show also burned a chair for six hours in a chamber; by the end, it was significantly damaged but still mostly intact. Most sources I read that mentioned this chair agreed that chairs and human bodies aren’t really comparable anyway.


Another experiment was conducted the same year in California. This one involved multiple different scenarios, some of which involved pig carcasses as well as fabrics. The experts who conducted it concluded that animal fat “can contribute to the fuel of a compartment fire.” By the way, pigs are often used in experiments like this because pig fat and human fat are similar. So I assume the assumption from this experiments’ conclusion is that the same thing would happen with a human body.


And the scientific community in general doesn’t seem to believe the phenomenon of SHC. According to livescience.com: “If people truly could suddenly burst into flames without being anywhere near an open flame, presumably there would be examples that have occurred while the victim was swimming, in a bathtub, or even scuba diving. Yet those cases do not exist.”

Mike Green, the retired pathology professor, put it this way: “I think if the heavens were striking in cases of spontaneous combustion then there would be a lot more cases. I go for the practical, the mundane explanation.”


some more recent cases

Before we move on, I want to mention a few cases that took place within the past decade that didn’t really feel like they fit in with the earlier cases. Thankfully, all the victims here did seem to survive.


In 2013, a baby boy in India burst into flames on four separate occasions. This began when he was just nine days old and kept going for about two months. The boy’s mother took him to the doctor immediately, but they weren’t able to figure out what was going on right away. Finally, they told the boy’s parents to keep him hydrated and near air conditioning and to dress him in cotton clothes. After that, the fires stopped.


But two years later, the same boy’s parents returned to the doctor with another baby experiencing the same problem. Again, this started when the boy was nine days old. Both these babies had burns on their bodies that were probably permanent, but as far as I know are still alive. The case was under investigation as of 2015 but I couldn’t find any more recent updates on it. Their parents were kicked out of their village after the incident with their first child because people thought they did it on purpose.


Doctors have also theorized Munchausen by proxy. I’ve mentioned this on my channel before but, if you don’t know, Munchausen by proxy is a psychological disorder in which caregivers — usually mothers — exaggerate or lie about symptoms of the person in their care, or sometimes even cause them harm, for sympathy and attention.


It’s also been theorized that the baby boys’ “spontaneous” catching on fires was caused by buildings in the area being built with phosphorous, which is highly flammable.



The park bench in Germany where a woman burst into flames in 2015.

The next case, and the most recent one I could find, was also from 2015. A woman thought to be in her forties burst into flames while sitting on a park bench in Flensburg, Germany. She was sent to the hospital but, again, I couldn’t find any updates after this, so I’m not sure if she actually survived. Investigators at the time thought it might have been a suicide attempt.




media

So, unsurprisingly, spontaneous human combustion has been talked about quite a bit in the media. The most notable instance was in Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House, published in installments between 1852 and 1853. One of the characters, a merchant named Krook — yes, that’s his real name — burst into flames and dies.



After the book was published, Dickens was criticized for legitimizing SHC when it didn’t actually exist. In response, he wrote a new preface to the book in which he gave several historical accounts where SHC had allegedly taken place. One example he used was of the Countess Cornelia Bandi, though he referred to her as “Countess Cornelia de Baudi Cesenate.” It’s been speculated that Dickens was actually inspired by the Countess’s death. A reviewer on the goodreads page of a book called Jacob Faithful said Dickens was actually inspired by that story, in which the titular protagonist’s mother is a victim of SHC. I’m not sure if Dickens really was inspired by this book, but since Jacob Faithful was published in 1834, just a few years before Bleak House, it wouldn’t be surprising.


Frankly, I’m not sure why people were criticizing Dickens for “legitimizing” something like SHC when he’d written about literal ghosts before that. Maybe it’s because the rest of Bleak House’s story wasn’t supposed to be supernatural or maybe he stated that SHC was real before writing the book.


At the time Bleak House was written, many people obviously didn’t believe SHC was real, but some clearly did. At the time, Dickens’s home country of England as well as several others were in the midst of the temperance movement, which sought to extremely limit and eventually stop the consumption of alcohol. (In the United States, this movement eventually led to prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933.) Dickens’s contemporaries who did believe in SHC thought it was caused by excessive alcohol consumption or even alcoholism. They saw SHC as retribution for the sins like alcoholism.


Other, more modern examples of SHC in media are the mockumentary This is Spinal Tap in which one of the band’s drummers bursts into flames during a show, and the video game Parasite Eve in which the main character, Aya, is watching an opera when the performers burst into flames in front of the audience.



I can’t talk about SHC in media without mentioning the book Ablaze: Spontaneous Human Combustion by Larry E. Arnold. The book details different alleged SHC cases throughout history, including several of the ones we’ve talked about here, and attempts to offer up an explanation. Written in 1995, this book is brought up quite a bit by people discussing SHC, especially skeptics. I haven’t read the book, so take both it and its criticisms with a grain of salt. If you want to check it out, you can do so here. (Note: This is an affiliate link; I earn a commission from each sale.)







So that’s all I have for you today on spontaneous human combustion. Frankly, this is one supposed paranormal phenomenon I’m glad is almost certainly not real. I can’t imagine how awful it must be to have to suffer this fate. So with the risk of sounding like a mom, please remember to be safe around fire and cigarettes.

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