Spontaneous Human Combustion

The content below is from Episode 117 of the Who’d a Thunk It? Podcast


  • This week I recommend you check out Love, Death, and Robots. It is an original Netflix show that is like no other.
    • This collection of animated short stories spans several genres, including science fiction, fantasy, horror and comedy. World-class animation creators bring captivating stories to life in the form of a unique and visceral viewing experience. The animated anthology series includes tales that explore alternate histories, life for robots in a post-apocalyptic city and a plot for world domination by super-intelligent yogurt. Among the show’s executive producers is Oscar-nominated director David Fincher.
  • Season 3 just dropped a few months back and it is just as spectacular as the first two seasons. One episode in particular Jibaro caught my eye.
    • The animation is hard to distinguish from live-action or reality in most of the episode. The story follows a band of medieval Spanish knights as they traverse the new world. Then they come upon a lake that is guarded by a gold and jewel-covered siren. What follows is 15 minutes of tragic death and dance. Live actors were used to capture the episode’s ballet dances and I find it to be beautifully sad.


  • What is spontaneous human combustion (SHC)?
    • Spontaneous human combustion is the pseudoscientific concept of the combustion of a living human body without an apparent external source of ignition.
      • In Layman’s terms that means a person bursts into flames with no good explanation.
    • Victims are usually found as a pile of ash with their feet and/or hands less burned or kept entirely intact.
    • Adding to the mystery, while SHC victims are almost completely burned down to ash and bone, their surroundings are usually left intact and untouched by fire.
    • Investigators are almost always stumped by these SHC cases. There is usually no reason to suspect foul play. Some of the victims are just sitting in their houses relaxing. But one thing is always the same: no source of ignition can be found for the blaze and the rest of the room or house is left virtually unscathed as if confined to their body.
      • Coroners at the scene have sometimes noted a sweet, smoky smell in the room where the incident occurred
      • In a number of photos taken from the scene, the corpse’s torso and head are charred beyond recognition, but some extremities remain intact, with the hands, feet, and/or part of the legs being apparently unburned. In many SHC cases there is a greasy residue left behind on furniture and walls.
    • And not all victims die. Some SHC victims burst into flames and are able to get the fire put out before they die. Some people just report burns on their bodies without knowing how they got them.
      • Frank Baker, a Vietnam Veteran, was getting ready to go fishing with his buddy back in 1985 when it happened to him.
        • “I had no idea what was taking place on my body — none,” Mr Baker said.
        • “We were getting ready for fishing and sitting on the couch.
        • “Everything was great.
        • “Pete was sitting next to me — we were having a helluva time.”
        • The pair leapt to their feet and were able to put out the flames.
Lucky man: Frank Baker survived spontaneous human combustion (Image: Science Channel)
  • Taking human bodies out of the equation you find there are instances of spontaneous combustion happening all the time. A pile of rags in a mechanic’s garage or a pile of hay left out in the field, have been known to catch fire without external ignition.
      • Regular Spontaneous Combustion is defined as the ignition of organic matter (e.g. hay or coal) without apparent cause, typically through heat generated internally by rapid oxidation. That’s the official definition that doesn’t necessarily pertain to human bodies.
    • Dirty rags in a bucket can catch flames. Here’s how science explains it: As oxygen from the air hits the rags, it can slowly raise their internal temperature high enough to ignite the flammable oil.
      • When hay bales decompose, microbes and bacteria living inside them can generate enough heat to kindle a spark
    • So how does this happen to humans or does it really happen that way at all?
      • To tackle that question Let us take a look at some cases of SHC.
  • Cases of SHC
    • The first case of spontaneous combustion on the record took place in Milan in the late 1400s, when a knight named Polonus Vorstius allegedly burst into flames in front of his own parents
      •  After quaffing a few glasses of strong wine, Polonus Vorstius began to feel unwell, and proceeded to burp long flames of fire.
      • Officially, Polonus Vorstius’ fiery fate didn’t enter the historical record until 1641 — nearly two centuries after Polonus’ demise. That’s when a Danish medical expert named Thomas Bartholin included the event in his magnum opus, the Historiarum Anatomicarum Rariorum, which catalogs strange medical cases from throughout history. Bartholin claimed that he heard the story from later generations of the Vorstius family, but with 200 years between the alleged immolation and Bartholin’s written account, it’s entirely likely that the story had been embellished by the time that Bartholin got to it. At the very least, like every other case of spontaneous human combustion, the Vorstius blaze is more or less impossible to verify.
    • In 1663, Bartholin described how a woman in Paris “went up in ashes and smoke” while she was sleeping.
      • The straw mattress on which she slept was unmarred by the fire.
