Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Spontaneous Human Combustion: The Real Firestarter

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. Who hasn't gotten "hot under the collar" and wondered if they might pop a vessel or ignite?

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 wacky supernatural occurrence? Nope. It's how I view the paranormal too. These things affect our physical world so they are part of nature, as well. 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.

**Tomorrow, I start a new series called "Lifestyle" with interviews with people who have alternative and unusual lifestyles--I kick off the series with an interview with a vampire.**


  1. I hate when that happens!

    (Not to be confused with 'blue flame' phenomena)

  2. I've seen folks get hot under the collar, but I have yet to see them go into flames. I can't imagine if you're at home watching "Keeping up with the Kardashians" and you self ignite, but should that happen to me, please don't put me out. I really don't want to survive that TV show.

  3. If I was watching that show, my vomiting would extinguish the fire (unfortunately!)

  4. This has always fascinated me too. The first time I read about it, I was a pre-teen and in my Mom's plethora of books was an unexplained mysteries book. Spontaneous Human Combustion was one of the stories.

    As a mortician, it fascinates me even more. The body is almost all water. That's why it takes extreme temperatures to cremate remains. You just can't burn a body into ash and bone that can be crushed easily by throwing gas on it and lighting it. It doesn't work that way. It just doesn't get hot enough. The body's supply of moisture will put the flames out before it will be turned into ash and crush-worthy bones. (Yes, the bones are put through a crusher before they are placed in a temporary bag and then box to be given to the funeral home or the family).

    What is intriguing is that the core body temperature must reach extraordinary highs for it to not only burn from WITHIN, but then to turn it to ash. Those that do die from SHC are alone so there is no one there to even help put out flames and for whatever reason, there is not pain and the person is unaware they are on fire. At least this is assumed. This could also explain the lack of pain as the visera (guts!) have much fewer if almost no nerve endings which in turn means, obviously, you can't feel it!

    I have heard stories of those who do burst into flames being totally unaware of it, and are actually going about their business until another person in the room notices it and starts freaking out and trying to put them out! At that point, the person on fire realizes that something is really wrong and then maybe they start feeling something. I think fear more than actual pain.

    Since we are beings of energy, I think it is entirely possible that we could for one reason or another just burst into flame. But the key is, why? Is it a genetic mutation? Is it due to outside stimuli? Or is it just dumb-luck? I wish there were more studies on this, but how can there be? There is no way to tell if anyone is going to go up in flames; from the INSIDE!

  5. The wick explanation works to some degree. What amazes me is that none of these people were particularly fatty. You'd think nowadays with many people in the obese to morbidly obese range, a wick situation would be easier, but then people who are obese and morbidly obese are also carry a ton of water weight as well from carb digestion, so they aren't particularly good wicks. The way the fire doesn't spread shows there isn't an added ignitor like kerosene being used. Like a candle that burns after the candle turns to a puddle of melted wax, I think it's entirely possible that the human body can do something similar in which the fat liquidifies. Once the fire ends, it should re-resolidify in a slightly misshappen form like a candle does once it melted down from a stub to a flat spread out mass. Fantastic thoughts, huh?

  6. LOL...LOVELY! But hey, we are both morbid weirdos! That's why we are long-lost-sisters! Hee hee!

  7. This topic really scares me. You could be going about your day, then BAM, you're on fire.

  8. Damn! Now I'm reminded of one of my favorite songs by Kings of Leon "Sex on Fire." I guess that's the igniter I'd rather use if I were going to go up like kindling.

  9. LOL! "I guess that's the igniter I'd rather use if I were going up like kindling"...I love that song! Guess what I'm gonna think of every time I hear it now. I thought spontaneous combustion was just the stuff of movies. I had no idea it had actually been happening to people! Good thing I read this blog. I learn new things all the time. Plus, you just can't beat conversations about how fat could make your body burn more efficiently. ;)

  10. Seriously, Jeanie, nothing is off limits here subject-wise.

  11. Spontaneous combustion never scared me, but I have to admit that these stories and pictures are freaky. Makes me want to see the movie 'Spontaneous Combustion' again; I saw it as a kid and didn't like it, but sometimes tastes change. Have you seen that movie? I definitely have to watch 'Firestarter' again too.

  12. Randomly bursting into flames!! Ah!!

  13. Thanks, Adrian. I was positively terrified of it as a child and after seeing a special on it, I would run and hide any time anyone spoke of it. It was the only time as a child I was actually trembling afraid of something.

  14. What a great post. The actual thought of this happening scares me!

  15. So I know that this comment is several years too late, but I figured I'd leave it anyway. Just in case someone like me stumbled along years later. I'm a mortician at a funeral home that also owns a crematorium. At one point in the post, the author states The body fat should fuel a cremation as much as an SHC. It's an excellent observation. In fact, body fat actually does fuel a significant part of a cremation. That's why many crematoria will refuse to cremate morbidly obese people. We've done many cremations where the temperature has started to climb so high that we have to shut the burners off, and the body more or less cremates itself. Obviously, the heat does have to be turned back on at some point to fully dry out the bones so they can be pulverized, but that's besides the point.

    1. Thank you for your input, it is greatly appreciated. Should you have ever had strange or paranormal experiences in your line of work, I would love to have you share it on here, if you'd like. ghosthuntingtheories@gmail.com