Spontaneous Human Combustion
Burning of a Living Human Body Without an Apparent External Source of Ignition



 
Spontaneous Human Combustion
Burning of a Living Human Body Without an Apparent External Source of Ignition

Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is a name used to describe alleged cases of the burning of a living human body without an apparent external source of ignition. While there have been about 200 cited cases worldwide over a period of around 300 years, most of the alleged cases are characterized by the lack of a thorough investigation, or rely heavily on hearsay  and oral testimony.

In many of the more recent cases, where photographic evidence is available, it is alleged that there was an external source of heat present (often cigarettes), and nothing occurred "spontaneously."


Many hypotheses have attempted to explain how Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) might occur, but those which rely on current scientific understanding say that with instances mistaken for spontaneous combustion, there was an external source of ignition, and that the likelihood that true spontaneous human combustion actually takes place within the body is quite low.


 

There are many hypothesized explanations which account for the various cases of human spontaneous combustion.

These generally fall into one of three groups:

  • Paranormal explanations (e.g. a ghost or alien caused it)
  • Natural explanations that credit some unknown and otherwise unobserved phenomenon (e.g. the production of abnormally concentrated gas or raised levels of blood alcohol cause spontaneous ignition)
  • Natural explanations that involve an external source of ignition (e.g. the victim dropped a cigarette).



 
Objections to natural explanations usually revolve around the degree of burning of the body with respect to its surroundings.

Indeed, one of the common markers of a case of SHC is that the body — or part of it — has suffered an extraordinarily large degree of burning, with surroundings or lower limbs comparatively undamaged.


Since every human body contains varying strengths of electrical field and the human body also contains flammable gases (mainly methane in the intestines), an electrical discharge could ignite these gases.

SHC victims are sometimes described as lonely people who fall into a trance immediately before their incineration.

It has been suggested that a psychosomatic process in such emotionally-distressed people can trigger off a chain reaction by reacting nitrogen within the body and setting off a chain reaction of mitochondrial explosions.

This theory has been criticized on the basis that these suggestions "seem to be under the illusion that nitrogen exist as gases in the blood and are thus vulnerable to ignition, which is, in fact, not the case." (Mitochondria are organelles found within cells.) The theory also fails to take into account the fact that nitrogen is an inert, non-flammable gas.

Another theory suggests high-energy particles or gamma rays coupled with susceptibilities in the potential victim (e.g. increased alcohol in the blood) triggers the initial reaction. This process may use no external oxygen to spread throughout the body, since it may not be an oxidation-reduction reaction.

However, no reaction mechanism has been proposed, nor has a source for the high-energy particles.


The victim is an alcoholic and has been smoking while drinking or shortly after drinking a strong spirit. There are claims that this raises the blood alcohol level to a point where it ignites; however, this theory is implausible, since ethanol typically burns only if the concentration is greater than about 23%, whereas a fatally toxic level is about 1%.

However, this does introduce the probability that the victim will fall asleep while holding a lit cigarette.

A suggested possibility is that both clothing and the person are caused to burn by a discharge of static electricity. A person walking across a carpet can build up sufficient charge and voltage to create a spark. It is unlikely that this could start a clothing fire, as although the voltage can be high (several thousand volts), the stored energy is very low (typically less than a joule).

The controversial phenomenon of ball lightning has also been proposed as one of the causes of spontaneous combustion.



Doctor John Bentley Spontaneous Human Combustion Case


Spontaneous Human Combustion

This is one of the most famous photos from an alleged case of  spontaneous human combustion.

On December 5th, 1966, 92-year-old retired doctor John Bentley died from a fire of unknown origin in Coudersport, Pennsylvania.


The elderly man walked with the aid of a walker, clearly visible in this photo. The fire apparently was confined to a small area of the doctor's bathroom, which burned a hole in the floor.


Most of his body was reduced to ashes.

Doctor John Bentley was last seen alive on December 4th, 1966, when friends visiting him at his home said goodnight to him at about 9:00 P.M.

On the following morning, December 5th, Don Gosnell, a meter reader, let himself into Bentley's house and went to the basement to check the meter—since Bentley could only move about with the help of a walker, Mr. Gosnell had permission to enter as necessary.

While in the basement, Gosnell noticed a strange smell and a light blue smoke. Intrigued, he went upstairs to investigate. The bedroom was smoky and in the bathroom he found Bentley's cremated remains.

All that was left intact of the aged doctor was the lower half of his right leg with the slipper still on it. The rest of his body had been reduced to a pile of ashes on the floor in the basement below.

His walker lay across the hole in the floor generated by the fire. The rubber tips on it were still intact, and the nearby bathtub was hardly scorched. Gosnell ran from the building to get help, screaming "Doctor Bentley's burned up!"

The first theory put forward was that Bentley had set himself on fire with his pipe, but his pipe was still on its stand by the bed in the next room. Perplexed, the coroner could only record a verdict of 'death by asphyxiation and 90 percent burning of the body.'

Joe Nickell, in his book Secrets of the Supernatural, gives an account of this event he got from Larry E. Arnold's article "The Flaming Fate of Dr. John Irving Bentley," printed in the Pursuit of Fall 1976. Nickell mentions that the hole in the bathroom floor measured 2-1/2 feet by 4 feet, and details the remains as being Bentley's lower leg burned off at the knee.


Spontaneous Human Combustion

Objections to natural explanations usually revolve around the degree of burning of the body with respect to its surroundings.

