I am a member of a small group which meets Sunday afternoons to read aloud the novels of Charles Dickens. Last week we reached chapter 32 of Bleak House. In this chapter, a rather low character by the name of Krook dies by — get this — spontaneous combustion. All that remains of him is a small heap of cinder and ash.
I was delighted, but since then I have been looked at rather pathetically by everyone I've reported it to. No one believes it to be possible. Well, Cecil, if it is an actual phenomenon, then why hasn't anyone heard of it? If it isn't, how did the notion start and how was our dear Mr. Dickens led astray?
Illustration by Slug Signorino
Spontaneous human combustion (SHC for short) is one of those twilight zone-type phenomena that people tend to lump with ectoplasm and telekinesis, so discussion has been confined largely to the nutcake journals. Nonetheless, a considerable body of evidence suggests that something like SHC actually occurs.
Over the past 300 years, there have been more than 200 reports of persons burning to a crisp for no apparent reason. The victims are discovered as piles of ashes and oily residue, completely consumed except for an occasional unburnt arm or leg.
Although temperatures of about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit are normally required to char a body so thoroughly (crematoria, which usually operate in the neighborhood of 2,000 degrees, leave bone fragments which must be ground up by hand), frequently little or nothing around the victim is damaged, except perhaps the exact spot where the deceased ignited. SHC victims have burnt up in bed without the sheets catching fire, clothing worn is often barely singed, and flammable materials only inches away remain untouched.
According to researcher Larry Arnold, the first medical report of SHC appeared in Acta Medica & Philosophica Hafniensia in 1673. A hard-drinking Parisian was found reduced to ashes in his straw bed, leaving just his skull and finger bones. The straw matting was only lightly damaged. Since then many other occurrences have been noted. Charles Dickens, in doing research for Bleak House, found 30 cases on record.
Here are some typical SHC reports: On April 9, 1744, Grace Pett, 60, an alcoholic residing in Ipswich, England, was found on the floor by her daughter like “a log of wood consumed by a fire, without apparent flame.” Nearby clothing was undamaged. On May 18, 1957, Anna Martin, 68, of West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was found incinerated, leaving only her shoes and a portion of her torso. The medical examiner estimated that temperatures must have reached 1,700 to 2,000 degrees, yet newspapers two feet away were found intact. On December 5, 1966, the ashes of Dr. J. Irving Bentley, 92, of Coudersport, Pennsylvania, were discovered by a meter reader. Dr. Bentley’s body apparently ignited while he was in the bathroom and burned a 2-1/2-by-3-foot hole through the flooring, with only a portion of one leg remaining intact. Nearby paint was unscorched.
Perhaps the most famous case occurred in St. Petersburg, Florida. Mary Hardy Reeser, a 67-year-old widow, spontaneously combusted while sitting in her easy chair on July 1, 1951. The next morning, her next door neighbor tried the doorknob, found it hot to the touch and went for help. She returned to find Mrs. Reeser, or what was left of her, in a blackened circle four feet in diameter. All that remained of the 175-pound woman and her chair was a few blackened seat springs, a section of her backbone, a shrunken skull the size of a baseball, and one foot encased in a black stain slipper just beyond the four-foot circle. Plus about 10 pounds of ashes.
The police report declared that Mrs. Reeser went up in smoke when her highly flammable rayon-acetate nightgown caught fire, perhaps because of a dropped cigarette. But one medical observer declared that the 3,000-degree heat required to destroy the body should have destroyed the apartment as well. In fact, damage was minimal — the ceiling and upper walls were covered with soot. No chemical accelerants, incidentally, were found.
No satisfactory explanation of SHC has been offered. Many SHC victims have been alcoholics, and at one time it was thought that alcohol or its derivatives in the body simply ignited. But experiments in the 19th century demonstrated that flesh impregnated with alcohol will not burn with the intense heat associated with SHC. Other theories involve deposits of flammable body fat — many victims have been overweight. But others have been skinny.
One school of thought blames phosphorous. One of the Teeming Millions explains: “SHC is thought to be the result of an error in phosphorous metabolism. As you may recall from your college biochemistry, living creatures store accessible energy in phospho-diester bonds. Under certain conditions, improperly manufactured polyphosphorous compounds in all the body cells can undergo an autocatalytic reaction. Water will not stop SHC. To get an idea of what’s happening, have a chemist drop polyphosphoric acid in water.” Unfortunately, I have scoured the recent scientific literature in vain for any discussion along these lines. Biochemists I have spoken to reject the idea out of hand.
So the question remains open. At least nobody’s claiming that UFOs or the spirit world are involved. You may rely on Uncle Cecil to keep you abreast of future developments.
I said I’d keep you up to date on spontaneous human combustion (SHC). You thought I was kidding?
Past SHC researchers have blamed everything from excessive alcohol consumption to “geomagnetic fluctuations.” Now Joe Nickell and John Fischer, the former a well-known investigator of the paranormal, have analyzed the evidence in 30 cases and concluded that SHC may not be so inexplicable after all.
Here’s a rundown of their findings, as published in the Skeptical Inquirer: In most cases combustion probably wasn’t spontaneous. Candlesticks, oil lamps, pipes, and the like were often found near the victims. Mrs. Reeser when last seen alive was smoking a cigarette. The victims tended to be slow to react. Many were alcoholics; others were elderly, overweight, or handicapped in some way. Mrs. Reeser was 67, weighed 175 pounds, and had a bad leg. The evening before her demise she told her son she had taken two sleeping pills and expected to take two more. Bodies can be totally consumed at temperatures much lower than previously believed. Proponents of paranormal explanations for SHC often point out that crematoriums use temperatures of 2,000 degrees or more, much hotter than the usual household fire. But experts say high temps are necessary only if the body must be destroyed in a short time. Smoldering fires can consume an entire piece of furniture (and presumably the body within it) if given long enough. Yet they often leave nearby objects undamaged. Twelve hours passed between the time Mrs. Reeser was last seen alive and the time her remains were discovered. In cases where the body was completely destroyed, there was often a nearby source of combustible material to feed the fire. The floorboards beneath a number of victims were found burnt through; Mrs. Reeser was wearing a flammable nightgown and housecoat and was sitting in an overstuffed chair. In addition — this gets pretty gross — the fuel sources may have served to catch melting body fat which then added to the flames. Call it the “candle effect.” A quantity of “grease,” Nickell and Fischer note, was found where Mrs. Reeser’s chair had stood.
“In the Reeser case, what probably happened was that the chair’s stuffing burned slowly, fueled by the melted body fat and aided by partially open windows,” Nickell and Fischer conclude. “What has been described as ‘probably the best-documented case’ of alleged spontaneous human combustion is actually attributable to the deadly combination of a lit cigarette, flammable nightclothes, and sleeping pills.”
Grisly stuff, but I thought you’d want to know.
Send questions to Cecil via firstname.lastname@example.org.