Tom Jonard's Spontaneous Human Combustion Page

    I first read about Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) in a book titled Mysterious Fires and Lights by Vincent H. Gaddis (David McKay, 1967) when I was younger.  SHC is invoked to to explain certain mysterious deaths where the body is discovered partially or completely burned but its surroundings are not.  Other than the body the only evidence generally present of a fire is some localized damage and an oily, smoky residue found on furniture and the surrounding walls of the room.

    This is the primary mystery:  How can a body be consumed by fire without setting the room it is in or nearby furniture on fire?  It would seem quite hard to burn a human body (which is after all 89% water) and crematories use very high temperatures to do so.  So it would seem that the existence of a burned body can be taken as evidence of a very hot fire.  And the lack damage to its surroundings is evidence of this fire's unusual containment to the body.  We are quite familiar through newspaper reports with death by fire where careless smoking was the cause.  Considerable collateral damage always seems to occur to furniture and structure.

    In SHC cases it is often reported that there is no source of combustion present to start a fire.  Therefore it seems as though the body is capable of and does self-destruct from within via a mysterious combustion.  Unknown processes are invoked to mysteriously ignite the body, keep it burning and prevent the fire from spreading.  Since no reason just a lot of speculation about cause is offered in popular accounts of SHC I initially found these to be extremely upsetting (please remember I was both younger and more impressionable).  That a person could spontaneously burst into flame and be consumed for no known reason is a frightening possibility.  Why, it could happen to you or me.

    SHC is a classic horror story.

    Enter forensic science:  For me the explanation of SHCs came in the form of an article in the summer, 1987, Skeptical Inquirer (pp. 352 - 357).  This periodical has revisited the subject many times including an article in March/April, 1998, that the author has posted online.  (Note to the reader:  If you follow this link be prepared.  It contains graphic photographs.)

    What I read was literally the other half of the story.

    These articles present information about the possibility of spontaneous combustion (unlikely) and the burning of bodies not covered in more credulous reports.  They also pointed out how credulous "investigators" invariably eliminate "unlikely" explanations to arrive at their conclusions of SHC -- as if this were not the least likely explanation af all!  A forensic pathologist collaborated on the first article and a forensic biologist wrote the latter.  Who better to analyze the evidence of a mysterious death and find out what happened?

    The basic conclusion seems to be that to get the fire going there must be some external source of ignition that is often overlooked.  For instance many alleged SHC victims were known careless smokers.  Others were literally found on their own hearths.  So fire hardly seems a mysterious circumstance.  Once started body fat can fuel the fire.  This only requires that body fat is melted by the initial combustion and retained by furniture or clothing around and under the victim.  The material of the clothing and furniture then act as a wick to allow the fat to fuel the flame without being consumed itself.  In this way a human body once ignited under the appropriate however unusual conditions could provide the fuel for its own destruction in a long-, slow-burning fire.  This fire will be hot enough to consume the body but self-contained by the wicking process just as is a candle flame.

    The key to understanding this unusual process is understanding how fires and bodies burn.  Crematories use high temperature to reduce a body to ashes in a reasonable period of time.  But this does not mean that a hot fire is required to do the job given more time.  Body fat will easily burn though internal organs will not do so easily.  Again a long-, slow-burning fire can accomplish the destruction of these organs, just over a longer time.

    Whether a body is reduced to ashes in a few minutes as is sometimes said happens in SHC or over several hours the process produces the same amount of heat (heat production being a function of the amount of fuel)  Rapid production of this heat will result in more intense heating of nearby objects (and people) and surely ignite them.  However the same heat released over a long period would not lead to general conflagration because there would be time for it to dissipate from surroundings before they ignited.  The SHC hypothesis is simply not needed to explain such fire deaths.

    Most alleged SHCs are unwitnessed.  This makes it hard to confirm that the victim spontaneously combusted as opposed to unfortunately setting themselves on fire.  It also makes it hard to confirm that combustion was rapid.  In fact the circumstances suggest it was slow.  In such cases it is not possible with only cursory examination to confirm that the combustion was the cause of death.  The victim could have died and then been immolated.  Prior death  increases the possibility of accidental fire -- either smoking related or some other carelessness.  Still most smoking related accidents involve the victim setting the furniture on fire (not themselves and just themselves).  But this may only indicate that the phenomenon is uncommon not supernatural.

    We should also not think it odd that the victims of SHC often seem to make no effort or are unable to extinguish themselves.  Certainly we think that if it were us we would be able to accomplish this simple act of self-preservation.  What is often omitted from credulous accounts is that many of the victims had low mobility due to age, weight, drinking, medication or health problems.  But these are the very same factors which are likely to contribute to the death (accidental or natural) of any one who suffers them.  Also victim reaction or lack of it is more mysterious if you ignore the possibility of prior death.

    SHCs that are witnessed do not benefit by having better reportage.  A case in point would be that of Phyllis Newcombe who caught fire in a hallway during a dance at the Clemsford (England) Shire Hall in 1938.  Credulous reports state that she ignited on the dance floor and burned to ashes on the spot adding that bystanders tried but could not put out the flames.  Investigator Jan Willem Nienhuys reporting in the March/April, 2001, Skeptical Inquirer (pp. 28-34) was able to determine from local newspaper accounts that in fact bystanders did successfully come to Phyllis' aid and she survived the incident and died in the hospital 2 weeks later of complications.  Her dress apparently caught fire but the source of ignition was never determined.  A carelessly discarded match is a possibility.

    Nienhuys also reported evidence that another alleged SHC victim -- Maybelle Andrews, who supposedly died on the floor of a disco in the 1950's -- may be a confabulation based on the Phyllis Newcombe incident.

    For more information see SHC in the Skeptical Dictionary.

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    Created April 16, 2002, 
    © 2002, Thomas A. Jonard