Throughout history strange occurrences have been recorded where the human body has been reduced to ashes seemingly out of the blue. Details for these reported cases are usually fairly similar too; furnishings in the room look unharmed, nobody had reported a fire, and only a small fragment of the person remained beside a pile of smoking embers. This type of phenomenon is referred to as spontaneous human combustion. Although the theory has not been conclusively proven or disproven, the arguments made by both sides are fascinating nonetheless. Do you believe in SHC? Is it possible to be here one moment and gone the next in a blazing flame without the influence of any external sources?
- On December 5, 1966 the 92 year old Dr. J. Irving Bentley of Pennsylvania was found dead in his home. His entire body was turned to ash, all but his leg and foot. The man had burned to death in his bathroom near the tub. The floor in the bathroom had been severely damaged but the rest of the room seemed unscathed (“Is Spontaneous Human COmbustion Real?”). Some people who read about the case strongly believed it to be an instance of SHC while others were not sold. Apparently Dr. Bentley was known to smoke a pipe. It is possible that a match or stray spark could have ignited his clothing and caused him to go up in flames.
- One of the first recorded cases of alleged spontaneous human combustion was penned in 1663 by Thomas Bartholin. He described a woman in Paris who was consumed by a fire while asleep in her bed. The wooden items around her were not damaged (Reville).
- In 1951 Mary Reeser of St. Petersburg, Florida was found dead in her apartment after being discovered by her landlord. There was a 6ft’ scorch on the carpet around her but nearby newspapers were still lying on the floor unharmed. Besides a pile of ash, the only thing that remained of Mary was her skull and a foot (Goldfarb).
- In 2010 a 76 year old Irishman named Michael Faherty was found dead in his apartment near the fireplace. The rest of the apartment was unmarked and the coroner had no explanation for what exactly had occurred (Chen).
Exploring some Theories:
One very popular hypothesis used to explain SHC was developed by Brian J. Ford in 2012. He reasoned that SHC may result from a buildup of flammable materials in the body, such as acetone (“Is Spontaneous Human Combustion Real?”). He states that this can occur with certain diets, if a person is a habitual drinker, or has diabetes. Another commonly accepted idea is that the human gut produces methane gas, which is highly flammable. A buildup of static electricity in the body could, in theory, cause the gas to ignite from inside of the person’s body where the flames would then be fueled by fat.
On the flip side, many experts dismiss the phenomena, stating that an external condition must have existed for the incident to have occured. It is important to note that a lot of supposed cases of human combustion involve a person dying near a fireplace or stove. Many people do not believe this to be mere coincidence. In my humble opinion, one of the most compelling arguments against SHC involves the wick theory. Human fat is incredibly flammable and the wick theory can be explained simply by imagining that the human body is an inside-out candle. Our fat is located under the skin and the highest proportion of it can be found in our upper and mid-bodies. If an external source, like a stray spark or a neglected cigarette were to ignite our hair or clothing, the flames would only need to burn through our skin layers before reaching our subcutaneous fat layer. The fat would begin to melt and the fire fueled continually. The fat would also keep the fire burning at an incredibly high temperature, thus making it feasible for a human body to be completely burned. In many instances only the legs and feet remained intact. This can be explained by the fact that there are typically less fat stores on the lower parts of the body, therefore, the flames could have died out before spreading to the lower extremities fully.
In 1998 a scientist named John Dehann tried to replicate this idea in an experiment he conducted using the body of a pig. The pig carcass was wrapped in a blanket and the blanket was set on fire. Not long after, the fat of the pig caught and the entire body was set ablaze. Once the fire went out, the only thing that remained was the pig’s back feet, similar results to real human cases (Mancini). No matter what theory you believe, the idea of spontaneously bursting into flame and being consumed by a hungry fire at any given moment is anxiety-inducing. Mind your cigarettes and always remain cautious by fires and other heat-sources because you are very flammable and incredibly precious.
Until Next Time
- Chen, Michael. “Unexplained Phenomenon of Spontaneous Human Combustion.” Beyond Science. 21 July, 2017. Accessed 31 October, 2022. https://michael-chen-mg2n.squarespace.comcasenews/2017/7/18/unexplained-phenomenon-of-spontaneous-human-combustion.
- Inglis-Arkell, Esther. “10 Cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion.” Gizmodo. 4 November, 2011. Accessed 31 October, 2022. https://gizmodo.com/10-cases-of-spontaneous-human-combustion-5855700.
- “Is Spontaneous Human Combustion Real?” History. Updated 22 August, 2018. Accessed 31 October, 2022. history.com/news/is-spontaneous-human-combustion-real.
- Mancini, Mark & Stephanie Watson. “How Spontaneous Human Combustion Works.” How Stuff Works. Accessed 31 October, 2022. https://science.howstuffworks.com/science-vs-myth/unexplained-phenomena/shc.htm.
- Reveille, William. “Explanation Overdue for Combustion of Humans.” Irish Times. 20 October, 2011. Accessed 31 October, 2022. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/explanation-overdue-for-combustion-of-humans-1.628038.