Monday, November 9, 2009

Up in Smoke: Spontaneous Human Combustion

Wikipedia: Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is a name used to describe cases of the burning of a living human body without an apparent external source of ignition. There is speculation and controversy regarding SHC - some regard it as a unique and currently unexplained phenomenon, while others feel that cases described as SHC can be understood using current generally-accepted scientific principles. There have been about 200 cited cases[1] worldwide over a period of around 300 years.

A case described from Wikipedia: On the night of July 1 – July 2, 1951 she burned to death in her apartment[1] and the nickname "The Cinder Lady" was given to her posthumously by the local media.

The alarm was raised at about 8 a.m. July 2 when Reeser's landlady, Pansy Carpenter, arrived at her door with a telegram. Trying the door, she found the metal doorknob to be uncomfortably warm to the touch and called the police.

Reeser's remains, which were largely ashes, were found among the remains of a chair in which she had been sitting. Only part of her left foot (which was wearing a slipper) remained.[1] Plastic household objects at a distance from the seat of the fire were softened and had lost their shapes.

Reeser's skull had survived and was found among the ashes, but was 'shrunken' (sometimes with the added descriptive flourish of 'to the size of a teacup').[1] The extent of this shrinkage was enough to be remarked on by official investigators and was not an illusion caused by the removal of all facial features (ears, nose, lips, etc). The shrinking of the skull is not a regular feature of alleged cases of SHC, although the 'shrunken skull' claim has become a regular feature of anecdotal accounts of other SHC cases and numerous apocryphal stories. However, this is not the only case in which the remains featured a shrunken skull.

On 7 July 1951, St. Petersburg police chief J.R. Reichert sent a box of evidence from the scene to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. He included glass fragments found in the ashes, six "small objects thought to be teeth," a section of the carpet, and the surviving shoe.

Even though the body was almost totally cremated, requiring very high temperatures, the room in which it occurred showed little evidence of the fire.
Reichert included a note saying: "We request any information or theories that could explain how a human body could be so destroyed and the fire confined to such a small area and so little damage done to the structure of the building and the furniture in the room not even scorched or damaged by smoke."

The FBI eventually declared that Reeser had been incinerated by the wick effect. A known user of sleeping pills, they hypothesized that she had fallen unconscious while smoking and set fire to her nightclothes. "Once the body starts to burn," the FBI wrote in its report, "there is enough fat and other inflammable substances to permit varying amounts of destruction to take place. Sometimes this destruction by burning will proceed to a degree which results in almost complete combustion of the body."

Because much of the information and stories are quite detailed, here is an entry from Unexplained-Mysteries about a case that’s very intriguing “61 year old Jeannie Saffin, with a mental age of 6 years old, was terrified of open flames. In 1982, at her home in England while sitting in the kitchen at about 4pm she suddenly bust into flames with her father, Jack, sitting nearby at the table.
He saw a sudden flash and when he turned to ask Jeannie if she had seen it he noticed she was surrounded by flames, mostly around her face and hands. According to Mr Saffin. his daughter did not move or cry, but simply sat there with her hands in her lap.

In an effort to save Jeannie's life, her father disfigured his own hands while pulling her to the kitchen sink. Putting out the flames surrounding Jeannie, her father began calling for his son-in-law Donald to help, screaming “Jeannie's burning!” Donald stated that he ran into the kitchen seeing Jeannie with roaring flames around her face and abdomen while contacting EMS.

When the flames were extinguished, Jeannie began to whimper. Upon an inquest, it was found that due to her mental condition, shock, and endorphins that resulted from the incident her pain was minimized. The EMS personnel who escorted Jeannie to the hospital testified that the kitchen and its contents were unharmed. Both Donald and Jack testified that the flames coming from Jeannie displayed a roaring sound.

In the reports from the incident, Jeannie's injuries were listed as facial burns as well as burns to the chest, neck, shoulders, left arm, abdomen, thighs and left buttock along with both sides of both hands. Some of these were full thickness burns in which the skin is destroyed down to fat tissue. Jeannie's face afterward was described as horribly disfigured. Soon after, she went into a coma and died from pneumonia due to burns.

