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The Mystery of Spontaneous Human Combustion

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The Mystery of Spontaneous Human Combustion


by: Maureen A. Hennessy


Human Beings are burned to a small pile of smoldering ash while little else surrounding them is touched.

Is it evil at work or chemistry?


(June 2000 Issue of After Dark)



The Syndrome


Eighty percent of the victims were female.


Most victims were overweight and/or alcoholic and many are elderly. The body is very badly burned, sparing bits of the head and extremities but the scene is undamaged except for a fine layer of soot.


No shouts or screams are heard and there are usually no witnesses.


A greasy, sooty deposit covers the ceiling and walls, usually stopping three to four feet above the floor.


Objects above this three to four foot line show signs of heat damage (melted candles, cracked mirrors, ect...) but objects below this line show no damage.


The first reported case of spontaneous human combustion was thought to have been in 1673. Apparently a Parisian, notorious for his alcoholic excesses was found reduced to ashes in his straw bed, leaving behind only his skull and finger bones.


In 1725, Nicole Miller was found dead, burned to death, her incinerated body found in an unburned chair. Her husband was arrested and accused of the murder. He was acquitted at trial when surgeon Nicholas Le Cat convinced the court Nicole Miller was a victim of Spontaneous Human Combustion. The final verdict proclaimed that Nicole had died "by a visitation of God".


Charles Dickens mentioned this case in the preface to the 1853 printing of "Bleak House," giving credence to his use of the phenomena to kill off a character in the following passage:


"The neighbors, perceiving a strong smell of smoke, entered her room, and there found the unfortunate woman upon the floor almost completely burned, with her feet turned towards the chimney place, in which, however there was no fire. The face and hair and portion of the neck, and upper part of the shoulders, were not injured. The skin and muscles of the back were, however, thoroughly burnt, as were the sides, and the anterior portion of the trunk. There was nothing left of the upper extremities but the bones.... The upper portions of the lower limbs were also burnt.... Under one of her arms there was still a portion of the chair upon which she had been seated, and under her an earthen pot, such as is used by the poor to hold a few coals to warm their feet. The chair was almost completely burned, the floor was covered with a black soot and an exposed beam in the wall of the room was charred upon the surface. The chest was untouched, as was also the muslin curtains, only three feet distant from the body."


The above, created from Dickens's imagination was remarkably on target in describing the syndrome.


In the preface Dickens speaks of the Miller case but avoids mention of the victim's name. He also refers to surgeon Le Cat as a historian, while others contend he was a key character in the defense, testifying as to the validity of the syndrome and the likelihood Spontaneous Human Combustion caused Nicole Miller's death.


Joe Nickell, a detective who has made an extensive study of SHC cases, states in "Secrets of the Supernatural" the Miller event actually happened in February of 1725. Nickell reported some vertebra, a part of her head, and some parts of her lower extremities were found on the floor in her kitchen, not in a chair. He contended the part of the floor where the remains were found was also burned.


Nickell also reported the husband's arrest was precipitated by discovery of his alleged motive, "an intrigue with a female servant." Nickell said the husband was convicted of his wife's murder, a decision later reversed by a higher court which attributed her death to Spontaneous Human Combustion.


Citing a number of respected publications, Nickell presents some intriguing information about this dramatic case.


Mrs. Miller was in the habit of getting intoxicated every day and was last seen entering the kitchen "to warm herself". Her remains were found "a foot and a half" from the kitchen hearth fire. From this, Nickell deduced the victim got drunk, passed out on or near the hearth then died when her clothes caught fire.


It was widely accepted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that Spontaneous Human Combustion was caused by excessive alcohol intake. It was erroneously believed that accumulation of alcohol in body tissues would dramatically increase combustibility and the body somehow metabolized alcohol to produce hydrogen and other inflammable gases which were stored in the body tissues. A spark produced by the body's internal electricity would then ignite the body.


This theory is questionable due to the many cases involving victims who were known to be non-drinkers. Moreover, understanding of the mechanism of metabolism has completely debunked the theory. We now know an individual would succumb to alcohol poisoning long before such saturation could occur.


For a long time it was simply accepted that Spontaneous Human Combustion was either a vengeful act of God against sinners, or an act of the devil seizing a faithful servant's soul. The public interest in Spontaneous Human Combustion faded until a number of more contemporary cases were reported.


Is a human body combustible?


Under the right conditions, a human body will burn but this is not the same as being combustible. For combustion to occur, the body must be consumed by flames and heat, and reduced to ashes in an explosively short time.


Scientifically, under certain conditions combustion will occur, but extreme temperatures such as that experienced inside a furnace or burning automobile would have to be present.


Alternatively, some kind of accelerant such as gasoline is implicated. The apparent lack of these external causes is the real mystery in true cases of SHC. There is no known scientific reason why self-ignition or combustion could occur, although there are plenty of theories.


Some researchers assert that flames must appear suddenly and be very fast in order to prevent the victim from responding. Such an assertion won't hold up if the victim is unconscious or dead at the time of the incident.... and there is ample evidence for this often being the case. Many of the victims were alcoholic, medicated, or elderly and one can imagine them being incapacitated for a variety of reasons.


There is the argument that extraordinarily high temperatures are required for Spontaneous Human Combustion to occur. This assertion is based upon the fact that crematoriums employ temperatures of at least 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit to reduce a body to ash in three hours. The logical extension made by many is that higher temperatures would be required to consume the body in a shorter time.


