Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is a term encompassing reported cases of the combustion of a living (or very recently deceased) human body without an apparent external source of ignition. In addition to reported cases, examples of SHC appear in literature, and both types have been observed to share common characteristics regarding circumstances and remains of the victim.
Forensic investigations have attempted to analyze reported instances of SHC and have resulted in hypotheses regarding potential causes and mechanisms, including victim behavior and habits, alcohol consumption and proximity to potential sources of ignition, as well as the behavior of fires that consume melted fats. Natural explanations, as well as unverified natural phenomena, have been proposed to explain reports of SHC. Current scientific consensus is that most, if not all, cases of SHC involve overlooked external sources of ignition.
Some people say that spontaneous human combustion is just a regular fire that people can't be bothered to find the cause for, that could have been avoided through basic fire safety. Others say that it's just a peculiar shift of our internal chemistry, that can happen to anyone at any time.
Take a look at ten actual cases of spontaneous human combustion, and decide for yourself.
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The first mention of spontaneous human combustion in the history books is Polonus Vorstius. Polonus was just a regular Italian knight in the late 1400s who liked wine, women, and song. He consumed 'two ladles' of very strong wine one night, and it disagreed with him. People say that he immediately vomited flame, and then burst into flames entirely. No one else seemed to have any problem with the wine, and people were baffled as to how this happened. They're still baffled now.
The latest case made headlines in September of this year as the first Irish case of spontaneous human combustion. People found the burned body of an elderly man lying with his head near the furnace of his apartment. Coroners determined, though, that the furnace was not the source of the conflagration, nor was there any accelerant on the body, nor was there any evidence of foul play. This case was typical of spontaneous human combustion in that there were burn marks on the floor and ceiling directly below and above the body, but no other burn marks anywhere in the room.
Spontaneous human combustion has claimed the life at least one member of the nobility; Countess Cornelia Di Bandi. The Countess, who lived in the 1700s, was found half way between her bed and her window one morning, with everything except her lower legs and three fingers burned. She had apparently calmly risen from her bed to open the window in the middle of the night, but combusted before she could reach the window. In the room, two candles had been burned - or at least the tallow had been burned. The wicks were left, completely unburned. Soot covered the room, including some bread on a plate that she had left on a table. Just as a indication of how strange the 1700s were; the bread was taken from the plate and offered to a dog. The dog refused to eat it, making it the most sensible player in that incident.
Ginette Kazmierczak lived with her husband and son in France in the 1970s. When her husband disappeared mysteriously, Ginette contacted the authorities to try to find them. They couldn't find anything. A few days later, while her son was out with some friends, a neighbor found Ginette's body, except for her legs, reduced to ash in an otherwise undisturbed apartment.
In 1967, a passenger on a bus in England noticed blue flames in the window of an apartment building hallway. She thought it was a gas jet and called the fire brigade. When they got to the place, they supposedly found the body of Robert Francis Bailey, a homeless man. A fireman reported seeing a slit in the man's abdomen from which blue flames were issuing.
Nicole Millet, the wife of a Parisian innkeeper in 1725, was found after her husband roused the entire inn when he smelled smoke. What was left of her was in the kitchen, almost completely reduced to ash, with the wooden utensils around her unburned. Other accounts have her burned on her straw pallet, with the straw only a little damaged. That looked suspicious, and so her husband was tried and found guilty of murder. On appeal, though, he used the 'spontaneous human combustion' defense, and was exonerated. Nicole's death was found to be due to 'a visitation of God.'
In St. Petersburg, Florida, a landlady was making the rounds in her apartment building when she noticed one doorknob was incredibly hot. The tenant, Mary Reeser, did not respond to her calls, and so she called for people to open the door. Inside, she found Reeser's remains, in the middle of a six-foot scorched area of carpet. A chair and an end table in the middle of the scorch mark were upright, indicating that there was no activity. Nearby on the floor, a pile of newspapers were untouched by the flames. The body, on the other hand, was reduced to ash except for a skull and a completely undamaged foot. Some reports, which just may be exaggerated, say that the skull was shrunk down to the size of a teacup.
Jack Angel, who had been hospitalized with severe burns, brought a court case against the manufacturer of his hot water heater for three million dollars. He said that he went to check the malfunctioning heater and it blew and scalded him. However, a doctor noted that his body had burned from the inside out, not the outside in. Shortly afterward, he changed his story and said he fell asleep only to wake up with terrible burns all over his body, and sold his story as a survivor of spontaneous human combustion. Was he one of the only people to survive spontaneously combusting?
A gentleman in Crown Point, New York actually seemed to spontaneously combust when he was watching an episode of The Twilight Zone television show. There is no report on which episode of The Twilight Zone it was.
There is only one case of human combustion for which there is a witness. A mentally disabled woman lived with her father, who cared for her. One day he saw a flash out of the corner of his eye, and turned to find her on fire. Despite the flames, she continued to quietly sit in a chair, not reacting and not giving any indication she was in pain. The man's attempts to put the fire out left him with burned hands. The woman lived through the combustion, but slipped into a coma and died shortly afterwards. This indicates one of the strangest parts of human combustion. It takes a very hot flame to reduce a human body to ash. Crematoriums have special chambers designed for it. However, in almost all combustions, there's no burns in the room around the body, indicating that the person simply stayed in one place. Whatever the cause of this combustion, it seems to knock people out first.