Previously: The Heaven’s Gate Cult.
I’ll be honest: I consider the Wikipedia page on spontaneous human combustion to be creepy as much for the image that accompanies it as for the article itself. A screenshot from a YouTube video called “What Is Spontaneous Human Combustion?”, the image shows a wooden rocking chair in a dark room sitting next to a side table. There’s a pile of ashes on the chair, and more ashes scattered around its base. But there’s more than just ashes present; there’s also a pair of legs. One is propped up on the chair; its foot is bear. The other is lying on the ground in front of the chair; this one wears a shoe — a black, heeled pump.
The is no body. Just ashes and legs. And although the image is labeled as a “reconstruction” of SHC, it’s actually pretty accurate. (Warning: Graphic images in the next link.) Actual photographs (of the aftermath of SHC show pretty much the same thing: Piles of ashes with at least one detached limb nearby. It’s particularly common for those limbs to be pairs of legs.
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Defined a “a process in which a human body allegedly catches fire as a result of heat generated by internal chemical activity, but without evidence of an external source of ignition,” spontaneous human combustion has been confounding and freaking us out in equal measure for centuries. How can a body burn up so completely (save, y’know, those random legs), and yet leave the room around it almost untouched? While the earliest recorded instance of it dates back to the 15th century, one of the most recent deaths associated with the phenomenon occurred in the fall of 2017: On Sept. 17 of that year, John Nolan, an Irish pensioner living in North London, appeared to mysteriously burst into flames while he was out for a walk.
The 2017 case was later determined by the coroner not to be an instance of SHC; rather, Nolan was a victim of “accidental ignition of clothing” — that is, his clothing caught fire while he attempted to light a cigarette. But the event kicked up the discussion about SHC once again; indeed, it tends to recirculate with some regularity, likely because the whole thing is just so dang weird.
SHC is something of an unresolved mystery, which I think accounts for the continual interest in it. It’s less a proven fact and more a name we’ve given to an observable phenomenon we don’t fully understand. Some people swear that SHC is real — that people really can just spontaneously burn up, even when not touched by an external flame — while others maintain that these cases do have an explanation other than spontaneous combustion which we just haven’t figured out yet. (But whatever it is, it’s probably not ball lightning. Just, y’know, FYI.)
Of course, not unlike how it is with things like spirit boxes, it’s possible it’s really a little of both: Not all instances of so-called spontaneous human combustion might actually be SHC — but some of them certainly could be. As the lede for a piece by Katie Heaney in Pacific Standard put it in 2013, “While there’s no proof that any human being has ever suddenly burst into flames and died, there’s also no proof that it hasn’t happened.” A logical fallacy? Perhaps. Odd and unsettling? Definitely.
For now, the mystery remains.
“Spontaneous Human Combustion,” by Gavin Thurston. In 1938, coroner Gavin Thurston detailed the hallmarks of SHC in the British Medical Journal according to a Dr. L. A. Perry. The elements all cases had in common were, he posited, as follows:
“1) the victims are chronic alcoholics;
2) they are usually elderly females;
3) the body has not burned spontaneously, but some lighted substance has come into contact with it;
4) the hands and feet usually fall off;
5) the fire has caused very little damage to combustible things in contact with the body;
6) the combustion of the body has left a residue of greasy and fetid ashes, very offensive in odour.”
During the Victorian era in particular, SHC was believed to be a possible outcome of alcoholism. (See: Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. More on that below.)
“Solving the Mystery of Spontaneous Human Combustion,” by Brian J. Ford. This piece, which was published in the journal The Microscope in 2012, offers both the most substantial history of spontaneous human combustion and the most plausible model for the phenomenon. The history covers significant instances of proposed SHC from the 15th century up through the present, including various literary interpretations and representation of it. The model, meanwhile, comes to us courtesy of some experimentation involving acetone and a flame test dummy — and, interestingly, it might support the idea that the cause of death isn’t necessarily the fire; it might actually be presumptive vagal shock.
A Collection of Works by Thomas Bartholin. Bartholin, a Danish physician, bears the distinction of being the first person to write about spontaneous human combustion. In his work Historiarum Anatomicarum Rariorum, he described the 15th century case of Polonus Vorstius, the knight who, in 1470, became the first known victim of SHC. According to a Doctor’s Review article on the subject, Vorstius “enjoyed a few glasses of strong wine at his home in Milan in 1470, and then began to belch fire” before proceeding to “burst into flames and die, in front of his horrified parents.”
Lore episode 44: “From Within.” Originally transmitted in October of 2016 — still fairly early in the podcast’s life — the Lore episode “From Within” examined the concept of spontaneous human combustion primarily through the case of Mary Reeser, a Florida woman some believe to have been a victim of spontaneous human combustion in 1951. The FBI concluded that she had died as a result of the “wick effect” — an explanation that helped explain the fact that the rest of her apartment was largely unburnt — but physical anthropologist Wilton M. Krogman, with whom the FBI regularly consulted, was less convinced by this conclusion.
