Fanning the Flames

Spontaneous Human Combustion has both confounded and delighted individuals for a very long time. The anomaly has been featured in skeptic magazines and invaded the internet, but how much of what we read about SHC can be believed and have we simply accepted this queer idea as fact just because reports of people going up in flames actually exist? You’ll find that photos are absent from this article. If you would like to see photos of SHC, Google is your friend. Now, onto the show.

Twain, Melville, Dickens, Irving…

All of these literary greats have touched on the subject within their work, Dickens’ publisher actually chastised the author for including SHC in Bleak House, accusing him of fueling an idea based purely on speculation, but when the strange and unusual begins to make an appearance in everyday life, we are often taken aback. We are stunned and shocked, but more than anything we want to know why. Human animals are an inquisitive sort after all.

OMG. SHC.

In the late 1400’s, an Italian knight named Polonus Vorstius vomited flame after ingesting “several ladels” of particularly potent wine. To say the substance disagreed with him would be a drastic misrepresentation because Vorstius burst quite quickly into a ball of flame. There were no other casualties, many others had drunk of the wine, and the onlookers were baffled.

The first known, “confirmed,” account of SHC occurred in 1663. Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholin describes the burning death of a Parisian woman who was inexplicably and suddenly engulfed in flames. She “went up in ashes and smoke” while sleeping on a straw mattress. The mattress was unharmed as were the other objects in the room.

In the 1700’s, SHC claimed the life of a noblewoman, Countess Cornelia diBandi. She was found halfway between her bed and a window one morning, her torso, head, and arms burned to ash. Only three fingers and her lower legs remained intact. It was speculated by those who came upon the scene that she rose to open the window late in the night and spontaneously burst into flames. Near her bed, two candles sat unlit. The tallow of the candles had melted from the heat of the fire, but the wicks were untouched. Soot covered the room, but everything else near the Countess’ body, including a bedside table, draperies, and a plate of bread, remained unharmed though the surfaces were covered in soot.

Ruled a “visitation from God,” in 1725, Nicole Millet, the wife of an innkeeper, was found burned to death in the kitchen when her husband smelled smoke. Her body was almost completely reduced to ash. Wooden implements nearby were still intact, though damaged by smoke and soot. Some accounts state that Millet was found on a straw mattress with the straw being only slightly damaged by the flames. Her husband was tried for murder, but was exonerated when he used SHC as a defense. At that time, studies were being done on the anomaly and the courts could not rule out SHC as a possible cause.

In 1967, a passenger on a bus in London, England, saw a flash of blue light in a window while passing an apartment complex. She called the authorities, believing it may be a gas jet, but when the authorities arrived they found something far different. The fire brigade found the body of Robert Bailey. One fireman reported that the fire had emanated from a large slit in the mans abdomen.

In 1970, in Paris, France, Ginette Kazmierczak contacted the authorities stating that her husband had gone missing. Police searched for the man, but found nothing. A few days later, after the woman’s son had left to play with friends, neighbors smelled smoke. They found Ginette’s body still smoldering. Her legs were intact, but the rest of her remains were ash. The area around her body was undisturbed.

In 2010, the spontaneous combustion of an Irish man was reported, making it the first case in Ireland. The burned body of Michael Flaherty, an elderly man was found lying on the floor of his flat with his head near the hearth. Coroners determined that the hearth had not ignited the blaze and there were no signs of foul play. There was no evidence of accelerant and there was no other damage to objects in the room. The only signs of fire were scorch marks beneath the body and smoke/fire damage to the ceiling.  In 2011, the coroner officially stated that Flaherty’s death was unexplained.

We just don’t know WHY.

Cases of SHC are so peculiar because the spontaneous lighting of a human being, while still alive and conscious, is just fucking weird. It makes no sense that a body could burn so hot as to reduce remains to ash in a way (normally) only achieved by the process cremation. In rare cases, bodies have been found with their internal organs completely intact while the remainder of the torso was reduced to a smoldering pile. Witnesses (mostly “witnesses”) to this spontaneous burning report a sweet, smoky smell and a greasy residue that covers the surfaces surrounding the remains.

Another interesting anomaly is that people have actually experienced the sensation of burning, but have lived to tell the tale. Not everyone just bursts into flames. Some develop strange burns with no obvious cause while others emanate smoke from their body with no fire present.

As recently as 2013, a man from Vermont, Frank Baker, reported bursting into flames on his sofa. He and a friend were resting after loading their vehicles for a fishing trip when, very suddenly, Baker, a decorated war veteran who served in Vietnam, caught fire. Baker was not smoking at the time (well, except from the fire), nor was his friend who leapt to his feet to try and put out the flames. Baker suffered some burns, but was largely unharmed. Baker’s doctor reported that the fire had started burning “from the inside out,” and had no explanation for the occurrence. Baker is the only known survivor of SHC.

Let’s talk temps and criteria.

As stated before, high temperatures are required to reduce a body to ashes. In the 1600’s, people knew this to be fact. In order to burn a martyr or supposed witch, you needed several cartloads of wood in order for the body to break down to that point. In cremation, a fire in excess of 2500 degrees is necessary to achieve this outcome.

In 1667, Johann Becher offered a possible cause for SHC. Becher believed that the human body contained an element called Phlogiston that was expelled upon breathing by most people. However, there were people who were incapable, they had a medical condition to put it simply, of ridding their bodies of Phlogiston. Those people could be prone to SHC.

