Spontaneous human combustion

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For combustion not involving the human body, see spontaneous combustion.

Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is a term encompassing reported cases of the burning of a living (or very recently deceased) human body without an apparent external source of ignition. In addition to reported cases, examples of SHC appear in literature, and both types have been observed to share common characteristics regarding circumstances and remains of the victim.

Forensic investigations have attempted to analyze reported instances of SHC and have resulted in hypotheses regarding potential causes and mechanisms, including victim behavior and habits, alcohol consumption and proximity to potential sources of ignition, as well as the behavior of fires that consume melted fats. Natural explanations, as well as unverified natural phenomena, have been proposed to explain reports of SHC.


"Spontaneous human combustion" refers to the death from a fire originating without an apparent external source of ignition.[1] Writing in the British Medical Journal, Gavin Thurston describes the phenomenon as having "attracted the attention not only of the medical profession but of the laity" as early as 1834 (more than one hundred years prior to Thurston's 1938 article).[2] In his 1995 book Ablaze!, Larry E. Arnold wrote that there had been about 200 cited reports of spontaneous human combustion worldwide over a period of around 300 years.[3]


The topic received coverage in the British Medical Journal in 1938. An article by L. A. Parry cited an 1823-published paper, "Medical Jurisprudence," which stated that commonalities among recorded cases of spontaneous human combustion included the following characteristics:

"[...]the recorded cases have these things in common:

  1. the victims are chronic alcoholics;
  2. they are usually elderly females;
  3. the body has not burned spontaneously, but some lighted substance has come into contact with it;
  4. the hands and feet usually fall off;
  5. the fire has caused very little damage to combustible things in contact with the body;
  6. the combustion of the body has left a residue of greasy and fetid ashes, very offensive in odour."[4]

Alcoholism is a common theme in early SHC literary references, in part because some Victorian era physicians and writers believed spontaneous human combustion was the result of alcoholism.[5]

Forensic investigation[edit]

An extensive two-year research project, involving thirty historical cases of alleged SHC, was conducted in 1984 by science investigator Joe Nickell and forensic analyst John F. Fischer. Their lengthy, two-part report was published in the journal of the International Association of Arson Investigators,[6]:3–11 as well as part of a book.[7] Nickell has written frequently on the subject,[6][7] appeared on television documentaries, conducted additional research, and lectured at the New York State Academy of Fire Science at Montour Falls, NY, as a guest instructor.

Nickell and Fischer's investigation, which looked at cases in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, showed that the burned bodies were near plausible sources for the ignition: candles, lamps, fireplaces, and so on. Sometimes these sources were left out of popular accounts of the alleged phenomenon while they were hyped as mysterious. The investigations also found that there was a correlation between alleged SHC deaths and victim's drunkenness or other incapacitation that could have caused them to be careless with fire and less able to respond properly to an accident. Where the destruction of the body was not extensive, the significant fuel source was the victim's clothing.

However, where the destruction was extensive, additional fuel sources were involved, such as chair stuffing, floor coverings, the flooring itself, and the like. The investigators described how such materials helped retain melted fat to burn and destroy more of the body, yielding still more liquified fat, in a cyclic process known as the "wick effect" (or "candle effect").

According to Nickell and Fischer's investigation, nearby objects often went undamaged because fire tends to burn upward, and it burns laterally with some difficulty. The fires in question are relatively small, achieving considerable destruction by the wick effect, and relatively nearby objects may not be close enough to catch fire themselves (much as one can get rather close to a modest campfire without burning). As with other mysteries, Nickell and Fischer cautioned against "single, simplistic explanation for all unusual burning deaths" but rather urged investigating "on an individual basis."[7]:169

Suggested explanations[edit]