Indeed, one of the common markers of a case of SHC is that the body — or part of it — has suffered an extraordinarily large degree of burning, with surroundings or lower limbs comparatively undamaged.


Nickell mentions that Bentley's robe was found smoldering in the bathtub next to the hole, and that the broken remains of "what was apparently a water pitcher" were found in the toilet; he adds that the doctor had dropped hot ashes from his pipe onto his clothing previously (which "were dotted with burn spots from previous incidents"), and that he kept wooden matches in his pockets which could transform a small ember into a blazing flame.

Nickell believes that Bentley woke up to find his clothes on fire, walked to the bathroom, and passed out before he could extinguish the flames. Then, he suggests that the burning clothes ignited the flammable linoleum floor, and cool air drawn from the basement in what is known as "the stack effect" kept the fire burning hotly.



Causes of Spontaneous Human Combustion


Cigarettes are often implicated as the source of ignition. Usually, the victim is alone at the time of death, and it is thought that natural causes such as heart attacks may lead to the victim dying, subsequently dropping the cigarette. Embers from cigarettes and pipes may also ignite clothes.


Additionally, cigarettes smoulder at a temperature too low to trigger a flare up of most otherwise combustible materials. Typically if a person drops a lit cigarette on an article of clothing, it will create a burn-hole, but not ignite into an open flame and spread.

The "wick effect" hypothesis suggests that a small external flame source, such as a burning cigarette, chars the clothing of the victim at a location, splitting the skin and releasing subcutaneous fat, which is in turn absorbed into the burned clothing, acting as a wick.

This combustion can continue for as long as the fuel is available. This hypothesis has been successfully tested with animal tissue (pig) and is consistent with evidence recovered from cases of human combustion.

Scalding can cause burn-like injuries, including death, without setting fire to clothing. Although not applicable in cases where the body is charred and burnt, this has been suggested as a cause in at least one claimed SHC-like event.



The following is a list of the possible cause of Spontaneous Human Combustion:

  • the human body contains varying strengths of electrical fields and the human body also contains flammable gases (mainly methane in the intestines), an electrical discharge could ignite these gases
  • emotionally-distressed people can trigger off a chain reaction by reacting nitrogen within the body and setting off a chain reaction of mitochondrial explosions
  • high-energy particles or gamma rays coupled with susceptibilities in the potential victim (e.g. increased alcohol in the blood) triggers the initial reaction
  • the victim is an alcoholic and has been smoking while drinking or shortly after drinking a strong spirit. There are claims that this raises the blood alcohol level to a point where it ignites
  • both clothing and the person are caused to burn by a discharge of static electricity. A person walking across a carpet can build up sufficient charge and voltage to create a spark
  • ball lightning has also been proposed as one of the causes of spontaneous combustion
  • the internal combustion engine of the higher living organisms called mitochondria. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the body and sites of highly active energy packet production using oxidative phosphorylation mechanism. Uncoupling of the metabolic processes in mitochondria from its energy production results in generation of large amounts of heat that is called thermogenesis.

    This heat production is different from fever which is an inflammatory response to infection. Mitochondria are especially abundant in the skeletal muscle cells that require high energy output for their function. Since skeletal muscles constitute a major portion of the body, they harbor an enormous number of energy producing mitochondria.

    Under stress and certain extreme physiological conditions, the hyperactivity of energy producing mechanism of the body may exceed the conservation or utilization. Available body fat may also serve as additional fuel for combustion
  • cigarettes are often seen as the source of fire in valleys. Usually, it is thought that natural causes such as heart attacks may lead to the victim dying, subsequently dropping the cigarette. Embers from cigarettes and pipes may also ignite clothes. Additionally, cigarette steam at a temperature too low to trigger a flare up of most otherwise combustible materials.

    Typically if a person drops a lit cigarette on an article of clothing, it will create a burn-hole, but not ignite into an open flame and spread
  • the "wick effect" hypothesis suggests that a small external flame source, such as a burning cigarette, chars the clothing of the victim at a location, splitting the skin and releasing subcutaneous fat, which is in turn absorbed into the burned clothing, acting as a wick. This combustion can continue for as long as the fuel is available.

    This hypothesis has been successfully tested with animal tissue (pig) and is consistent with evidence recovered from cases of human combustion
  • scalding can cause burn-like injuries, including death, without setting fire to clothing. Although not applicable in cases where the body is charred and burnt, this has been suggested as a cause in at least one claimed SHC-like event


Examples of Spontaneous Human Combustion


Two examples of people surviving static flash events are given in a book on SHC. The two subjects, Debbie Clark and Susan Motteshead, speaking independently and with no knowledge of each other, give similar histories.


In addition, Jack Angel claims to have survived an SHC-like event:

In September 1985, Debbie Clark was walking home when she noticed an occasional flash of blue light. As she claimed, "It was me. I was lighting up the driveway every couple of steps. As we got into the garden I thought it was funny at that point. I was walking around in circles saying: 'look at this, mum, look!'

She started screaming and my brother came to the door and started screaming and shouting 'Have you never heard of spontaneous human combustion?'"

Her mother, Dianne Clark, responded: "I screamed at her to get her shoes off and it [the flashes] kept going so I hassled her through and got her into the bath. I thought that the bath is wired to earth. It was a blue light you know what they call electric blue. She thought it was fun, she was laughing."

In winter 1980, Cheshire, England, resident Susan Motteshead was standing in her kitchen, wearing flame-resistant pajamas, when she was suddenly engulfed in a short-lived fire that seemed to have ignited the fluff on her clothing but burned out before it could set anything properly alight.