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 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 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. 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'). 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."

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 during the Pepsi commercial filming) 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.

I have to admit this puzzle is so exciting, I can't stop wondering about it. Yes, there is a wick effect from fat burning, but what in the world begins the body fat's burning process and why the hell don't people who smoke in bed and burn, not end up with a limited fire where they are and not the entire house going up in flames? 

The mystery still continues.

Suggested movie:


  1. Maybe she was going through "the change" and had a hot flash.

  2. The very last photo you show here is a case from Darby, Pa., just outside Philadelphia, which I believe was determined to have been started by a cigarette. There is actually a good number of cases in which the spark that ignites the fire in the first place can be while not necessarily proven, you have a pretty good idea what may have happened. In the case of Dr. Bentley (again from Pa., ironically), the photo with the walker and the hole in the floor, he was known to have been a careless smoker as well. I think there was a plastic cup found in the toilet, it's surmised he may have set himself on fire while smoking, went to to the bathroom as fast as he could, and attempted to get some water from the toilet to extinguish the flames when he succumbed. Sounds plausible.

    Others, like the Reeser case, are more mysterious. She was a smoker, as well, I think.

    Is that first photo from the Reeser investigation? I haven't ever seen that one.

    1. I have found that photo online all over, but no one ever references what case it is, I'm guessing it must be Reeser because the legs are intact, but I haven't seen a shot like that.


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