Spontaneous Human Combustion

Spontaneous Human Combustion or SHC as it is also known  refers to the death from a fire originating without an apparent external source of ignition; the fire is believed to start within the body of the victim.

The remains of Dr. John Bentley, who died of spontaneous combustion in Pennsylvania in 1966

The remains of Dr. John Bentley, who died of spontaneous combustion in Pennsylvania in 1966

Only about a dozen claimed real-life cases of SHC have been investigated in any detail. Researcher Joe Nickell examined many “unexplainable” cases in his book “Real-Life X-Files” and found that all of them were far less mysterious than often suggested. Most of the victims were elderly, alone and near flames (often cigarettes, candles, and open fires) when they died. Several were last seen drinking alcohol and smoking.

If the person is asleep, intoxicated, unconscious, infirm or otherwise unable to move or put the flames out, the victim’s clothes can act as a wick (most people spend most of their time wrapped in flammable clothing made up of cottons and polyester blends). The flames draw on the body’s fat (a flammable oil very near the skin’s surface which combines with the burning clothing) to fuel the fire.

There is also a rare medical condition called Stevens-Johnson syndrome that, in extreme cases, may be mistaken for a case of an aborted spontaneous combustion. The skin disease, which can be triggered by a toxic reaction to medications, including antibiotics and prescription painkillers, causes the appearance of severe burns and blisters, and can be fatal.

If SHC is a real phenomenon, why doesn’t it happen more often? There are 7 billion people in the world, and yet we don’t see reports of people bursting into flame while walking down the street. No one has ever been seen, filmed or videotaped (for example, on a surveillance camera) suddenly bursting into flames. It always happens to a single person left alone near a source of ignition.

And if some natural (but unknown) mechanism causes the combustion, why would it only occur in humans? Why wouldn’t cows, dogs, elephants, birds or other animals suddenly, randomly and inexplicably explode in a ball of flames now and then? Even if the phenomenon is incredibly rare, with billions of animals on the planet, statistically we should expect to see thousands of them exploding every day all around us.

Though there is no scientific evidence that SHC exists, now and then a case makes the news when officials cannot find another explanation. In 2011, a coroner concluded that Michael Faherty, an elderly Irishman living alone who burned to death in his home in December 2010, may have spontaneously combusted. Though Faherty’s body was found a few feet away from an open, burning fireplace the coroner decided that it had not set him afire.

This is the only known case of SHC being a cause of death.


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