In his book, Secrets of the Supernatural, Joe Nickell cites a passage from the Medicolegal Investigation of Death, in which it is stated a body can be reduced to ash in an hour and a half at temperatures of 1600-1800 degrees. Additionally, lower temperatures may accomplish the reduction if the body burns for longer time periods.


Most of the cases investigated involved a substantial period of time elapsing between the last time the victim is seen alive and the discovery of the body.... so time may not be a factor.


Another factor frequently overlooked is the presence of other fuel sources at the scene besides the body itself. Wooden chairs, rugs, overstuffed furniture or mattresses have been adjacent to the bodies in many cases supplying ample fuel to enable higher temperatures.


Haystack combustion is sometimes cited as being similar to Spontaneous Human Combustion. This phenomena is fully understood and has no bearing on our investigation. Bacteria are known to reproduce uncontrollably until collective body heat becomes enough to ignite dry straw.


Such conditions don't exist in an animal's body, and obviously, a living body isn't as combustible as dry straw. Also, a human so overwhelmingly invaded by bacteria would die from illness or temperatures exceeding that compatible with life long before combustible temperatures could be reached.



The Candle Effect


In 1965, D. J. Gee proposed "The Candle Effect" as a solution to the mystery. The theory involves slow consumption of a body by a low-temperature flame, with clothing acting as a wick and body fats as fuel. This relatively simple explanation would also explain some other signs commonly found at the scenes.


Oxygen is quickly used up in a poorly ventilated room, causing flames to settle to a slow smolder. Heavy smoke would emit from such a fire and, in the case of a human body, the smoke would be greasy from body fat.


Soot would be emitted by clothing and body tissues. As heat rises, greasy smoke would be deposited first at the ceiling, then move downward, stopping at a level where it could dissipate.


The Candle Effect would also explain why burn damage is limited to the body and some of what it touches. According to Gee, there is not enough oxygen in the room to sustain burning when fuel is used up. In the smoky area, the temperature is high enough to melt plastic and heat metal, but no combustion occurs in the absence of oxygen. When the door is opened by rescuers, the onrush of oxygen results in new flames.


Many cases attributed to Spontaneous Human Combustion are explainable by this "Candle Effect" theory.


Joe Nickell investigated some of these cases for two years along with Dr. John Fisher, a forensic analyst with a crime laboratory in Orlando, Florida. They reported significant similarities in the cases.


Where destruction of the body was minimal, the only fuel source seems to have been the clothing of the individual.


Where destruction was considerable, additional fuel sources were nearby, such as wooden flooring and chair stuffing. Combustible materials under the body would also retain melted fat flowing from the body. As retained fat burns, more of the body would be destroyed, providing even more fuel for the process.


Plausible sources of ignition could be found in all the cases Fisher and Nickell researched. Candles, cigarettes, lamps, fireplaces, ect. The legends rarely mention evidence demonstrating external causes.



Some Recent Cases of SHC:


The following is one of the few cases where there were witnesses. Maybelle Andrews was dancing with her boyfriend at a popular nightclub, when flames suddenly erupted from her body. Her boyfriend was severely burned trying to distinguish the fire.


The boyfriend stated that the only flames in the room came from Maybelle, herself. The victim died of her injuries on the way to the hospital.


July 1951


The remains of 67 year old Mary Reeser were discovered by a horrified neighbor and some house painters.


Apparently Mrs. Reeser had been sitting in an easy chair at the time of the event. According to reports, only the corner of the room and the chair in which she had been sitting were burned. One foot, still wearing a slipper, remained intact.


The walls of the apartment were covered with a greasy substance and plastic switches had melted along with two candles. The candlewicks were not burned. Only a small circular burn area had encompassed the remains of the victim and her chair.


Autopsy revealed the victim's liver melted to a hard lump and fused to a vertebra. Her brain was the size and consistency of a baseball. Experts say such a cremation would require a temperature of 2500 degrees, which could not have been generated by a dropped cigarette.


This case is often touted as an example of SHC, although Joe Nickell's investigation would have more to say about it.


December 1959


Billy Peterson was found dead in the front seat of his car in Pontiac, Michigan. Suicide was assumed when it was discovered that the exhaust pipe had been bent into the front seat. This did nothing to explain the third-degree burns on the victim's back, legs and arms - nor could it explain why neither his clothing nor the front seat was damaged.


There was no mention of burns on the death certificate and the cause was listed as carbon monoxide poisoning.


December 1966


A group of friends visited 92 year-old Dr. John Irving Bentley the evening of December 4th, bidding him good-night at about 9:00 PM.


Entering the basement of the house the next morning, a meter reader saw some light blue smoke and noticed a strange smell. Aware of Dr. Bentley's limited mobility, the worker went upstairs to check on him. He found the bedroom filled with smoke. In the bathroom, the hapless meter reader made a gruesome discovery. All that remained of the old man was the lower half of one leg with a slipper still on the foot.


Had Mr. Bentley set himself on fire with his pipe? His pipe was still on the table by his bed. The coroner noted the cause of death was asphyxiation and 90% burning of the body.


January 6th, 1980


Wales - Police and forensic officers discovered the body of a man burned beyond recognition. There was no damage to the armchair he had been sitting in, nor to nearby plastic objects, but the fire had been so intense a coating of vaporized flesh was left on the ceiling.


March 24th, 1997


County Kerry, Irish Republic. 76 year-old John O'Connor was found dead in his living room by the community nurse who regularly visited him.


The charred remains were in an chair positioned some distance from the hearth. Only his head, upper torso and feet remained unburned. There was little smoke damage and a local priest at the scene described it as seeming "as if somebody had poured petrol into his lap.



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