I have been fascinated with this topic for many years and it’s one of the earliest phenomena that sparked my interest in the paranormal. Yes, it happens but,in spite of all our technological advances, we can only theorise about WHY it happens because we still don’t know the trigger factors that are necessary for it to take place.
So it was interesting to find this article
which tells us:
The first known account of spontaneous human combustion came from the Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholin in 1663, who described how a woman in Paris “went up in ashes and smoke” while she was sleeping. The straw mattress on which she slept was unmarred by the fire. In 1673, a Frenchman named Jonas Dupont published a collection of spontaneous combustion cases in his work “De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis.”
It seems SHC has been around long before electric heaters and modern cigarettes. What intrigues me is that it appears that the fire consumes the body fat of the person combusting but why doesn’t the fire take hold and make everything go up in flames?
If, in 1663. a candle had fallen over and set alight the bedding of the Parisian woman, surely, wouldn’t the fire have continued to burn and set the rest of the room alight?
The fact that the fire seems to burn hotly in one particular area – and then dies out for no apparent reason – when there’s enough combustible material around to have enabled the fire to continue seems unaccountable? To have burnt to ash the majority of a body and leave a portion of a limb untouched?
What evidence we have is limited. Have a look at this picture:-
If what is visible is the remains of a human being (and I have no reason to doubt this), all that is left are the two legs, from the knees down to the feet.
The head, body and arms appear to have been burnt – literally gone up in smoke!
Since I first discovered articles about SHC I’ve been enthralled by the possibility that a person could have been burnt beyond recognition yet nothing in close proximity to the body got burned!
Looking closely at the picture, only a small amount of fire damage has occurred around the person’s body. The legs are still supported by what remains of the seat. The fire was obviously quite intense given the fire damage evident behind and to the side of the “victim”. My question is, if the heat was so intense, how was it, that it didn’t burn the wooden table on the other side. The distance of the damage on the one side is the same distance to the table on the other side (if you get my drift). Maybe there was a door or window open which might have fanned the flames rather than them spreading equidistantly. We will never know.
Why did the fire go out? Once a fire takes hold, it normally finds flammable material nearby which helps to spread the fire. There’s a rug underneath the chair. Surely that intense heat or the flames taking hold on the body would have been close enough to have set it alight also?
I wasn’t aware of this but, in carrying out this research, I discovered that Charles Dickens actually ‘killed off’ a character in “Bleak House”, called Krook, who dies by SHC. Krook was an alcoholic, following the belief at the time that spontaneous human combustion was caused by excessive amounts of alcohol in the body.
There are a number of theories about the cause but no real evidence. It has been suggested that, as we have methane build up in the gut (putting it bluntly, the gasses in the body that makes us fart) this methane is ignited by enzymes in the body. However, victims have been reported to suffer greater damage outside of their body than to their internal organs.
Another theory suggests a build-up of static electricity inside the body or from an external geomagnetic force exerted on the body. The truth is, no one has been able to come up with an answer – and proof – for why or how this happens.
What factors have to come together, at the right time and at the same place for SHC to occur?
My friend from the FB group “The Real World of the Paranormal” discussed it with us (I had suggested SHC as a topic of conversation) by posting a picture telling us:
“This picture from the early 80s “Unexplained” magazine used to scare the stuff out of me.
I too, was fascinated by the alleged phenomenon of SHC, so did some snooping (and this was pre-internet, I had to use, gulp, books in my local reference library!).
What I discovered was that the physical possibilities of SHC are remote due not only to the body consisting mostly of water, but aside from fat tissue and methane gas, there isn’t much that burns readily in a human body. To cremate a human body requires a temperature of around 1100 degrees fahrenheit for about two hours so, to fuel an internal chemical reaction sufficient to almost completely incinerate a corpse, is beyond any known human thermogenic capabilities.
The most plausible theory that I could find for SHC (how human bodies burn in rooms without having the entire room engulfed in flames) came from the idea of the “wick effect”. To get the fire going would require an external source (eg, a discarded cigarette or a blanket close to a fire) . Once ignited, however, a “wick effect” from the body’s fat would burn hot enough in certain places to destroy even bones.”
This was a case I hadn’t read previously. The article doesn’t indicate if the 78-year old was a smoker or drinker. The ‘flames bursting from his abdomen’ could well be a cigarette which fell onto his stomach as he dozed, setting his clothing alight.
It’s generally believed that victims of SHC were either smokers or drinkers. One suggestion is that “some of the fires and strange states of the victims’ bodies were the result of a criminal act and subsequent cover-up.” That still doesn’t explain why the fire didn’t spread as we would have expected it to.
What all this amounts to is that we really do not understand SHC!
I have to share with you the case of the “exploding tea towels”! Yes, you read that correctly!
Just today I read an FB post concerning two fires on the same day apparently caused by spontaneously-combusting laundry. In the first case, a pile of tea towels in a Brighton restaurant had been tumble-dried and was taken out and left overnight. The fire is attributed to have been caused by a build-up of heat in the centre of the mound before bursting into flames – at least that’s what the official opinion is. The second incident was a fire in a Brighton college necessitating 6 firemen with hoses to extinguish the fire. Brighton’s Borough Fire Commander was interviewed and said:
“Laundry can be surprisingly dangerous. If there are still cooking fats or chemicals on tea towels, they can spontaneously combust after being dried. This is something I’ve heard of but I’ve never seen it happen twice on one day.”
His advise for people cooking in their kitchens is that they should take care when drying their tea towels and went on to suggest “We’d advise people to make sure laundry is properly aired after drying to make sure this doesn’t happen too often.”
I would just point out, however, that the report, from the Argus, is dated 18th October 2012 so rather old news!
In researching this phenomenon, there are numerous results of which I give a couple below:-
6 May 2016 … A Cotswold pub owner calls for better awareness of the danger of self -combusting tea towels after her pub kitchen is destroyed in a fire
14 Dec 2016 … Publicans are being urged to review the way they wash tea towels
19 May 2017 … The warning comes after a spate of infernos caused by ‘exploding’ tea towels started by dirt from plates and dishes remaining in the fabric.
The onus seems to be on the way these items are washed, implicating that food residue AFTER washing is enough for the material to combust which is a valid point.
There is, however, one major, and quite important, difference between the original SHC stories I told you about and these recent ones. The incidents of SHC I reported on in my main article indicates that SHC took place but the fire did NOT take hold and burn the rest of the building down in spite of flammable materials and furniture in close proximity! In the case of the combustible tea towels, the fire then catches onto surrounding furniture and causes a big enough fire to warrant the Fire Brigade to extinguish the flames.
For some further reading material on SHC:-
Here’s another link worth a read at http://skepdic.com/shc.html.
These links are just the tip of the iceberg and I know there are many more out there on the good ol’ interweb!
Please let me know what you thought about this article.