In December 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 slippered foot were found. The rest of his body had been burned to ashes. A hole in the bathroom floor was the only evidence of the fire that had killed him; the rest of the house remained perfectly intact.
How could a man catch fire -- with no apparent source of a spark or flame -- and then burn so completely without igniting anything around him? Dr. Bentley's case and several hundred others like it have been labeled "spontaneous human combustion" (SHC). Although he and other victims of the phenomenon burned almost completely, their surroundings, and even sometimes their clothes, remained virtually untouched.
Can humans spontaneously burst into flames? A lot of people think spontaneous human combustion is a real occurrence, but most scientists aren't convinced.
In this article, we will look at the strange phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion, see what believers have to say about it and try to separate the scientific truth from the myths.
What is Spontaneous Human Combustion?
Spontaneous combustion occurs when an object -- in the case of spontaneous human combustion, a person -- bursts into flame from a chemical reaction within, apparently without being ignited by an external heat source.
The first known account of spontaneous human combustion came from the Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholin in 1663, who 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."
The hundreds of spontaneous human combustion accounts since that time have followed a similar pattern: The victim is almost completely consumed, usually inside his or her home. Coroners at the scene have sometimes noted a sweet, smoky smell in the room where the incident occurred.
What makes the charred bodies in the photos of spontaneous human combustion so peculiar is that the extremities often remain intact. Although the torso and head are charred beyond recognition, the hands, feet, and/or part of the legs may be unburned. Also, the room around the person shows little or no signs of a fire, aside from a greasy residue that is sometimes left on furniture and walls. In rare cases, the internal organs of a victim remain untouched while the outside of the body is charred.
Not all spontaneous human combustion victims simply burst into flames. Some develop strange burns on their body which have no obvious source, or emanate smoke from their body when no fire is present. And not every person who has caught fire has died -- a small percentage of people have actually survived what has been called their spontaneous combustion.
To combust, a human body needs two things: intensely high heat and a flammable substance. Under normal circumstances, our bodies contain neither, but some scientists over the last several centuries have speculated on a few possible explanations for the occurrence.
In the 1800s, Charles Dickens ignited great interest in spontaneous human combustion 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.
Today, there are several theories. One of the most popular proposes that the fire is sparked when methane (a flammable gas produced when plants decompose) 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 most victims of spontaneous human combustion suffer greater damage to the outside of their body than to their internal organs, which seems to go against this theory.
Other theories speculate that the fire begins as a result of a buildup of static electricity inside the body or from an external geomagnetic force exerted on the body. 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 no scientific evidence proves the existence of this particle.
As of March 2005, no one has offered scientific proof of a theory explaining spontaneous human combustion. If humans can't spontaneously combust, then what is the explanation for the stories and pictures of people who have seemingly burned from within?
What Science Says
If spontaneous human combustion isn't real, then what really occurred in the many pictures that exist of the charred bodies? A possible explanation is the wick effect, which proposes that the body, when lit by a cigarette, smoldering ember or other heat source, 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 is why victims' bodies are destroyed yet their surroundings are barely burned.
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And what about the images of a burned body with feet or hands left intact? The answer to that question may have something to do with the temperature gradient -- the idea that the top of a seated person is hotter than the bottom. This is basically the same phenomenon that occurs when you hold a match with the flame at the bottom. The flame will often go out without provocation because the bottom of the match is cooler than the top.
Finally, how does science account for the greasy stains left on walls and ceilings after a "spontaneous combustion"? They could simply be the residue that was produced when the victims' fatty tissue burned.
No one has ever conclusively proven or disproven the truth of spontaneous human combustion, but most scientists say that there are more likely explanations for the charred remains. Many of the so-called victims of spontaneous human combustion were smokers who were later discovered to have died by falling asleep with a lit cigarette, cigar or pipe. A number of them were believed to have been under the influence of alcohol or to have suffered from a movement-restricting disease that prevented them from moving quickly enough to escape the fire. Another possibility is that some of the fires and strange states of the victims' bodies were the result of a criminal act and subsequent cover-up.
Tales of Spontaneous Combustion
These are just a few of the many hundred reported cases of "spontaneous human combustion":
In 1938, a 22-year-old woman named Phyllis Newcombe was leaving a dance at the Shire Hall in Chelmsford, England. As she descended the staircase of the hall, her dress suddenly caught fire with no apparent cause. She ran back into the ballroom, where she collapsed. Several people rushed to her aid, but she later died in the hospital. Although the theory was that Newcombe's dress had been ignited by a cigarette or a lit match thrown from the stairwell, no evidence of either was ever found. Coroner L.F. Beccles commented on the incident, "From all my experience I have never come across a case so very mysterious as this."
In 1951, a 67-year-old widow named Mary Reeser was at home in St. Petersburg, Florida. On the morning of July 2, a neighbor discovered that Mary's front door was hot. When she broke into the apartment with the help of two workmen, they found Mary in an easy chair with a black circle around her. Her head had been burned down to the size of a teacup. The only other parts of her that remained were part of her backbone and part of her left foot. Other than Mary's charred remains, there was very little evidence of fire in her apartment. A forensic pathologist, Dr. Wilton Krogman, said of the incident, "[It's] the most amazing thing I have ever seen. As I review it, the short hairs on my neck bristle with vague fear. Were I living in the Middle Ages I'd mutter something about black magic." But the police report cited a far less supernatural explanation for the cause of death: a dropped cigarette, which ignited Mrs. Reeser's highly flammable rayon-acetate nightgown.
In 1982, a mentally handicapped woman named Jean Lucille "Jeannie" Saffin was sitting with her 82-year-old father at their home in Edmonton, in northern London. According to her father, a flash of light caught his eye. When he turned to his daughter, he saw that her upper body was enveloped in flames. Mr. Saffin and his son-in-law, Donald Carroll, managed to put out the blaze, but Jeannie died of her third-degree burns about a week after entering the hospital. According to Carroll, "the flames were coming from her mouth like a dragon and they were making a roaring noise." There was no smoke or fire damage in the room. Some have wondered if an ember from her father's pipe ignited Jeannie's clothing.
To find out more about spontaneous human combustion and related topics, check out the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Benecke, Mark. "Spontaneous Human Combustion: Thoughts of a Forensic Biologist," Skeptical Inquirer, March-April 1998, volume 22, pages 47-51.
- FBI: Mary Hardy Reeser
- Murphy, Cullen. "A Blaze of Glory," The Atlantic, April 1987. Volume 259, pages 16-17.
- New Light on Human Torch Mystery, BBC News.
- Nickell, Joe. "Fiery Tales That Spontaneously Destruct," Skeptical Inquirer, March-April 1998, Volume 22, pages 15-18.
- Nickell, Joe. Investigative Files: Not-So-Spontaneous Human Combustion.
- Nienhuys, Jan Willem. "Spontaneous Human Confabulation: Requiem for Phyllis," Skeptical Inquirer, March 2001, volume 25, page 28.
- Spontaneous Human Combustion, AlternativeScience.com.
- Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC), The Skeptic's Dictionary.
- The Documents in the Case of Phyllis Newcombe
- Weir, Kirsten. "Up in Smoke," Current Science, Volume 89, Number 8, December 5, 2003, page 4.