People die unexpectedly from apparently unknown causes every day. But what makes some deaths part of the paranormal world is a strange and unexplainable phenomenon known as “spontaneous human combustion.”
During such a death, the body is burned by a strange fire that starts apparently out of nowhere and has almost no effect on the objects around the victims.
In simple terms, spontaneous human combustion happens when the human body spontaneously catches fire and burns without affecting anything around it.
The phenomenon is sporadic, but many cases have been recorded over the past few hundred years.
The sudden and complete consumption of a human body by fire without any apparent external cause is known as spontaneous human combustion (SHC).
This perplexing and controversial phenomenon has been documented since the early 19th century, yet its exact cause remains a mystery.
While some experts theorize that an internal energy source, such as flammable gas or liquid, is the trigger for SHC, others contend that it may be a psychological manifestation resulting from extreme stress or other psychological distress.
However, the most widely accepted theory is that both internal and external factors combine to cause SHC. These internal factors could include the body’s combustible materials, such as fat, and the external factors could be an ignition source, like an open flame or spark.
Despite the numerous reports and accounts of SHC from around the world, it is essential to note that there has yet to be a scientifically confirmed case.
Some of the documented instances are particularly puzzling.
For example, one man was found dead from SHC in his bedroom with no discernible external ignition source. At the same time, another woman perished from the phenomenon in her kitchen with no evidence of an open flame or spark.
These stories and countless others often depict a single victim and attribute the combustion to some internal energy source.
In some instances, the victim has been reported to have been surrounded by a mysterious glowing light or blue flame.
Despite decades of investigation, the actual cause of spontaneous human combustion remains an enigma, shrouded in mystery and uncertainty.
The first documented case of spontaneous human combustion was that of Countess Cornelia Brandi, who met her end in this gruesome manner in Verona on April 4, 1731.
The local magistrate, Bianchini, recorded the incident’s details. He ruled out the possibility of murder but failed to explain what had killed the Countess.
But let’s see how this strange case of spontaneous human combustion happened.
Everything began on the evening of April 3 when the Countess went to bed as usual. Her housemaid helped her undress and placed her jewels back in their cases.
The two women had a short conversation, and the maid returned to her room. According to her later statements, everything seemed fine with the Countess, and there was nothing to suggest the tragic events that followed.
The following day, the housemaid prepared breakfast and went upstairs to wake Brandi up. But as she was approaching the bedroom, the woman noticed the pungent smell of burned clothes.
Still, only after opening the door, she realized the sinister circumstances. The image inside the bedroom was horrifying.
The maid first noticed the sheets on the floor, blackened by smoke. The Countess’s body – or what was left of it – was lying a few feets away from the bed.
The 200 pounds woman was reduced to a small pile of ash. Both legs were still intact, clad in stockings, barely touched by fire. The Countess’s head was lying between the legs, with the back of the head and the chin completely burned.
The horrified maid also noticed three fingers sticking out of the pile of ash.
But that was not all.
The whole room was covered with soot, similar to the thin layer of dust covering a space that hadn’t been inhabited for years. And on the floor, there were puddles of smelly glue-like slime.
The same strange goo was stuck on the north wall of the room, below one of the windows.
Shocked by the gruesome discovery, the housemaid called the police.
The investigation that followed discovered lots of inconsistencies. For instance, the police still found all the jewelry and money in the room, and nothing was touched or stolen.
So the detectives had to rule out the possibility of a robbery.
Secondly, there were no signs of a break-in, and the police concluded that the Countess was alone throughout the night.
The only potential source of fire in the room was a candle placed on a table away from the bed, and the candle was not burned. So what caused the fire?
And since Brandi’s body was so severely burned, how could the rest of the room be almost untouched by fire?
The mysterious death of Countess Cornelia Brandi was never solved.
However, after weighing all the evidence, we can say, with a degree of certitude, that the strange case of Countess Cornelia Brandi could be one of history’s first recorded cases of spontaneous human combustion.
Another case of spontaneous human combustion occurred on March 22, 1908, in Whitley Bay, a small town in the far north of England.
The victim, Wilhelmina Dewar, lived in the same house as her sister Margaret, on different floors, each having her own bedroom and bathroom.
On the night of March 22, both sisters went to bed as usual. But shortly after midnight, a noise woke Margaret up.
She checked the house for burglars and ensured all doors and windows were locked. But as she was about to return to bed, she noticed black smoke coming from her sister’s room.
Scared, Margaret knocked on the door, but Wilhelmina didn’t answer. Then, using a heavy metal statue, Margaret hit and broke the doorknob only to discover a shocking truth inside the room.
Wilhelmina was dead. Her body, from the chest down, was reduced to ash.
