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 below.
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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.