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Spontaneous Human Combustion

By , Friday 4th April 2008 in Natural World

Spontaneous human combustion (or SHC for short) is a theory that the human body can catch fire, burn or explode without any source of ignition.

The combustion may result in simple burns and blisters to the skin, smoking, or a complete incineration of the body. Over the past 300 years, there have been more than 200 reports of persons burning to a crisp for no apparent reason.

The first reliable historic evidence of Spontaneous Human Combustion appears to be from the year 1673, when Frenchman Jonas Dupont published a collection of Spontaneous Human Combustion cases and studies entitled De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis. Dupont was inspired to write this book after encountering records of the Nicole Millet case, in which a man was acquitted of the murder of his wife when the court was convinced that she had been killed by spontaneous combustion. Millet, a hard-drinking Parisian was found reduced to ashes in his straw bed, leaving just his skull and finger bones. The straw matting was only lightly damaged. Dupont's book on this strange subject brought it out of the realm of folkloric rumour and into the popular public imagination.

Many theories have attempted to explain the phenomenon, but must rely on an external point of combustion. One such hypothesis is the wick effect in which the clothing of the victim soaks up melted human fat and acts like the wick of a candle. The actual likelihood that truly spontaneous human combustion can take place is remote, due to the presence of vast quantities of water and the lack of highly flammable compounds and oxygen in the human body.

Modern Investigations

A modern example is the unnamed woman discussed in a 1965 paper entitled "A Case of Spontaneous Combustion" by Professor David Gee, Head of the Department of Forensic Medicine at the University of Leeds.

Professor Gee states:

"Belief in the occurrence of spontaneous combustion is of respectable antiquity. More recently opinion has swung away from the quasi-supernatural views of earlier years, to regard such cases as due to unusual degrees of flammability of the human body in certain circumstances, distinguishing the condition with the name preternatural combustion."

Professor Gee's article concerns an 85-year-old woman who fell dead in her home of a heart attack. Her head landed in the hearth of her open coal fire and her body was "grossly incinerated, apart from the right foot which lay beyond the damaged floorboards. Both arms and the left leg had been almost completely destroyed."

That the victim was dead before the combustion began was learned from an examination of the remaining parts of her body, which also shows how incompletely the victim's body had been destroyed:

"The coronary and internal carotid arteries showed atheromatous disease. No soot particles were present in the trachea. Blood from the right foot contained no carboxyhaemoglobin."

Following from a SHC event, the body is normally more severely burned than one that has been burned in a normal fire. The extremities are usually untouched by fire while the torso suffers severe burning. Only objects immediately associated with the body have burned; the fire never spread away from the body. SHC victims have burnt up in bed without the sheets catching fire, clothing worn is often barely singed, and flammable materials only inches away remain untouched. A greasy soot deposit covers the ceiling and walls, usually stopping three to four feet above the source of combustion and objects overhead show signs of heat damage, such as melted candles and cracked mirrors. Temperatures of around 1,600 degrees Celsius (3,000 degrees Fahrenheit) are normally required to char a body so thoroughly.

Scientific Experimentation

In August 1998, using a dead pig wrapped in a blanket and placed in a mocked-up room, the BBC set out to prove the wick effect theory in its science television show QED. The episode was entitled "The Burning Question".

A small amount of petrol was poured on the blanket as an accelerant. After igniting the petrol, the researchers left it to burn by itself. The temperature of the fire was regularly recorded at only around 800

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