Have you ever heard of spontaneous combustion? If you have, it was probably in a movie or on a TV show. If you haven’t, it’s okay. We’re here to fill you in. As with most things though, spontaneous combustion isn’t what it seems to be at first glance. These are 25 Facts About Spontaneous Combustion You’re Burning To Know.
Spontaneous combustion typically refers to the combustion of a human body without an apparent external source of ignition. This is why it's also called spontaneous human combustion.
In all reported cases, the burnt individual had either been living or had recently been deceased.
There is no explanation for spontaneous human combustion as of yet, but forensic experts have focused on particular behavior of the victims, habits like alcohol consumption, and proximity to potential sources of ignition.
The term "spontaneous combustion" first arose in the 1700's when some thinker proposed that a person could burn to death from a fire that started within their own body.
In the past 300 years, there have been roughly 200 cases reported.
In 1938, the British Medical Journal reported that the victims are usually chronic alcoholics, elderly, and female. Their hands and feet usually fall off and combustible materials in contact with the body do not typically ignite; the remaining ashes typically leave an extremely unpleasant odor.
20th century researchers, however, pointed out that most of the bodies were always found near a plausible source of ignition (candles, fireplaces, etc). Those sources had likely been omitted from reports in order to deepen the aura of mystery.
It has also been noted by some investigators that alcohol could easily have caused the victims to behave irrationally around the source of ignition.
Although human combustion is likely not spontaneous, and the fire is simply due to overlooked sources of ignition, once the human body ignites, it may continue burning like a candle stick. In fact, this phenomenon is even known as the "wick effect."
The wick effect occurs when the clothing of a person soaks up melted human fat and acts like the wick of a candle, fueling the fire even more.
The reason that other nearby objects don't typically catch fire is likely due to the overwhelming amount of fuel supplied by melting fat on the victim's body. In other words, the wick effect keeps the fire burning without the need for other fuel sources.
Benjamin Radford, a science writer and editor at the science magazine Skeptical Inquirer stated, "If SHC is a real phenomenon (and not the result of an elderly or infirm person being too close to a flame source), why doesn't it happen more often? There are 5 billion [The world's population reached 5 billion in 1987] people in the world, and yet we don't see reports of people bursting into flame while walking down the street, attending football games, or sipping a coffee at a local Starbucks."
Paranormal researcher Brian Dunning states that SHC stories "are simply the rare cases where a natural death in isolation has been followed by a slow combustion from some nearby source of ignition."
Most stories of SHC involve people with low mobility due to advanced age or obesity. Most victims display a high likelihood of having died in their sleep or been unable to escape the fire when it started.
Cigarettes are a likely source, considering that 1 in 4 fire deaths in the US are due to smoldering butts. A natural cause such as a heart attack could lead to the victim dying and a smoldering cigarette potentially igniting their clothing.
As confirmed by the wick effect, hands and feet have very little fat and therefore typically do not burn. This would explain why they are usually the only body parts remaining.
Although it is a somewhat less accepted theory, John Abrahamson suggested that ball lightning could be a cause of human combustion.
Scalding has been suspected in several cases, primarily because it has the potential to cause burn-like injuries without setting fire to clothing.
Some people, like Brian J. Ford, have suggested that ketosis due to alcoholism or dieting may increase acetone, which is highly flammable and could possibly contribute to combustion.
There has been some consideration given to the fact that SHC could be confused with self-immolation. In the west, this accounts for 1% of suicides.
Another critical finding by recent forensic experts was that sometimes the autopsy (and a perfectly reasonable cause of death) was entirely overlooked by those who deliberately sought anecdotal or personal testimonies in support of spontaneous combustion.
Scientific doubt concerning SHC hasn't stopped pseudo-scientific views. These views range from new subatomic particles called "pyrotrons" to ghosts. Yes, ghosts.
Possibly the most famous case is that of Mary Reeser, a 67 year old woman who was found burned in her house by her landlady when the landlady noticed the doorknob was hot. When the police entered the home, her body was completely burnt except for one leg.
Another notable case was that of Henry Thomas, a 73-year-old Welsh man who died in the living room of his house. The coroner declared his death to be "death by burning" and even determined that he had inhaled the contents of his own combustion.
The most recent case, as of this writing, would be that of Michael Faherty in County Galway, Ireland. In December 2010, the coroner declared his death to be due to spontaneous combustion considering that there was no other apparent cause.
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