How Spontaneous Human Combustion Works

burning bed burning bed
Can a person actually catch fire with no apparent source of spark or flame, and then burn so completely nothing else around them ignites? Donald Iain Smith/Getty Images

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 [source: Endeavour].

How could a man catch fire and then burn so completely without igniting everything around him? 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 [source: Nickell].

But there's another school of thought. Bentley's case and many others like it have been presented as examples of spontaneous human combustion (SHC). Although he and other alleged victims of the phenomenon burned almost completely, their surroundings were left somewhat unscathed.

So 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 take a look at this strange debate, see what believers have to say about it and try to separate the scientific truth from the myths.