In 1717, John Cohausen proposed that what we ingest might be the cause. For example, those who chose to imbibe in spirits to excessive amount might spontaneously combust due to the excess of alcohol in their system. Cohausen (no doubt to cover all of his bases) also stated that there were people who were just more inclined to combust than others. Essentially, shit happens.

In 1731, when the Countess diBandi burned, Reverend Joseph Bianchini suggested it was caused by lightning that had shot straight down the chimney or had come in through a crack in the window pane. I guess that’s as good an explanation as any.

In 1745, Mr. Paul Rolli presented 3 cases of unusual death by burning in his paper entitled “Philosophical Transactions.” Those cases were that of John Hitchell (1613), Countess diBandi (1731), and Grace Pett (1744). Rolli considered these cases to fit his criteria and to be fires of unexplained origin.  His criteria were as follows.

  1. Flame from a candle or lamp cannot consume someone and reduce them to ash.
  2. Objects found around victims largely unharmed.
  3. Torso destroyed, but limbs often untouched. In a normal fire, limbs would be destroyed.
  4. Fire appears to run out of fuel by the time it reaches the extremities.
  5. Fire spreads extremely fast. Victim appears not to resist or try to stop it.

Rolli theorized that “gasses and waste” or effluvia combined with vapor from various consumed spirits actually caused the victim to catch fire and the torso burned primarily because of a concentration of fat in that area. Rolli claimed the Countess had been in a deep sleep when she caught fire and rose from her bed, only to fall to the floor and become engulfed. Grace Pett was an alcoholic and so, according to Rolli’s criteria, was definitely a victim of SHC. Although Hitchell did not fit the criteria, his case was lumped in and largely glossed over. Learned men of the time began to work with Rolli in an effort to identify these unexplained burning deaths, but many instances of death by burning were included in this collection of information, some that could be easily explained by an unattended candle or lamp. Over the next 50 years, Rolli and his associates investigated hundreds of instances of death in this manner.

In the 1800’s, Pierre-aimi Lair published a study of strange fire deaths entitled “On the combustion of the human body, produced by the long and immoderate use of spiritous liquors.” Lair was convinced that the deaths were caused by alcohol and he published his work in an effort to curb the enthusiasm for excessive drinking. Lair evaluated roughly 15 cases and presented his criteria.

  1. All victims excessive drinkers.
  2. Women are the only victims.
  3. All victims older.
  4. All lit by fire from internal source.
  5. Extremities left behind, largely unharmed.
  6. Water sometimes an accelerant. Water vaporized to steam instantly (as is the case with a grease fire.)
  7. Damage confined to victim.
  8. Body reduced to ash and soot.

Lair’s criteria applied to most of the cases he presented, but not all. As was the case with Rolli, information that didn’t fit the mold was largely ignored. Why even have criteria in the first place if it doesn’t serve to define what you’ve presented…? Who knows.

Over the next 100 years, the existence of SHC was hotly debated. The wick method was presented, stating that the human body could be burned using its own fat stores. Like a candle is fed by wax that is melted and vaporized, feeding the wick and, when combined with oxygen, maintains the flame, it was theorized that the human body could feed itself in the same way. However, this method was filed away with previous possible causes.

In the 19th century, there was a rise in spiritualism and publications that featured stories about ghosts and hauntings were widely popular. In many cases, SHC took over the front pages of these publications, delighting and intriguing readers. However, by the 20th century, these publications had begun to die out and gained only fading interest.

By this time, SHC as cause of death was largely ignored by the medical community. Most doctors feared ridicule from their peers if they admitted it was plausible. Medical professionals assumed there was an explanation far more mundane than some of the previous ideas presented and that the fires were started from external sources. This rejection of SHC as fact fueled the fire (excuse the pun) of those who believed it to be a real occurrence, causing them to believe that there was some sort of conspiracy within the medical community to sweep the information under the rug. Others believed SHC was supernatural in origin, explaining why the medical community had nothing to say on the topic. They just didn’t know.

Then…

In 1951, Mary Reeser’s death re-ignited the passion for investigation into SHC. Reeser’s body was found burned to ash, save one of her legs that had been untouched. The chair she sat in was reduced to a mass of smoldering fabric and springs, but the remaining furniture nearby was intact. The particularly unusual part of this story is that Reeser’s head was supposedly shrunk by the fire. It was more likely a knot of muscle that had not been entirely consumed by the flames, but many still believe the shrunken head story. It is more likely that her head would have expanded or exploded, but not shrunk. Reeser’s story was widely reported by the news media at the time because she had moved from Florida (roughly 4 years prior) to Pennsylvania and had many friends and acquaintances in both places. It wasn’t long before her story became national news. Authorities rules the Reeser case to be accidental death, but many figures at the time, including the coroner and the fire chief, were unable to explain it away. Reeser was buried and no tests were run on her remains.

With cases as recent as 2013, the enthusiasm to solve the mystery of SHC is alive and well. Perhaps I’m just fanning the flames, but what do you think? Let us know in the comments below!

Your Fellow Haunt Head,

Janine

hauntheadscast@gmail.com

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I would like to thank http://anomalyinfo.com for all of the awesome info regarding Spontaneous Human Combustion. If anyone is interested in learning more about SHC, check out this website. It’s full of interesting information and a chronological list of SHC cases throughout history. You can find that here:
http://anomalyinfo.com/Topics/spontaneous-human-combustion-reports-chronological-order
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