PC Marsden from the Edmonton Police Station, in a report to the coroner's office, stated that no cause for the flames had been found. This report also states that the chair and walls of the kitchen were undamaged by fire and smoke, that the closest source of ignition (a gas stove) was at least 5 feet away and that Jeannie was still burning when he got to the residence. He helped put out the flames with a towel. In conclusion of his report, which was accepted by the coroner, Jeannie was a victim of spontaneous human combustion.

In 1995, Marsden reiterated his belief in the cause of death and that years after the incident he had been questioned by a senior officer. In John E. Heymer's 1996 book titled “The Entrancing Flame”, Jeannie Saffin's case is discussed among others who may have been victims of spontaneous human combustion. Upon examining these cases, familiarities include that the victims do not seem to struggle, show no signs of awareness, do not cry out and survivors such as Jack Angel and Wilfred Gowthorp, have no memory of the event which leads researchers to believe they are not conscious while they are burning.

Heymer alleges that defective mitochondria are to blame, insisting that they allow hydrogen to build in the cell. This allows the cell to burst into flames due to the 0.225 volts of electricity that is generated across the inner membrane which sets off a chain reaction in other cells of the body.”

I admit that I am a child of the 70s and so spontaneous human combustion was a popular and favorite subject often talked about in the press. When I was a kid and I first heard of it, I was horrified by the thought that I might just spontaneously go up in flames. Even though as I got older, I realized I'd more likely be hit by lightning, I still found the subject a curiously interesting puzzle.

The last story above had me wondering. I do recall endorphins rushing in during times of extreme physical danger and I was completely unable to feel pain or even react properly. The fact that these people aren’t rushing to put the fire out could be an endorphin rush, but that doesn’t explain why the usual person (like Michael Jackson) has a primitive desire to run away in a rush when on fire. Is there something else going on chemically in the body that makes the mind believe something that isn’t real or perhaps tempers reaction times?

The fact that entire rooms aren’t taken down to ash by the process is really unusual. As well, the remaining body parts unburned are puzzling. However, the fact that legs and arms (the most often left behind parts—see pictures above) don’t burn is not that surprising to me. In fact, the legs and arms are very muscular and have little body fat. The core of the body would be most likely to burn if this were a wick effect fueled by body fat. Fat, as well all know, burns at a very hot temperature. If you ever saw the “Myth Busters” episode about pouring water on a pot of boiling oil and the huge flash of fire, you’d understand what your body moisture and fat might do in combination. That these bodies burn at higher temperatures than many crematoriums is unusual too. The body fat should fuel a cremation as much as an SHC.

Do I think this is some kind of whacky supernatural occurrence—absolutely not. It would appear that some amazing set of circumstances must exist to make this condition occur, as there have been very few cases of it. It’s not something we are likely to ever witness and measure while it’s occurring, so all we can do is the forensics. Luckily, with forensics making such a leap in the past few decades, we’re more capable of looking at the events and breaking down the “crime scene” evidence to figure out how it all happened. The body’s fat acting like a wick with lamp oil was a very astute proclamation by researchers and I agree; however, the question still remains…what special conditions must happen for this extremely rare occurrence to happen? The mystery still continues.

As always when I’m kicking around theories, I hope to get your input. I can count on ya’all to have a thought on the matter and some intriguing and intelligent responses that can make us all ponder the riddle of spontaneous human combustion.


  1. This is a very weird subject. I've seen this on some shows on TV. I don't know what to make of it. It's very stranget to think that a cell in our body can just burst into flames and cause this phenomenon. Glad it isn't a common occurence :}

  2. Holy fucking shit! I never saw all those archived photos, Autumn, only just the 2nd from the top. Ergh. The forensic crime series, CSI, had done an episode on SHC, but I was watching it only piecemeal (it was at a social gathering) so I don't really Gno what Level 3 Supervisor Dr. Gil Grissom's ultimate assessment of the Über-weird phenomena was. Guess I gotsta go to HuLu & find out.

    Believe it or not (not trying to sound like Jack Palance), in 1853 Charles Dickens wrote a novel, "Bleak House", which probably is the 1st instance in English literature OF the unexplained phenomena being worked into a story's plot. There were 2 separate TV productions of that, one starring the former Mrs. Emma Peel of The Avengers fame, Diana Rigg, the more recent adaptation with the former Agent Dana Scully of The X Files, Gillian Anderson.