“Burn, Baby, Burn: Understanding the Wick Effect,” by Jennifer Oulette. In Scientific American, an explanation of how the wick effect works. This piece was published in 2011 about a month after a death chalked up to spontaneous human combustion in Galway, Ireland went viral on the internet. Essentially, the wick effect occurs when melted fat caused by a human body set aflame soaks into the burn victim’s clothing, which then causes the whole thing to function as a sort of “inside-out candle.” As a result, a body may be virtually totally immolated while the body’s surroundings remain largely untouched.
“10 Cases Of Spontaneous Human Combustion,” by Esther Inglis-Arkell. At io9, a list of 10 notable cases of SHC. Mary Reeser is among them; so are the stories of Nicole Millet from 1725, a passenger bus in England from the 1960s, and Ginette Kazmierczak from the ‘70s. Eerie tales all.
“Fiery Tales That Spontaneously Destruct,” by Joe Nickell. Noted skeptic Joe Nickell took on the concept of SHC in a piece for the Skeptical Inquirer in 1998. Reading between the lines of original reports, he offers a different explanation for the supposed SHC case of Jeannie Saffin, a 61-year-old woman who died by fire in September of 1982. According to Nickell, the medical evidence points not to an “internal” fire, but “that Saffin suffered external burning as a result of her clothing catching fire.” Check this one out if you’re curious about how skeptics approach the issue; Brian Dunning’s podcast episode and write-up over at Skeptoid is also worth a look.
“Spontaneous Human Combustion in the Light of the 21st Century,” by V. Koljonen and N. Kluger. In the Journal of Burn Care and Research, a modern analysis of historical documentation about SHC geared towards determining whether or not it actually exists. The researchers concluded that it does — but also that “spontaneous human combustion” isn’t the best way to describe it. Their view is that it’s more like the wick effect.
Debunking the Spontaneous Human Combustion Myth: Experiments in the Combustibility of the Human Body, by Angi M. Christensen. A master’s thesis written as part of Christensen’s degree, an MA in anthropology, from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. It’s quite a thorough work, taking us through the literature and research, the theories of what SHC actually is, and Christensen’s ultimate conclusions about the phenomenon.
Bleak House, by Charles Dickens. Dickens’ 1852-3 novel, first published in serialized form, features one of the most notable literary instances of SHC: The character Krook, who Dickens describes as “continual in liquor,” dies by spontaneous human combustion in chapter 32. The passage takes up just two paragraphs, but oh, what paragraphs they are:
“Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is—is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? Oh, horror, he IS here! And this from which we run away, striking out the light and overturning one another into the street, is all that represents him.
“Help, help, help! Come into this house for heaven’s sake! Plenty will come in, but none can help. The Lord Chancellor of that court, true to his title in his last act, has died the death of all lord chancellors in all courts and of all authorities in all places under all names soever, where false pretences are made, and where injustice is done. Call the death by any name your Highness will, attribute it to whom you will, or say it might have been prevented how you will, it is the same death eternally — inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself, and that only — spontaneous combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died.”
Dickens and essayist George Lewes had quite the disagreement over the existence (or not) of SHC; Dickens swore it was real, while Lewes considered it poppycock. Indeed, as an excerpt of Sam Kean’s book Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us published in PopSci in 2017 points out, this disagreement turned out to be one of the hottest debates of the era (no pun intended).
Bleak House is free to read online via Project Gutenberg.
Spontaneous Combustion, dir. Tobe Hooper. Directed by Tobe Hooper — you know, Texas Chain Saw Massacre Tobe Hooper — and starring Brad Dourif, Spontaneous Combustion, which was released in 1990, tells the story of the adult offspring of a couple who were part of an experiment in the 1950s involving atomic bombs and radiation. As a result, said offspring discovers he has pyrokinetic powers.
Spontaneous Combustion is not a good movie. In fact, it is a very bad movie. But that doesn’t stop it from being fun to watch. As Ty Burr put it in SPIN the year the movie was released, “No one makes bad movies as deliriously entertaining as Tobe Hooper, whose career continues its spectacular downhill slide with ‘Spontaneous Combustion.’” Burr goes on to describe the movie as a “completely incoherent tale” that is nonetheless “a lot of fun.”
(Also, hopefully it goes without saying that this sci fi/horror film’s take on the phenomenon is entirely fictional.)
Spontaneous Combustion is watchable for free with an Amazon Prime subscription.
The Fireman, by Joe Hill. Joe Hill’s 2016 novel puts SHC at the center of a plague: A spore let loose in the world causes an infection that ultimately results in spontaneous combustion; now society must deal with the aftermath of living in such a world. The Fireman is admittedly not my favorite of Hill’s work; it did, however, earn quite a few accolades, including the Locus Award for Best Horror Novel in 2017. And it’s Hill, so it’s still good, even if I prefer some of his other work over it. It’s available on Amazon, of course, but you might also check your local library for it — the Library Extension for Chrome might help.
[Photo via StockSnap/Pixabay]