The sheets and part of the mattress around the body were also burned. However, the rest of the bed and the room remained untouched by the flames.
Wilhelmina’s upper torso was also intact, and her facial expression showed no sign of pain or suffering.
Whatever had happened, Wilhelmina had died instantaneously.
Still in shock, Margaret ran to the neighbor’s house, screaming and pounding on his door. Since she couldn’t explain what had happened, the man agreed to follow Margaret into Wilhelmina’s room.
As soon as he stepped inside, the neighbor noticed the foul smell of burned flesh, so he ran back and called the police.
The first police officer to arrive at the scene found Margaret traumatized and incoherent, unable to answer any questions. Wilhelmina’s room was sealed to preserve evidence, and a coroner was requested.
However, the doctor was as baffled as everyone else and could not identify the cause of death nor explain how the fire had started.
The case was taken over by a medical examiner from London. But he couldn’t shed any light on the subject either. After analyzing the evidence, he stated that the story – as narrated by the witnesses – was “not likely.”
The coroner deferred the verdict until “all witnesses could reassess the circumstances surrounding Ms. Wilhelmina Dewar’s death.”
What happened afterward remains a mystery. For unknown reasons, Margaret and her neighbor changed their initial statements, and their new story was now completely different.
Although no one was charged with Wilhemina’s death, the authorities orchestrated a brief jury trial. The case was presented to the jury with altered evidence.
For instance, Margaret stated that her sister died of an unfortunate stroke, and the body had caught fire from a fallen candle. Furthermore, the medical examiner’s report concluded that it had been a natural death.
The phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion sparked even more interest after the suspicious death of Mrs. Mary Reeser in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1951.
Everything started after the building manager attempted to enter the apartment when the elderly Mrs. Reeser did not answer.
He felt the door handle was too hot to touch, so he called for help from some construction workers from across the street.
They forced the entrance door open and, amidst a thick cloud of smoke, discovered the charred remains of Mrs. Reeser reduced to ashes, except for the extremities of her limbs.
Mrs. Reeser was sitting in an armchair when she died, and the upholstery and padding of the armchair had burned through to the iron springs, but the sides and back were only slightly burned.
Local police told the coroner that Ms. Reeser was a smoker and may have fallen asleep while smoking, which is how she caught fire.
The idea would have been accepted if Dr. Wilton Krogman, a coroner specializing in arson deaths, had not been in town and heard of the unusual case.
Intrigued by the strange case, Krogman requested evidence from the police files and began his own investigation.
After evaluating the evidence, Krogman was utterly stunned.
For the bones to turn entirely into ash would have required a temperature of about 1,650℃ (about 1923 Kelvin).
If Mrs. Reeser had been subjected to such a temperature, the radiated heat would have set fire not only to the armchair but also to the carpet, furniture, and every object in the room; however, nothing was achieved.
“If I lived in the Middle Ages, I would have commented something about black magic,” concluded Dr. Krogman.
A hasty investigation ensued with all the fuss and media coverage at the time. The Florida medical examiner agreed with the police theory and labeled the incident “accidental death.”
Furthermore, Mrs. Reeser’s son, a doctor by profession, had visited her the night before and found out that his mother had taken some sleeping pills.
Based on these testimonies, the investigators concluded that, most likely, the old woman fell asleep while smoking, and the cigarette would have ignited the cloth shirt the woman was wearing.
At that time, the idea circulated that spontaneous human combustion occurs predominantly in the case of alcoholics because the alcohol in the body can fuel the combustion.
Incidentally, the most famous victim of spontaneous human combustion, Mrs. Krook from Charles Dickens’ The Deserted House, had consumed impressive amounts of alcohol in the moments before her extraordinary death.
This hypothesis, however, has no scientific basis, although it was used with fervor by people claiming that spontaneous human combustion is a perfectly natural phenomenon.
There is, however, a link between alcohol consumption and death by fire.
Joe Nickell and John F. Fischer noted:
People intoxicated are more careless with fire and, therefore, less able to defend themselves against it.
In several articles critical of the proponents of spontaneous human combustion, Joe Nickell and John F. Fischer listed the eloquent circumstances in which the victims were discovered: a broken oil lamp on the floor, the victim’s pipe, or a candle next to the remains.
In addition, often under the victim, there was a pile of flammable materials that accentuated the destructive effect of the fire – the bedding, for example, or the stuffing of the armchair – even the wooden floor soaked in paint or oil.
It is interesting to note that, in some cases, human fat also maintained and increased the destructive effect of the fire.
If we were to follow the logical line of events and the evidence discovered on the spot, the only clear conclusion would be that spontaneous human combustion is a fabricated mystery and by no means an authentic enigma.
Although many cases of spontaneous human combustion can be explained scientifically, some situations raise some fascinating questions.