      • In 1673, a Frenchman named Jonas Dupont published a collection of spontaneous combustion cases in his work “De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis”
    • Late at night on Christmas Eve 1885, in the small farming town of Seneca, Illinois, a woman named Matilda Rooney burst into flames.
      • She was alone in her kitchen when it happened. The fire quickly incinerated her entire body except her feet. The incident also claimed the life of her husband, Patrick, who was found suffocated from the fumes in another room of the house.
    • In 1951, a 67-year-old widow named Mary Reeser was at home in St. Petersburg, Florida. On the morning of July 2, her landlady discovered that Reeser’s front door handle was hot. When the landlady broke into the apartment with the help of two workmen, they found a slipper-clad foot and what looked like a charred, shrunken skull.
      • No other body parts were present. Those gruesome remains sat in a puddle of grease on the floor where Reeser’s easy chair used to be. The rest of her apartment bore very little evidence of fire. Paranormal enthusiasts see Reeser’s death as a classic example of spontaneous human combustion. Skeptics point out that the woman was a confirmed smoker who’d taken at least two sleeping tablets that day. Maybe a dropped cigarette — and not SHC — was what sealed her doom
    • On Dec. 5, 1966, the body of 92-year-old Dr. J. Irving Bentley was discovered in his Pennsylvania home by a meter reader.
      • Actually, only part of Dr. Bentley’s leg and a foot were found. The rest of his body had been burned to ashes in his bathroom. Part of the good doctor’s incinerated robe lay at the site and his walker was left propped against the blackened bathtub. But the most eye-catching clue was a massive hole in his vinyl floor. Measuring 2 feet (.6 meters) wide by 4 feet (1.2 meters) long, it had eaten into the wooden floor beams and left a pile of ashes in the basement below. The rest of the house remained intact
      • At first, Bentley’s demise was identified as a careless mishap. The elderly gentleman loved to smoke his pipe and he had a habit of carrying matches in his robe pockets. Upon reviewing the scene, the coroner deduced that Bentley had fallen asleep while smoking in the bathroom and was burned alive after some of his clothing caught fire
  • In 1982, a mentally handicapped woman named Jean Lucille “Jeannie” Saffin was sitting with her elderly father at their home in Edmonton, in northern London. To her parent’s horror, Jeannie’s upper body suddenly became enveloped in flames.
      • The stove appeared to be unlit and no smoke or fire damage could be found anywhere else in the room. Even the wooden chair that she was sitting on at the time was spared. Mr. Saffin and his son-in-law, Donald Carroll, managed to put out the blaze, but after a brief hospital stay, Jeannie died of third-degree burns. Did she combust without warning? Believers think so, but some forensics analysts wonder if an ember from her father’s pipe ignited poor Jeannie’s clothing
    • In 2010, 76-year-old Michael Faherty of Galway, Ireland was found dead on his living room floor.
      • His body was thoroughly crisped, with his head lying beside his open fireplace. The ceiling space immediately above his body showed burn marks, and so did the floor beneath it. Yet nothing else in Faherty’s home was torched. News of his tragic death probably wouldn’t have spread beyond the local obituaries if coroner Ciaran McLoughlin didn’t point to SHC as its cause. “This fire was thoroughly investigated,” McLoughlin reported in an official statement, “and I’m left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation.” Not everyone is convinced, though: Critics say that an ember from the fireplace could’ve landed on Faherty’s clothing and started a fatal blaze
  • So what are the theories?
    • For an object to combust spontaneously, three things need to happen. First, the body must be heated to its ignition temperature — the point at which it will catch fire without being exposed to an external flame or spark. If the heat building up inside the object cannot escape, and if it’s being exposed to a steady flow of oxygen that isn’t rapid enough to cool it down, the stage will be set for spontaneous ignition
    • One of the biggest theories is to blame tobacco.
      • People creating small “controlled” fires inside their homes comes with risks. Especially when they are addicted to it and incorporate it into every aspect of their lives.
    • Another theory is that alcohol is to blame
      • Charles Dickens blamed booze. In the 1850s, the writer ignited great interest in SHC by using it to kill off a character in his novel “Bleak House.” The character, named Krook, was an alcoholic following the belief at the time that spontaneous human combustion was caused by excessive amounts of alcohol in the body. American prohibitionists helped spread this notion as they denounced the evils of alcoholism.
      • In the preface to the book edition of Bleak House, written after the novel had already been published in serial form, Dickens defended his use of spontaneous combustion against accusations of implausibility, citing several famous cases and the judgments of eminent medical doctors that such a thing was indeed possible. “I shall not abandon the facts,” he concludes with typical Dickensian panache, “until there shall have been a considerable Spontaneous Combustion of the testimony on which human occurrences are usually received.”
      • Dickens wasn’t the only one to mention SHC, Herman Melville and Nikolay Gogol used it to dispatch characters in their novels Redburn and Dead Souls, respectively.
