Ebbw Vale, Wales 1980
Henry Thomas (1907 - 1980) was a 73-year-old man who was found burned to death in the living room of his council house on the Rassau council estate in Ebbw Vale, south Wales in 1980.
Thomas' entire body was incinerated, leaving only his skull and a portion of each leg below the knee. The feet and legs were clothed in socks and trouser legs. The fire had also destroyed half of the chair in which he had been sitting and melted the control knobs on a TV set some yards away.
The victim's spectacles were sitting neatly folded in the grate of his open fire, within arm's reach of the position of the chair. The victim's slippers were on the carpet just beyond his unburned feet, suggesting that Thomas had eased his slippers off and settled back to watch television before being burned. (Thomas was farsighted).
The police officer in attendance was John E Heymer, and what follows is taken from his own notes on the incident- "The living room was bathed in an orange glow, coming from windows and a lightbulb. This orange light was the result of daylight and electric light being filtered by evaporated human fat which had condensed on their surfaces. The remainder of the house was completely undamaged".
Heymer describes the entire room as 'comfortably warm' despite the fact that the house was halfway up a mountain, in the middle of a Welsh winter (the temperature outside was 'well below freezing'), and had no double glazing or central heating. This is attributed to heat absorbed by the walls during the fire being slowly released back into the room. The temperature during the fire had evidently been high enough to melt knobs on the TV set, which was some yards away from Thomas' remains, and to soften a plastic lightshade sufficiently for it to slide off its fittings and fall to the floor.
A coal fire in the grate had gone out. There was no sign of disturbance to the fire place, and no evidence (blood, etc.) of any injury occurring there. A stack of chopped sticks, suitable for laying a fire, had been prepared by Thomas and were sitting ready by the fire-tools. Thomas' ashes lay on a rug and a foam-backed carpet, both of which were burned only where they were in contact with the ashes. Thermoplastic tiles under the carpet, which should have been permanently marked by the proximity of a heat source, were unblemished.
Questioning Mr Thomas' neighbour, Heymer found that the night before the ashes were discovered the neighbour had gone out into his garden and seen foul-smelling smoke pouring from Thomas' chimney. He had assumed Thomas was burning rubbish on his open fire. Pathologists found that Thomas had been alive when he began to burn, since his blood (taken from the remains of his legs) contained a high level of carbon monoxide.
Heymer reached the following conclusions:
|•||The body had begun to burn properly while seated in the chair.|
|•||The chair had caught fire while in contact with the body.|
|•||When one side of the chair had burned sufficiently, it collapsed, depositing the body on the floor.|
|•||Now out of contact with the body, the unburned portion of the chair ceased to burn.|
|•||The body continued to burn until only the skull and lower legs were left.|
Police forensic officers arrived and announced that the incineration of Thomas was due to the wick effect.
They reconstructed the scene as follows:
Thomas had fallen into the fireplace for some reason while tending the fire and had accidentally set alight to his hair. This accounted for his spectacles being in the hearth. He had then sat down in his chair and burned to death via the wick effect.
A scrap of fibrous matter on the fireplace was seized upon and it was declared that this would prove to be forehead skin, proving Thomas fell and injured himself. In fact analysis proved the scrap was of bovine origin, probably from some leather item that Thomas had burned on the fire.
Heymer, a trained crime-scene officer, argued that everything about the remains showed that the victim had been sitting comfortably in his chair when he burned to death. He argued that even a victim who had fallen and injured himself would not get up and sit down in a chair while alight. Moreover, he argued that the lack of fire damage to the rest of the room indicated a rapid blaze which went out before anything not in contact with the victim had caught light.
He also pointed out that the victim had draught-proofed his living room very effectively (to such an extent that no smoke particles were found on the outside of the living-room doorframe) and that the oxygen supply in the room would not support the long slow burning of the wick effect. He also pointed out that the remains of the victim's trouser legs were undamaged, except for a very narrow burned 'fringe' where the remains terminated. Heymer described this 'fringe': 'as though the clothes had been burned through with a laser beam'. This, he said, also indicated something different from the wick effect.
Thomas' death was ruled 'death by burning', as he had plainly inhaled the contents of his own combustion.
References: Heymer, John E (1996): 'The Entrancing Flame'; London; Little, Brown; ISBN 0-316-87694-1
Newsletter Article: The Mystery of Spontaneous Human Combustion
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