Among the more than 200 alleged cases of spontaneous human combustion reported in recent centuries, there are some strange similarities and peculiarities:
- Burns are not evenly distributed – most often, the extremities (hands and feet) remain untouched by the flame while the rest of the body is completely burned;
- The fire has a highly aggressive behavior;
- Only the objects near the body are burned; the rest of the room remains intact;
- The fire burns at very high temperatures reducing everything to ash, including bones.
The Reeser case brought human combustion to the attention of researchers of paranormal and unusual phenomena. Still, it remained a relatively isolated case until the death of Dr. J. Irving Bentley, a retired doctor who lived in Coudersport, Pennsylvania.
Dr. Bentley lived alone and could only get around with a frame.
However, he was healthy and had been talking to neighbors on the afternoon of December 4, 1966, when everything seemed normal.
On the morning of December 5, Don Gosnell, an employee of a gas distribution company, came to Dr. Bentley’s house read the gas meter. Since no one answered and the front door was ajar, Gosnell entered the house and immediately noticed a strange blue smoke and an unusual smell.
Gosnell followed the smoke into the bathroom, where he was met with a shocking sight.
On the bathroom floor, he noticed a fallen frame covered in a mound of ash that protruded a human leg, intact from the knee down.
There was a large hole in the floor where the parquet had burned, but the room had not been affected by flames or heat. Most surfaces had a thin layer of greasy soot.
Gosnell rushed to call the fire department and the police. When firefighters arrived, they found a minor burn on the bathtub but no indication of the cause of the fire.
Bentley was known to be a heavy smoker, and there were several burn marks around the house from carelessly discarded cigarettes.
Based on those facts, the coroner quickly accepted the idea that Bentley had fallen asleep while smoking, caught fire, woke up, and then he rushed to the bathroom in search of water, but he died and collapsed on the floor, where he was completely burned.
No attempt was made to explain why the body had burned completely, but the room was almost untouched. It was also not explained why Mr. Bentley’s slightly burnt robe was in the bathtub.
As in the Dewar and Reeser cases, the coroner rushed to an official verdict to close the topic rather than holding a lengthy inquest to investigate a possible paranormal phenomenon.
Jeanne Lucille Saffin (March 20, 1921 – September 23, 1982) was a British woman whose death from fire in 1982 is cited by paranormal researchers and authors as an example of spontaneous human combustion and is reported to be the most recent suspected case in the UK.
Saffin was born in London and lived most of her life in the city. She worked as a clerk in the Civil Service and was a widow at the time of her death.
On September 23, 1982, her body was discovered in her London flat, burned beyond recognition. Saffin was 61 at the time of her death.
The coroner’s report stated that the fire had started in the area of Saffin’s body and that the cause of the fire was undetermined.
The report also noted that Saffin’s body had been burned beyond recognition and that it was impossible to determine whether she had died before or after the fire had started.
The case of Jeanne Lucille Saffin has been cited by paranormal researchers and authors as an example of spontaneous human combustion.
However, skeptics have argued that the fire was likely caused by an external source, such as an electrical appliance, and that Saffin was not the victim of spontaneous human combustion.
In the absence of any conclusive evidence to support either claim, the cause of the fire remains a mystery.
Proponents of the possibility of spontaneous human combustion argue that the phenomenon is caused by an external force, such as an unknown form of energy or the presence of supernatural power.
On the other hand, skeptics maintain that although the cause of the fire in Saffin’s case remains unknown, there is no evidence to suggest that it was caused by anything other than an external source.
The case of Jeanne Lucille Saffin is still remembered today as a possible example of spontaneous human combustion.
However, until more evidence is discovered, the cause of her death will remain a mystery.
The only sure thing is that the death of Jeanne Lucille Saffin was a tragedy, and the circumstances surrounding her death remain a source of speculation and debate.
Despite the coroner’s conclusion, Bentley’s death made spontaneous human combustion an intriguing topic for paranormal researchers, and theories began to emerge to explain the phenomenon.
It was hypothesized that conditions common to all known cases were considered: the fire had started suddenly and been extinguished quickly, with very high temperatures lasting only a short time and no source of fire in the area.
One of the initial ideas was that the body had caught fire by itself, hence the name “spontaneous human combustion”; this theory assumed that every cell in the body had caught fire simultaneously, turning it to ash in seconds.
This would explain the huge temperatures and short duration and why the surrounding objects had not burned. However, some researchers rejected the idea because this seemed to require a supernatural explanation.
Some have suggested that ball lightning was to blame.
This sporadic natural phenomenon occurs when electrically charged air forms a ball of plasma that heats up to extremely high temperatures, then floats through the air.
