Paranormal Phenomenon Omnibus

Spontaneous Human Combustion

Mytv vs. Reality

Article by Matt Allair

Introduction / Origins - Early cases / The Mary Reeser case and other modern cases /
Explanations / Forensic verdict: Urban Legend

Imagine someone burning from within, or imagine seeing the result of a fire that does not burn or affect an entire room or location, but leaves evidence of a person who has been burnt to a cinder. Such X-Files episodes as "Fire" and "Soft Light" made reference to such a phenomenon, a phenomenon known as Spontaneous Human Combustion. In fact this phenomenon has been so popular within the field of unexplained research, there have been an unprecedented number of books and on-line articles to be found on the subject. The problem is that the vast percentage of the evidence is drawn from a misunderstanding on the nature of how fire works in various environments; thus this subject should fall into the category of an urban legend.

Generally, it is the ability of the human body to ignite by an unknown source of ignition. In classic cases, the body burns itself more intensely then would be achieved by cremation. One of the early pre-twentieth-century theories held that drunkards were especially susceptible because the liquor in their bodies made them combustible, a hypothesis that holds no scientific basis. For some proponents, it is believed the phenomenon begins from the stomach, and burns outwards; a large part of the evidence for this theory has to do with in many cases the remains of a leg or foot, regarding investigations of burn victims, or organic residue that can be found at the site of a fire. There has been so much popularist misconception in this phenomenon that it has become difficult to wade through such evidence, science, and pseudo-science. Nevertheless it is important to sort out the history of this phenomenon.

Introduction / Origins - Early cases / The Mary Reeser case and other modern cases /
Explanations / Forensic verdict: Urban Legend

There are many references to the phenomenon by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers, including de Quincey, Dickens, Melville, and Zola. Many of these references were based on famous cases such as Countess Bandi of Casena, which was an account reported before June, 1731, where only a head, three fingers, and both legs were found in a heap of ashes, four feet from her bed. Other accounts could be found in the early textbooks on medical jurisprudence, as such fires have often given rise to suspicious of criminality. One example could be in the Enzyklopadisches Worterbuch (Berlin, 1843), which mentions a pile of ashes there were the remains of the wife of a Frenchman named Millet, of Rheims, in 1725, who was accused of having an affair with his servant girl. He was charged with murdering his wife, and using fire to conceal the evidence. However, at the inquiry, it was acknowledged as a genuine case of spontaneous combustion, and due to a young surgeon named Claude-Nicholas Le Cat, he succeeded in persuading the court that the phenomenon does occur. Millet was acquitted, and astonishingly the jurors' verdict was that the wife died by a visitation of God.

Another early case from 1888 involved an older soldier burnt to death in a hayloft, attended by a Dr. J Mackenzie of Aberdeen. The man was resting on a beam and surrounded by untouched bales of hay. No fire had been seen, nor cries heard, and from the preserved features of the face, no pain felt. In the London Daily News of December, 17, 1904, there was item on the case of Mrs. Thomas Cochrane of Rosehall, Falkirk, who burned to death in her chair, surrounded by unburned pillows, cushions, while not uttering a cry. Another example of the strange localization of such cases was a reported item in the New York Sun of January 24, 1930, regarding the death of Ms. Stanley Lake, at Kingston, where the coroner noted: "Although her body was severely burned, her clothing was not even scorched." Aside from cases that involve domesticated situations, there have been alleged eyewitness cases of this phenomenon: On August, 27, 1938, twenty-two year old Phyllis Newcombe was dancing vigorously in Chelmsford, Essex, when her body glowed with a blue light which turned into a flame; she died within minutes. The problem with alleged eyewitness accounts, is that often the sources turn out not to be credible.

Introduction / Origins - Early cases / The Mary Reeser case and other modern cases /
Explanations / Forensic verdict: Urban Legend

The most famous Spontaneous Human Combustion case occurred in St. Petersburg, Florida on the night of July 1, 1951 and involved Ms. Mary Reeser. The following morning, her landlady, while taking her a telegram, found the doorknob to her apartment too hot to touch. Two painters working nearby, managed to open the door and were met with a rush of hot air. They found no sign of the plump sixty-seven-year-old lady. Her bed was empty, and although the room bore no signs of a fire, there was a little smoke, and a slight flame on the beam of a partition that divided the single room from her kitchenette. After the firemen put out the flame, and tore away the partition, behind it they found a blackened circle on the floor, a few coiled springs, a charred liver, a fragment of backbone, and a skull shrunk to the size of a fist. Just on the edge of the scorched patch was a black satin slipper enclosing a left foot burnt off at the ankle.

