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Spontaneous Human Combustion – A Mystery That Baffles Scientists Even Today!

by Sankalan Baidya
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No external heat or fire source and a human being, looking perfectly healthy, bursts into flames with temperature so high that the body reduces to complete ash. Is that even possible? Yes it is! From ancient times to modern day, there have been quite a number of incidents where humans have burst into flames all of a sudden. Interestingly enough, all of these incidents took place indoors and the surroundings were barely even touched by the fire.

What we are talking about here is technically known as Spontaneous Human Combustion. In last three hundred plus (300+) years, 200 such cases have been documented with the most recent one being in 2010.

Putting things in simple terms, Spontaneous Human Combustion is a process in which a fire starts right inside a human’s body, burning the person to death. Of all 300 documented cases, a few similar patterns have been observed. Here is a quick list of the similar patterns:

  • Victims are usually alone.
  • Victims are usually indoors.
  • Victims’ extremities often stay intact. These include feet, hands, legs or feet are often left unscathed by the fire.
  • Worst burns occur in head and torso. They are usually so badly burned that they cannot be recognized.
  • Usually the room where the incident takes place remains unscathed by the fire. Surrounding furniture and even the furniture on which the victim burns from inside out is barely touched by the fire.
  • A smoky and sweet smell lingers around in the room after the incident.

Some examples of Spontaneous Human Combustion

Here are some accounts of Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) as recorded in history:

  1. SHC of Polonus Vorstius: Polonus was a knight from Italy. In 1470 when he was at his home town, he supposedly drank good quantities of strong ale. Soon after, he ended up vomiting fire, followed by a sudden bursting up in fire. The account was written in Historiarum Anatomicarum Rariorum – a book on strange medical phenomena written by Thomas Bartholin – a Danish physician in 1641.
  2. Another collection of Spontaneous Human Combustion cases can be found in another book named De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis. It was written by Jonas Dupont – a French author in 1673.
  3. Perhaps one of the most popular cases that happened in France was back in 1725. Nicole Millet, the wife of a Parisian innkeeper was turned to ashes by SHC. This happened in night when everyone was sleeping. The innkeeper woke up to the smell and smoke caused by the burning. He found his wife in ashes while the straw pallet on which she was actually lying was left completely unharmed. A few bones, the skull and some parts of lower back leg were left after the event. Nicole Millet was known to be a chronic alcoholic. No surprise, Mr. Millet was charged of murder but eventually saved by Dr. Claude-Nicolas Le Cat’s testimony who was a surgeon. At the time of the incident, Dr. Le Cat was present at the inn and he too woke up after the smell and smoke.
  4. 2010, a case of Spontaneous Human Combustion emerged in Ireland when a man named Michael Faherty burned spontaneously and met his maker. He was 76 years old and the incident happened at night while he was sleeping in his room with his head close to the fireplace. However, after the incident, no fire damage was found anywhere in the room. The floor and the ceiling directly beneath and above him had no signs of fire. There was no other sign of fire damage anywhere in the room. The coroner called it as a typical case of SHC.

What causes Spontaneous Human Combustion?

What’s really baffling is that SHC sometimes leaves even the clothes on the victim’s body untouched by the flame. A very few people have actually been known to even survive SHC. Some of the many who die usually die indoors. Some really don’t burst into flames but rather develop weird looking burns on their bodies. Some other may simply emanate smoke with absolutely no signs of fire. Those that burn completely (very often leaving the extremities untouched) leave behind a kind of greasy ash.

But, the big question is, “what causes Spontaneous Human Combustion?” Well, the scientists are still baffled and they don’t have definitive answer for this. There are several theories that float around. Let us take a look at them.

Intestinal Methane Gas Ignition: Human body produces methane. This usually comes out as fart and is the primary reason for the terrible smell. However, methane is highly combustible gas. It is because of this methane that farts can be ignited. According to methane ignition theory, the methane that is developed inside the body and gets stored in the intestines is somehow ignited by enzyme activities, thereby igniting a person from inside. Problem with this theory is that, in most cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion, internal organs register less damage than body exterior. This is where the methane gas ignition theory breaks.

Static Electricity Theory: Well, some blame this on static electricity. The proponents say that geomagnetic forces can lead to static electricity buildup inside the body.

The Pyroton Particle Theory: Larry Arnold, a person who claimed to be an expert in SHC one day declared that human body has subatomic particles known as Pyroton. These particles are responsible for interacting with body cells, resulting in miniscule explosion. These explosions, according to Larry Arnold, are responsible for Spontaneous Human Combustion. Unfortunately, the theory put forward by the self-proclaimed SHC expert has no scientific base and no such particle name Pyroton has been discovered till date, let alone miniscule cellular-level explosions.

The Wick Effect Theory: Let us think of a candle. Inside the candle is a wick that is surrounded by wax. When the wick is ignited, the wax keeps the wick burning. Now think of an inverse candle – a wax chunk wrapped in a piece of cloth. Now consider dropping a small smoldering ember on the cloth. The ember will punch a hole right through the cloth and hit the wax. The wax at that point of contact will melt and will be absorbed by the cloth. The cloth, now mixed with wax will continue to burn, with the fire slowing spreading all over. The burning will continue as long as the wax exists.

The same thing happens, according to Wick Effect theory, in case of Spontaneous Human Combustion. A small external fire source punches a hole through the clothing and crack open the skin. The fire will reach the fat and will melt it. Molten fat is absorbed by cloth and this keeps the cloth burning. As the cloth keeps burning, fat keeps melting, providing a steady supply of fuel. Extremities like feet and hands have less fat and hence, don’t provide enough fuel. Also, they aren’t usually covered with cloth and hence, they are left behind. However, the torso is the greatest fat source. This fat is spread over to hair by the clothing. This explains why the torso and the head are burnt most.

What about the greasy matter left behind? That’s probably the residue of burned fatty tissues. This is the most popular and most accepted theory in place but has no strong proof. Usually the fire source is a burning cigarette or a nearby fire which can emanate smoldering ember. Thus, according to Wick Effect, Spontaneous Human Combustion is not a result of fire breaking out inside the body. This also can explain why in some case, the internal organs are left behind with less damage.

Alcoholism was once considered the primary culprit

This is no wonder that alcoholism was once considered as the primary culprit. The reasons were obvious because most of the victims were chronic alcoholics. Anyway, several other reasons were also blamed like immobility caused by age or may be extreme obesity that prevented people from moving once they caught fire. Well, this cannot be ignored because most of the cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion prove that the victims were aged and yes, they possible caught fire when they were sleeping.

Sources: 1, 2, 3

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