Ball lightning can dissipate in a few moments without affecting anything around it, but if it hits an electrically conductive object, it will explode with a blinding flash.
One of the witnesses saw ball lightning near Mrs. Reeser’s home around the same time she died, and some still support this theory. In contrast, others reject it because no other ball of lightning has been observed to coincide with other cases of spontaneous human combustion.
Another cause of the fire could be static electricity.
It is known that some types of shoes that come into contact with certain carpets can lead to a build-up of static electricity, with voltages above 3,000 V sometimes created, which, if discharged, could start a fire if flammable materials are nearby.
It is also assumed that some people are prone to very high static electricity and can create electrical voltage even without wearing the plastic-soled shoes that cause these effects in others.
Some believe that such electricity build-up could set fire to clothing and even the human body when discharged by a powerful spark.
Skeptics stated that there must have been a usual source of fire every time, which is why it was not noticed by the first people on the scene.
A burnt cigarette butt would not be noticed among the remains of the fire, while a fallen candle would burn without a trace. All this is true, but it does not explain why the objects around the bodies did not catch fire.
The usual explanation for this phenomenon is the so-called “wick effect,” which happens when a smoldering fabric comes into contact with oil or grease, the fat melting and soaking into the material where it burns with a low flame or smolders, but often at a very high temperature.
This is how a candle works, and for a fire to burn in this way for a long time, it must have large reserves of fat or oil on hand.
Some have argued that the human body contains enough fat, especially if the person is overweight, and that ordinary clothes would act as a fuse.
If the person died suddenly, of a heart attack, for example, and fell in such a way that his clothes came into contact with a candle, cigarette, or other sources of fire, then a wick effect and the fire would consume the corpse.
The idea is exciting but almost impossible to test.
An attempt was made in August 1998 on the BBC television program QED, which attempted to explain the phenomenon in terms of a wick-effect fire.
Obviously, they couldn’t use a human body, so they wrapped the corpse of a pig in a cloth and set it on fire.
The resulting fire became smoldering and consumed most of the body over the course of eight hours. The pieces of wooden furniture placed near it did not take; only one was slightly burned.
Skeptics considered the BBC experiment to be the explanation for spontaneous human combustion.
Others noted some significant oversights:
- The fabric did not catch fire, to begin with, and a portion had to be soaked in gasoline;
- It took eight hours to burn part of the corpse, whereas in some of the cases of spontaneous human combustion, the human body burned in just one hour;
- The pig had thick layers of fat just under the skin, which is ideal for the wick effect, but things are usually not the same in humans.
According to some sources, there have been approximately 200 reported cases of spontaneous human combustion (SHC) since the 1600s.
However, many of these cases are considered unsubstantiated, and the actual number of occurrences is unknown.
The vast majority of reported cases have occurred since the 1800s.
Some of the most famous cases of spontaneous human combustion are:
- Bob Flemming (2014)
- Mrs. Jean Saffin (2009)
- Michael Faherty (2010, County Galway, Ireland)
- George Mott (1951)
- John Millar (1877)
- Margaret Daigle (1978)
- Dr. John Irving Bentley (1966, London, England)
- Thomas Glare (1863)
- John Hall (1850)
- Mary Reeser (1951, Florida)
- Mrs. Jean Saffin (2009, England)
- Edith Cook (1992)
- Steven Kish (1973)
- Alice Pyne (1980)
- Jagdish Shokeen (2010)
- Jack Angel (1974)
- Elsie Stephens (1951)
- Tom McGloughlin (1964)
- Margaret Morley (1850)
Spontaneous human combustion is an intriguing and mysterious phenomenon that has captivated the minds of scientists, researchers, and the public for centuries.
Despite the lack of scientific evidence, the phenomenon is still a topic of debate and speculation among experts, who have offered many theories and explanations for the occurrence of these events.
While the exact cause of spontaneous human combustion is still unknown, it is widely believed that a combination of environmental and physiological factors may be at play.
The most widely accepted theory is that a combination of high body fat content, low humidity, and an ignition source, such as a spark or flame, may be the catalyst for some of these events.
Additionally, some researchers believe that the excessive build-up of static electricity in the body due to the lack of proper grounding is also a contributing factor.
In conclusion, the cause of spontaneous human combustion is still unknown, and more research is needed to better understand this phenomenon.
While various theories have been put forward, they have yet to be conclusively proven.
More evidence will likely be required before a definitive answer can be reached, and until then, this bizarre phenomenon will remain an unexplained mystery.
At Ancient Theory we only use trusted sources to document our articles. Such relevant sources include authentic documents, newspaper and magazine articles, established authors, or reputable websites.
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- Larry E. Arnold - Ablaze!: The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion. M. Evans Publishing, 1995.
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