Is Spontaneous Human Combustion Real?

In December 2010, 76-year-old Michael Faherty died in his living room in Galway, Ireland His death was very unusual – his corpse was totally burned, but the fire damage was limited only to his body and the floor and ceiling above it

There was no clear cause of the fire After a forensic investigation, the coroner recorded Faherty’s death as a case of spontaneous human combustion Yet no-one knows what causes spontaneous human combustion For every person who dismisses it as unreal, someone else believes it is a supernatural phenomenon Could spontaneous human combustion be real? Flaherty’s death is similar to other cases

The FBI investigated the mysterious death of Mary Reeser in 1951 The 67-year-old was found incinerated along with her chair Only her foot, her spine and her strangely shrunken skull remained The other furniture in her room, and the building itself, was undamaged Like Mary Reeser and Michael Faherty, victims are always alone when they burn

There are no witnesses Usually the body is completely destroyed by the flames, except for the hands and feet, or lower limbs Fire damage is nearly always limited to the bodies, and there is no evidence of the victims being near a naked flame The only fuels provided by the human body are fat and methane gas For the body to reduce to ashes, it needs to reach an estimated temperature of over 1,600 degrees Celsius

We would expect significant damage to the environment from that level of heat The term ‘spontaneous human combustion’, or SHC, was coined in the mid-18th century But the first known account of SHC is from 1641 It was later popularised by Charles Dickens in his 1853 novel, Bleak House When critics denounced Dickens for using SHC in his book, the author cited 30 historical examples to support his decision

In the novel, a character who is a heavy gin drinker suddenly ignites from his belly This reflects the common early belief that only alcoholics suffered SHC However, this explanation is fraught with moralistic overtones In August 2012, biologist Brian J Ford offered a subtly more scientific spin on the theory

He says that alcoholism, diabetes, or a diet low in carbohydrates can lead to a build up of acetone in the body Acetone is highly flammable Ford says the legs and arms tend to survive because these parts of the body have the least fat, and therefore store the least acetone That said, he did not offer an explanation for what sparks the combustion On the other hand, Chemical Engineer John Abrahamson thinks SHC might be caused by ball lightning

This is a rare atmospheric electrical event where bright, spherical objects float in the air shortly before exploding It normally occurs during a thunderstorm, and reports say it leaves burns on humans who have approached it Unfortunately, ball lightning is still unproven and largely unstudied Its possible links to SHC are even less studied Paranormal investigator Larry E

Arnold has spent his career investigating SHC His research has found over 200 incidents of it in 300 years However, Arnold has been unable to provide a full explanation for the phenomenon For the most part, scientists dismiss SHC as a myth But experiments carried out by the BBC suggest it may really be caused by the wick effect

Simply put, victims’ bodies act as giant candles Much like candles used to be made of animal fat, a small flame is enough to break our skin and melt subcutaneous fat, which then acts as fuel This theory suggests SHC isn’t a big, spectacular fireball The flame stays small and burns slowly, consuming all the body tissue All reported victims were probably dressed when they burned, and their clothes act like a wick in a candle

This may further explain why the hands and feet tend to survive – not only are they the parts of the body with the least fat to burn, but they are also not covered by clothing Investigator Joe Nickell and forensic analyst John F Fischer found that SHC victims are usually found near fireplaces, lamps, ovens, ashtrays and the like Almost every case involves someone who is obese, of advanced age, or in poor health The victims are typically incapacitated or intoxicated, which explains why they are unable to respond properly when the fire starts (assuming they are alive when the fire starts)

This was the case with Mary Reeser, who habitually used sleeping pills and was a smoker She may have fallen asleep while smoking Michael Faherty was found next to his fireplace – given his age, he may have fallen unconscious and caught fire from a spark It is important to note that fire burns upwards It is hard for it to spread sideways, especially when it is small

Therefore we would expect nearby objects not to catch fire, much like a campfire keeps you warm without setting you ablaze Consequently, scientists generally blame SHC on undetected sources of fire, like matches or cigarettes, that would be destroyed in the ashes of the victims One in every four fire deaths in the USA

is caused by the improper disposal of smoking materials Yet the truth is that there is still no official explanation for SHC It may be the result of rare atmospheric phenomena; it may be the unfortunate result of carelessness; or it may be the result of some other, paranormal event The best we can do, is be careful when we fall asleep…

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