Great Balls of Fire! Is Spontaneous Human Combustion Real or a Myth?

Great Balls of Fire! Is Spontaneous Human Combustion Real or a Myth?

Patrick Lynch - January 22, 2017

Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) is a strange phenomenon that has only been witnessed a handful of times in history. As it is still an unexplained and extraordinarily rare occurrence, a significant percentage of the scientific community isn’t convinced it even exists.

What is SHC?

SHC occurs when an individual suddenly bursts into flames from a chemical reaction within. Notably, the person is not ignited by any external heat source. There have apparently been hundreds of cases with a few notable examples. In all of these instances, the victim is consumed by a fire inside their home and coroners have often noted a sweet and smoky smell in the room.

One of the most unusual aspects of SHC is the fact that the extremities are untouched. Victims have had their head and torso charred while their hands and feet aren’t touched. Additionally, the area around the individual shows no signs of fire apart from a greasy residue left on the walls and furniture where the person was sitting.

When most people think of SHC, they imagine a spectacular ball of flames consuming an unfortunate victim. However, some people develop odd burns on their skin or emit smoke without any fire. A few individuals have even suffered spontaneous combustion and lived to tell the tale.

Great Balls of Fire! Is Spontaneous Human Combustion Real or a Myth?
Milagrosarleny Word Press

What Causes People to Burst Into Flames?

Most of the scientific community is not convinced that spontaneous human combustion exists. Typically, the human body doesn’t contain a flammable substance or extremely high heat; the two requirements for combustion. However, several objects have been found to ignite without the need for an outside heat source. For example, a group of oily rags could combust when left in an open container like a bucket. The oxygen from the air can raise the internal temperature of the rags high enough to ignite the oil. When hay or straw decomposes, the bacteria that begins the process can potentially kindle a spark by raising the temperature of the material.

SHC was a genuine concern in the 19th century and Dickens wrote about it in Bleak House. The character Krook died when he spontaneously combusted. He was an alcoholic so it led to the belief that if someone had too much alcohol inside them, they could burst into flames! A scientific journal called ‘A Treatise on Medical Jurisprudence,’ written in 1823 noted that all known victims of SHC were chronic alcoholics.

Several theories have been espoused in the modern era. When methane builds up in the intestines, it can be ignited by enzymes. The flaw in this theory is that most victims of SHC suffer greater damage externally. Another theory suggests that a static electricity build-up inside the body is the cause.

Those who don’t believe in spontaneous human combustion say the Wick Theory is to blame for the oddity. It suggests that the body acts like an inside-out candle when lit by an external heat source. Body fat acts as the flammable substance while the hair or clothing of the individual is the wick. When the heat causes the fat to melt, it soaks into the clothes and acts like wax to keep the body lit. The person burns slowly, and according to proponents of this theory, it explains why the bodies of SHC victims are destroyed while the surrounding area remains relatively untouched. Keep reading for some strange tales of spontaneous human combustion.

Great Balls of Fire! Is Spontaneous Human Combustion Real or a Myth?
Mary Reeser. Arrendersi Morte Blogspot

Notable Cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion

Mary Reeser (1951)

This incident occurred in St. Petersburg, Florida on July 2, 1951. Pansy Carpenter was Reeser’s landlady, and she came to the door with a telegram. She noticed the doorknob was scalding to the touch and decided to call the police. They were stunned to find mainly ashes in the remnants of the chair Reeser was sitting on. Only her backbone and part of her left foot survived the flames. There were some plastic objects several feet from the chair, and they had softened due to the heat. Her shrunken skull surprised investigators.

J.R. Reichert, the St. Petersburg police chief, deemed the matter important enough to send the remains of Reeser to J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI. Her body was entirely cremated in the fire which means exposure to an incredibly high temperature. However, the room showed little evidence of a blaze. The FBI investigated the case and concluded that Reeser was a victim of the Wick Effect.

Henry Thomas (1980)

Thomas’ body was found in the living room of his home in Wales. The 73-year-old was little more than a pile of ashes when police found him. All that was left of the unfortunate victim was his skull and a piece of each leg below the knee. These remaining extremities were still clothed in trousers and socks while half the chair he had sat on was also destroyed.

The first officer to witness the scene said there was a fine mist of human fat that covered all of the room’s surfaces; the fat evaporated due to the heat of the fire. The front panel of Thomas’ television melted even though it was 15 feet away. Once again, forensic officers blamed the Wick Effect.

Michael Flaherty (2010)

Flaherty’s remains were found in Galway, Ireland on 22 December 1980. His neighbor, Mr. Mannion, was awakened by Flaherty’s smoke alarm and when he went outside, he saw thick smoke coming from Flaherty’s house. He alerted others in the area and also called the police. The victim was found lying on his back with his head near an open fireplace. The only damage to the living room occurred to the ceiling above and flooring below the burnt body.

There was no evidence of arson, and no accelerants were found. After a detailed investigation, a pathologist ruled that the open fireplace was not the cause. Eventually, Dr. Ciaran McLoughlin, the coroner assigned the case, ruled that Flaherty’s death was caused by spontaneous human combustion for which he could find no satisfactory explanation.

Although there are approximately 200 cases to study, no one can come up with a definitive explanation for SHC. While the Wick Effect appears to be the best theory available, it is by no means proven.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

University of Tennessee – Debunking the Spontaneous Human Combustion Myth

Doctor’s Review – A Fire Within

The Daily Beast – The Mysterious Case of Drinking & Spontaneous Human Combustion

Live Science – Spontaneous Human Combustion: Facts & Theories

Science ABC – Is Spontaneous Human Combustion Possible?

Medium – Spontaneous Human Combustion: Is it Real or Not?

How Stuff Works – How Spontaneous Human Combustion Works

Dawn – Myths and Mysteries: Burning Up; Spontaneous Human Combustion

Ohio State University – A Look into Spontaneous Human Combustion

Tampa Bay – Spontaneous Combustion in St. Petersburg? The Curious Case of Mary Reeser