Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) describes alleged cases of the burning of a living human body without an apparent external source of ignition. While there have been about 200 cited cases worldwide over a period of around 300 years, 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.”
Many hypotheses attempt explanations for the various cases of human spontaneous combustion. These generally fall into three groups:
- Paranormal explanations (e.g., a ghost or divine intervention)
- Natural explanations based on an unknown and otherwise unobserved phenomenon (e.g., production of abnormally concentrated gas or raised levels of blood alcohol cause spontaneous ignition)
- Natural explanations that involve an external source of ignition (e.g., the victim dropped a cigarette)
Objections to natural explanations typically refer to 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 — suffered an extraordinarily large degree of burning, with surroundings or lower limbs comparatively undamaged.
Many hypotheses attempt to explain how SHC might occur but according to those that rely on current scientific understanding, incidents that might appear as spontaneous combustion actually had an external source of ignition — and the likelihood of true spontaneous human combustion is quite low.
Unverified natural phenomena
- Since every human body contains varying strengths of electrical field and the human body also contains flammable gases (mainly methane in the intestines), an electrical discharge could ignite these gases.
- SHC victims are sometimes described as lonely people who fall into a trance immediately before their incineration. Heymer suggests that a psychosomatic process in such emotionally-distressed people can trigger off a chain reaction by reacting nitrogen within the body and setting off a chain reaction of mitochondrial explosions. This hypothesis has been criticized on the basis that Heymer “…seems to be under the illusion that nitrogen exist as gases in the blood and are thus vulnerable to ignition, which is, in fact, not the case.” (Mitochondria are organelles found within cells.) The hypothesis also fails to take into account the fact that nitrogen is an inert, non-flammable gas.
- Another hypothesis suggests high-energy particles or gamma rays coupled with susceptibilities in the potential victim (e.g., increased alcohol in the blood) triggers the initial reaction. This process may use no external oxygen to spread throughout the body, since it may not be an oxidation-reduction reaction. However, no reaction mechanism has been proposed, nor has a source for the high-energy particles.
- 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 theory is implausible, since ethanol typically burns only if the concentration is greater than about 23%, whereas a fatally toxic level is about 1%. However, this does introduce the probability that the victim falls asleep while holding a lit cigarette.
- Another hypothesis is that both clothing and the person are ignited by a static electric discharge. A person walking across a carpet can build up sufficient charge and voltage to create a spark. It is unlikely that this could start a clothing fire, as although the voltage can be high (several thousand volts), the stored energy is very low (typically less than a joule). Proponents of this hypothesis say that records show there has never been a recorded case of a naked SHC victim.
- The controversial phenomenon of ball lightning has also been proposed as a cause of spontaneous combustion.
- One hypothesis for SHC takes into account mitochondria, the “internal combustion engine” of higher living organisms. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the body, and sites of highly active energy packet production that uses an oxidative phosphorylation mechanism. Uncoupling of the metabolic processes in mitochondria from its energy production results in generation of large amounts of heat that is called thermogenesis. (This heat production is different from fever, which is an inflammatory response to infection.) Mitochondria are especially abundant in the skeletal muscle cells that require high energy output for their function. Since skeletal muscles constitute a major portion of the body, they harbor an enormous number of energy producing mitochondria. Under stress and certain extreme physiological conditions, the hyperactivity of energy producing mechanism of the body may exceed the conservation or utilization. Available body fat may also serve as additional fuel for combustion. This hypothesis still requires rigorous laboratory testing.
- Cigarettes are often seen as the source of fire. Usually, it is thought that natural causes such as heart attacks may lead to the victim dying, subsequently dropping the cigarette. Embers from cigarettes and pipes may also ignite clothes.Additionally, cigarettes burn at a temperature too low to trigger a flare up of most otherwise combustible materials. Typically, a lit cigarette dropped on an article of clothing creates a burn-hole, but does not initiate an open flame and spread.
- The “wick effect” hypothesis suggests that a small external flame source, such as a burning cigarette, chars the clothing of the victim at a location, splitting the skin and releasing subcutaneous fat, which is in turn absorbed into the burned clothing, acting as a wick. This combustion can continue for as long as the fuel is available. This hypothesis has been successfully tested with animal tissue (pig) and is consistent with evidence recovered from cases of human combustion.