      • Although the scientific support for spontaneous human combustion was weaker than Dickens stated, it was a widely discussed phenomenon in his time. The public largely accepted it as a reality on moral grounds. The victims were often alcoholic and overweight, and more were female than male, so there was a general perception that it was a kind of retribution for a debauched lifestyle. This idea was reinforced by lurid newspaper accounts of suspected cases. It made intuitive sense, after all, that a body saturated with a flammable substance—alcohol—would become flammable.
    • So of course religious fanatics like to throw in their two sense on the matter as if SHC victims were sinful and struck down by a higher power…
      • You might guess how I feel about that theory…
    • Maybe our farts are to blame
      • Other ideas are more popular today. One widespread belief says the fire is sparked when methane (a flammable gas produced by gut bacteria) builds up in the intestines and is ignited by enzymes (proteins in the body that act as catalysts to induce and speed up chemical reactions)
      • Yet this begs the question of why there are no reported instances of spontaneous combustion in cows, which produce far more methane than people
    • It’s also been suggested that the fire begins because of static electricity building up inside the body or from an external geomagnetic force. A self-proclaimed expert on spontaneous human combustion, Larry Arnold, has suggested that the phenomenon is the work of a new subatomic particle called a pyroton, which he says interacts with cells to create a mini-explosion. But as of August 2018, there’s no scientific evidence that proves the existence of this particle — or spontaneous human combustion itself
    • A possible explanation is the wick effect.
      • When lit by a cigarette, smoldering ember or other heat source, the human body acts much like an inside-out candle. A candle is composed of a wick on the inside surrounded by a wax made of flammable fatty acids. The wax ignites the wick and keeps it burning. In the human body, the body fat acts as the flammable substance, and the victim’s clothing or hair acts as the wick. As the fat melts from the heat, it soaks into the clothing and acts as a wax-like substance to keep the wick burning slowly. Scientists say this would explain why victims’ bodies are destroyed yet their surroundings are barely burned
    • Forensic scientist John DeHaan once watched this gruesome spectacle unfold in real time — to a pig, anyway. Don’t worry, it wasn’t alive.
      • In a 1998 experiment that was televised on the BBC, he wrapped a pig corpse in a blanket, then lit the garment ablaze with some petrol. As DeHaan looked on, the animal’s body fat liquified, adding more fuel to the fire. By the time he put out the flames a few hours later, the slow, intense burn had converted a large percentage of the pig’s flesh and bones into ash. (The rest of the room suffered minimal damage.)
    • Yet the dead pig’s feet remained intact. This is consistent with reports of SHC leaving disembodied feet or hands behind. Extremities don’t contain as much fat as the core of the body does, so they’re less likely to go up in smoke when the wick effect occurs.
  • Is this a real thing like… according to scientists?
    • Probably not.
    •  None of the proposed scientific explanations for how a body would spontaneously burst into flames have held up to scrutiny. Some of the early proposed mechanisms rely on outdated medical ideas, such as the notion that an ignition could be the result of an imbalance of the bodily humors. The Victorian explanation that alcohol rendered the body flammable doesn’t work either, seeing that the concentrations of alcohol in even the most intoxicated people are much too low and that an external source of ignition would be required.
    • No one has proven or disproven that SHC is real. A lot of scientist tend to think it is not. When you look at the victims you notice that a lot of them were smokers and a lot of them were either under the influence of alcohol or their motor functions were affected in some way like old age.
  • When you look up documentaries or articles about SHC you find a lot of sketchy sources. The only trusted sources say that it “almost certainly doesn’t exist.”
    • My verdict is… we don’t know. All the trusted sources proposed theories that made some sense like the Wick theory, but no one really knows. Fire destroys things so in many of these cases it could have destroyed a source of ignition or maybe humans can actually spontaneously combust…. which is a horrifying thought.
    • When I saw an episode of the Science Channel’s Unexplained Files that covered SHC as a kid it became my new fear. I remember for about a week or so I was worried I might burst into flames and not be able to do anything about it.
  • But the fact is that this is a very rare occurrence… if it’s even real.
    • That being said… if this shit happened to you it would undoubtedly be the most painful experience of your life. This sounds horrible… to be cooked in your own fat from the inside.
  • But seriously, rest easy Who’d a Thunkers. This stuff probably isn’t real…
    • now go about your day and BAM! Your abdomen starts feeling funny and before you know it the room is smelling like bacon and you realize the bacon is YOU!!!


Hope you don’t lose any sleep over this one lol


Is Spontaneous Human Combustion Real?
Know about the facts and theories of spontaneous human combustionLearn about whether the phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion actually exists.Encyclopedia Britannica Inc.

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