    So? What is UP with the strangeness that is SHC? Damned if I Gno! LOL! Funnily enough, Whitley Strieber himself had directed me to that pretty-looking flying cupcake UFO seen in Tepexpan, Mexico this morning & you were the 1st to have commented there. Now I'm the 2nd. Are you gonna transport that here?

    Happy Monday, y'all,
    Anadæ Effro (•8-D}

  3. Hey Autumn,
    I just love Muse too! I think Matthew Bellamy is a genius! I've seen them in concert and they are just awesome!
    I have all of their albums and they all have great stuff, but Absolution is my favorite. I'm telling you the man is a musical genius!

  4. This is actually one of the creepiest subjects in all of paranormal phenomena to me. I actually had to scroll down quickly so I wouldn't have to look at the's just creepy!

    Heymer's suggestion actually sounds similar to a theory I've heard before. Essentially, the theory states that it's caused by some sort of reaction caused by chemicals that weren't supposed to come in contact with each other...sort of like how a car or something mechanical might burst into flames.

    In a way, it might be something similar to stigmata. Except burning is a lot worse of a reaction than just receiving wounds.

    I'd like to think they were all hoaxes or accidents. But that may be just because the thought of it happening at all is so creepy.

    I hope this never happens to anyone again. What a horrible fate to have to suffer.

  5. Sandra;
    Yeah, my favorite going to the graveyard to do ghost hunting song is "Sing for Absolution."

    We're just thinking in parallel. I admit this is one freaky phenomenon. What a way to go! I was planning on cremation myself, but organ donation first--for pete's sake!

    I agree, given all the electrolytes and electrical processes in the body, there doesn't seem to be any reason to believe that the right circumstances could create an ignition for such a thing, but the conditions would have to be a zillion to 1. I've heard cases of people spontaneously smoking up and patting out the fire before, sometimes several times in their lifetime and with witnesses. The stories are always a bit vague about the person's smoking cigarettes and such, but you do find that smoking and alcohol seem to be two factors often associated with the victims in which case every bar in America should be up in flames...

  6. Oh why why why....this is one of my personal horrors. I had me a hot temper when I was young.... I've always had a fear that one day I'd just "poof".

    You are very artful at pushing folks buttons. I'll be sleeping with the pillow over my head tonight. Waiting to go "poof".

  7. @eloh;
    I thought I'd give you something to mull over and images to keep locked up in your head. No doubt you're right now looking for a stick and marshmallow. Hee hee

  8. This is indeed a freaky phenomenon! It is also one of the few fortean paranormal type phenomenon that i would bet my life on really takes place!! The how is the question!! The mitochondria and wick theories are very interesting but I dont have enough schooling to know if they might be correct -but this does happen-and it is still unexplained-however i believe this is one of the fortean phenomnena that will be explained eventually-fascinating article as always
    Autumnforest!! I am also really glad to have seen SHC done on a blog -especially yours!!!

  9. You know, Autumn, this is something that sort of has me wondering. Even though I've never seen anything that was caused by this, I'm just wondering if this really and truly is true?

    When I was a Medic I have seen what a human body looks and smells like when it has been burned by fire. It's not pretty to see or smell. Just how a human body could self ignite, has me bewildered.


  10. You know, Les, this has been a very well documented phenomenon and it's puzzled the medic's more than anyone. They speak of being absolutely baffled when they saw the damage to the room versus the person. What starts the fire probably isn't as important, as some of the people were associated with "bed smokers" and so that could certainly have done it. Some have been associated with drinkers. Still, there aren't a lot of really common features, except the pattern of burning. They seem to burn at exceedingly high temperatures at the core of their body, sometimes with things around them completely untouched by the fire. It's truly as if it's a concentrated burn as you might see in fireplace that just runs out of fuel and quits. There's a lot online about it. Here's a great article on it:

  11. You don't hear about this much these days, but I was with you...child of the 70s who was both fascinated and freaked by this phenomenon! And those pics...disturbing! All I can say is, if it had anything to do with human fat, you'd think we'd hear more spontaneous combustion cases these days than ever before since there are so many overweight people these days. I was watching a thing about balls of light today on Wild West Tech...I'm wondering now after reading your post if maybe there's all of a sudden some concentrated electrical disturbance and someone with higher iron in their blood (or something metallic) might attract that and then burst into flames? I don't know, but sick as this I kind of wish it would happen so the modern forensics could be put to the test to maybe explain this.