- Scalding can cause burn-like injuries, including death, without setting fire to clothing. Although not applicable in cases where the body is charred and burnt, this has been suggested as a cause in at least one claimed SHC-like event.
Some cited cases include:
- Polonus Vorstius : Italy, 1470
- Nicole Millet : France, 1725
- Cornelia di Bandi : Italy, 1731
- Phyllis Newcombe : United Kingdom, 1938
- Mary Reeser : United States, 1951
- Anna Martin : United States, 1957
- Helen Conway : United States, 1964
- John Irving Bentley : United States, 1966
- Robert Francis Bailey : United Kingdom, 1967
- Ginette Kazmierczak : France, 1977
- Henry Thomas : Wales, 1980
- Jeannie Saffin : England, 1982
- George I. Mott : United States, 1986
- Janice McCall : United States, 2009 (not a SHC; surgical flash fire)
- Name Unknown: United States, April 15, 2010 (San Francisco, CA)
Survivors of static flash fires/events and special cases
Two examples of people surviving static flash events are given in a book on SHC.Author John Heymer claims that the two subjects, Debbie Clark and Susan Motteshead, speaking independently and with no knowledge of each other, give similar histories.
- In September 1985, Debbie Clark was walking home when she noticed an occasional flash of blue light. As she claimed, “It was me. I was lighting up the driveway every couple of steps. As we got into the garden I thought it was funny at that point. I was walking around in circles saying: ‘look at this, mum, look!’ She started screaming and my brother came to the door and started screaming and shouting ‘Have you never heard of spontaneous human combustion?'” Her mother, Dianne Clark, responded: “I screamed at her to get her shoes off and it [the flashes] kept going so I hassled her through and got her into the bath. I thought that the bath is wired to earth. It was a blue light you know what they call electric blue. She thought it was fun, she was laughing.”
- In winter 1980, Cheshire, England, resident Susan Motteshead was standing in her kitchen, wearing flame-resistant pajamas, when she was suddenly engulfed in a short-lived fire that seemed to have ignited the fluff on her clothing but burned out before it could set anything properly alight.
In addition, Jack Angel claims to have survived an SHC-like event.
Examples of spontaneous human combustion are common in fictional works from the 19th century onwards. It is used both as a central plot device and as an incidental occurrence. The second and third chapters of Charles Brockden Brown’s 1798 novel Wieland focus on the emigration of Wieland, a German, to colonial America. As part of his religious practices, he spends solitary hours in a temple constructed on his property. One night his family hears “a loud report, like the explosion of a mine.” Rushing to the temple, they find Wieland lying with his clothing burned off and delirious. He dies soon after. While the term “spontaneous human combustion” was not yet created, Brown includes a footnote at the end of chapter 2 that suggests the phenomenon and its existence in 18th century medical studies. The footnote reads:
“A case, in its symptoms exactly parallel to this, is published in one of the Journals of Florence. See, likewise, similar cases reported by Messrs. Merille and Muraire, in the Journal de Medicine, for February and May, 1783. The researches of Maffei and Fontana have thrown light upon this subject.”
Russian author Nikolai Gogol includes SHC in three works, including his novel Dead Souls. Charles Dickens provides a very graphical depiction of the death of the shopkeeper Mr. Krooks by spontaneous combustion in his novel Bleak House (1852). At the time, many readers considered spontaneous combustion highly dubious if not impossible, but Dickens nonetheless staunchly defended the plausibility of his account. Considering his prominence, Dickens’ portrayal likely renewed public interest and belief in the phenomenon.
Jules Verne describes in his novel Dick Sand, A Captain at Fifteen (1878) that when a fictional African “King of Kazounde” tasted a punch set aflame, “An act of spontaneous combustion had just taken place. The king had taken fire like a petroleum bonbon. This fire developed little heat, but it devoured nonetheless.” Verne had no doubt about SHC being the result of alcoholism: “In bodies so thoroughly alcoholized, combustion only produces a light and bluish flame, that water cannot extinguish. Even stifled outside, it would still continue to burn inwardly. When liquor has penetrated all the tissues, there exists no means of arresting the combustion.”
SHC appears in a variety of other media through to the present day, including an episode of the TV-series The X-Files and the manga series X.