The case was investigated by firemen, arson experts, pathologists, and insurance men, and it should be noted the investigation was in-depth. While appliances and wiring were indeed checked, no cause for the fire could be found. There was no sign of fire except within the vicinity of the chair itself. It had, however, been unusually intense; for example, a mirror on the wall had cracked with the heat, plastic switch-plates had melted, and other plastic items in the bathroom had melted. At the inquest it was noted that a crematoria normally uses a temperature of 2500 degrees F sustained for hours, to incinerate a body, and even then one usually has to resort to grinders to pulverize the remains, a state that Ms. Reeser was already in. The FBI issued a statement concluding that Ms. Reeser had taken her usual sleeping pills, had fallen asleep while smoking, but experts testified that even her if her clothes caught alight, they would have only burned her superficially. It was also pointed out that neither the clothes nor the smoldering armchair stuffing could have generated, or sustained enough heat to ignite a body. It should be noted coincidently that one of America’s foremost pathologists, specializing in deaths by fire, Walter Krogman, was on holiday nearby, joined the investigation and was baffled by the event. He later dismissed the possibility it was a case of SHC.

Other documented cases of deaths that involve this phenomenon include the charred bodies of five men who were found sitting in casual positions in a car on a back road located in Pikeville, Kentucky, on November 21st, 1960. It should be noted that this case sounded mobster-related. There was also the case of the death in Pennsylvania, in November, 1964 of Helen Conway, the car-related death of Jeanna Winchester and Leslie Scott in Jacksonville, Florida in October of 1980, and the death of John O’Connor at Gortaleen in March 24, 1997.

Introduction / Origins - Early cases / The Mary Reeser case and other modern cases /
Explanations / Forensic verdict: Urban Legend

There have been countless theories to explain Spontaneous Human Combustion. One of the earliest scientific explanations sought to link it with spheres of lambent light that floated over stagnant marshes. Will-o'-the-wisps, as known in folklore, were known to be largely methane (CH4), bubbling up from decayed vegetable matter. The real question was how it could ignite, something that methane does not do on its own. Bacterial action in the intestines of animals and humans produce methane, and also hydrogen (H2) and phosphane (PH3); all three are flammable when ignited by an outside source. Related to phosphane is diphosphane (P2H2), which really does ignite on contact with oxygen, but chemists have long maintained that conditions in the stomach make the production of diphosphane unlikely. However John Emsley's Book, The Shocking History of Phosphorus in 2000, did cite German research that detected both phosphane and diphosphane in human feces. While the amounts were tiny – billionths of a gram – Emsley argued that on rare occasions sufficient amounts of diphosphane could build up and ignite on a chance encounter with oxygen molecules and light a pocket of methane and phosphane.

A great many theories have been proposed; Michael Harrison cited the research of an American doctor, Mayne R. Coe, which involved bioelectricity. Coe alleged he could charge his body up to 35,000 volts. Harrison argued that if individuals could induce electric and magnetic energies, this energy could go awry. Harrison has also offered an explanation that involved geographical links, citing the death of three men in 1966, George Turner, John Greenly, and Willem Bruik. Harrison points out that the three men were at the points of an equilateral triangle, whose sides were 340 miles long. Harrison has also concluded that Spontaneous Human Combustion is a mental freak—a situation wherein the mind influences the body to build up immense charges. Investigator Larry Arnold has argued that "ley lines" – lines of "earth force"--may be involved. Mr. Arnold has drawn a dozen major leys on a map of England, which he argued in the January, 1982 issue of Frontiers of Science. He then set out to find if they were associated with mystery fires, claiming that one 400-mile-long “fire-layne” passed through five towns where ten mysterious blazes and several cases of SHC occurred between 1852 and 1908.

There has also been the argument of the "wick effect" for the phenomenon, where body fat is the fuel and the victim's clothing is the wick. In August, 1998, the BBC series QED conducted a demonstration. Dr. John De Haan wrapped a dead pig in a blanket and placed it in a facsimile of a living room. A small amount of petrol was placed on one shoulder and the body was set alight. It continued to burn for five hours. De Haan demonstrated that once started, a prolonged low-intensity blaze could reproduce many of the characteristics of SHC. The pig's extremities were intact, the bones friable. It should be noted that an accelerant was used in the demonstration but one of the mysteries of SHC is that these fires occur without an outside accelerant.

Larry Arnold has argued that the chief characteristics of a "true" SHC case is the indication that the fire originates within the body and burns outwards; with conventional fire deaths, it is the other way around. Even John Heymer, retired Scenes of Crime Officer for Gwent CID, agreed with Arnold. In his own book, The Entrancing Flame, he cites a case from September 1967 in Lambeth, London of a tramp known as Bailey. A witness described seeing a blue flame issuing out of a four-inch slit in the man's abdomen with such a force it was beginning the burn the stairs where the tramp was found.

Introduction / Origins - Early cases / The Mary Reeser case and other modern cases /
Explanations / Forensic verdict: Urban Legend

Skeptical forensic experts Joe Nickell and John F. Fisher have pointed out that drunken persons are more careless with fire, and less able to properly respond to an accident. Both have noted the suggestive circumstances in which victims are found, for example, with a broken oil lamp, a pipe, or a candlestick lying near the remains, as well as large quantities of combustible material under a body to aid in destruction, and wood flooring impregnated with oils and waxes. Joe Nickel has been especially scathing towards the arguments of Larry Arnold, and other proponents, pointing out in the case of Mary Reeser, the floors and walls of her apartment were of concrete, and when last seen by her physician son, Ms. Reese had been sitting in a chair, wearing flammable nightclothes, and smoking a cigarette, after having taken two Seconal, and intending to take two more. The police report concluded that once the body became rigid, almost complete destruction occurred from the destruction of the body’s own fatty tissues. As the fat liquefied in the fire, it could have been absorbed into the chair stuffing.

Joe Nickell has also pointed out the case regarding Helen Conway from 1964. Ms. Conway was an infirm woman who was reported to have been a heavy smoker, and that cigarette burn marks were evident around the bedroom. While apparently the body of Ms. Conway took less time to burn than Ms Reese, but it may have begun at the base of her seated body and burned straight upward, fed by flammable upholstery and fat from the torso, which might have triggered a more intense fire, not unlike grease fires, and it needs to be pointed out that heat rises. He has also countered Mr. Arnold’s claim of a spontaneous human explosion with the explanation that the furniture might have contributed to the scattering of some debris as has been alleged in the photos taken. Another possibility stems from a statement by the assistant fire marshal indicating that debris may not have been scattered all over , but could have been due to splashback from the firemen’s high-pressure spray, thus rendering Arnold’s argument of a spontaneous explosion not credible.

There are a few remaining issues that SHC advocates are quick to suggest. One regards the source of the ignition of the body: the Preternatural Combustibility--the imagined heightening of the body’s flammability. Often proponents dismiss the idea that fluid-saturated fatty tissues, ignited by an outside flame, will burn and produce enough heat to destroy the rest of the body, when the facts suggest otherwise--that human fatty tissue will burn, the water it contains being boiled off ahead of the advancing fire. Even in cases of a lean body, there’s enough fatty tissue for this to remain true. Regarding the case of the partial destruction of bodies in this phenomenon, Dr. Dougal Drysdale of Edinboro University has pointed out that in a crematorium you need high temperatures–around 1,300 degrees C of higher–to reduce a body to ash in a short amount of time, yet it is a misconception to think you need the same temperatures within a living room. The same effect could be achieved with the wick effect and a combination of smoldering and flaming to reduce bones to ash, at such low temperatures as 500 degrees C. Given enough time, the bone will transform into something approaching powder.

Finally, regarding the mystery of organs remaining intact, it has been pointed out by forensic biologist, Mark Benecke, Ph.D, that while the extremities might be destroyed, the high temperature of the outer parts of the burning body is not maintained internally, where fluids in the various organs and cavities help prevent their incineration. This effect is not commonly known, and therefore one can see how it would appear to be a mystery.

One of the fundamental problems with the photographic evidence of Spontaneous Human Combustion, is that seeing isn’t always believing. Most professed experts in this area have little forensic training or expertise in the field of arson. While the notion has remained a compelling idea and has captivated many, this phenomenon should be regarded as a contemporary urban legend.

Sources:
Unexplained Phenomena: A Rough Guide Special by Bob Rickard and John Michell, © 2000 Rough Guides
The Mammoth Encyclopedia of the Unsolved by Colin and Damon Wilson, © 2000 Carrol & Graf Publishers
Unexplained! by Jerome Clark, © 1993 Invisible Ink Press
Real-Life X-Files by Joe Nickell, © 2001 University Press of Kentucky
Skeptical Inquirer: Spontaneous Human Combustion

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