Some hypotheses attempt to explain how SHC might occur without an external flame source, while other hypotheses suggest incidents that might appear as spontaneous combustion actually had an external source of ignition – and that the likelihood of spontaneous human combustion without an external ignition source is quite low.[8] Benjamin Radford, science writer and deputy editor of the science magazine Skeptical Inquirer, casts doubt on the plausibility of spontaneous human combustion, "If SHC is a real phenomenon (and not the result of an elderly or infirm person being too close to a flame source), why doesn’t it happen more often? There are 5 billion (editor's note: as of 2011) people in the world, and yet we don’t see reports of people bursting into flame while walking down the street, attending football games, or sipping a coffee at a local Starbucks."[9] Paranormal researcher Brian Dunning states that SHC stories "are simply the rare cases where a natural death in isolation has been followed by a slow combustion from some nearby source of ignition." He further suggested that reports of people suddenly aflame should be called "Unsolved deaths by fire," stating that the cause being unknown did not necessarily imply that it had not resulted from an external ignition source.[10]

Natural explanations[edit]

Unverified natural phenomena[edit]

Notable examples[edit]

Henry Thomas, a 73-year-old man, was found burned to death in the living room of his council house on the Rassau council estate in Ebbw Vale, south Wales, in 1980. His entire body was incinerated, leaving only his skull and a portion of each leg below the knee. The feet and legs were still clothed in socks and trousers. Half of the chair in which he had been sitting was also destroyed. Police forensic officers decided that the incineration of Thomas was due to the wick effect. His death was ruled 'death by burning', as he had plainly inhaled the contents of his own combustion.[23]

In December 2010, the death of Michael Faherty in County Galway, Ireland, was recorded as "spontaneous combustion" by the coroner. The doctor, Ciaran McLoughlin, made this statement at the inquiry into the death: "This fire was thoroughly investigated and I'm left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation."[24]

In August 2013, Rahul, a two and one half months-old infant from Tamil Nadu, India, was admitted to the Kilpauk Medical College and Hospital in Chennai,[25] having four reported burn injuries since birth.[26] Initial tests ruled out any abnormalities, and further results led the hospital to conclude that it was not spontaneous human combustion.[27][28] The baby's mother used to live in another village which had come in the news in 2004, when residents had complained that their homes spontaneously burst into flames. Investigations had shown that phosphorus hidden in cow dung had been present in the huts; phosphorus has a low ignition point and can cause fires.[29]

Cultural references[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "'First Irish case' of death by spontaneous combustion". BBC News. 23 September 2011. 
  2. ^ Thurston, Gavin (18 June 1938). Spontaneous Human Combustion 1 (4041). British Medical Journal. p. 1340. PMC 2086726. 
  3. ^ a b c d Arnold, Larry E. (1995). Ablaze!: The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion. ISBN 0871317893. 
  4. ^ Parry, L. A. (4 June 1938). Spontaneous Combustion 1 (4039). British Medical Journal. p. 1237. PMC 2086687. 
  5. ^ Collins, Nick (23 September 2011). "Spontaneous human combustion: examples from fiction". The Telegraph. Retrieved 2013-10-10. 
  6. ^ a b Nickell, Joe; Fischer, John F. (March 1984). "Spontaneous Human Combustion". The Fire and Arson Investigator 34 (3). 
  7. ^ a b c Nickell, Joe (1991). Secrets of The Supernatural. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books. pp. 149–157, 161–171. 
  8. ^ "Skeptic’s Dictionary on spontaneous human combustion, Retrieved Oct 20, 2007 "The physical possibilities of spontaneous human combustion are remote."". Skepdic.com. 24 September 2011. Retrieved 24 May 2012. 
  9. ^ "Irishman died of spontaneous human combustion, coroner claims". MSNBC. 26 September 2011. Retrieved 8 October 2011. 
  10. ^ Brian Dunning (17 May 2011). "Spontaneous Human Combustion: People can catch on fire... but can it really happen when there is no external source of ignition?". Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena. Retrieved 7 November 2011. 
  11. ^ "Spontaneous Human Combustion". Skeptoid.com. Retrieved 24 May 2012. 
  12. ^ "Cigarettes’ Role in Fires Growing". Consumeraffairs.com. Retrieved 24 May 2012. 
  13. ^ a b Joe Nickell (March–April 1998). "Fiery tales that spontaneously destruct – reports on spontaneous human combustion – includes an investigative chronology based on a published photograph". Skeptical Inquirer 22.2. 
  14. ^ Palmiere C, Staub C, La Harpe R, Mangin P (2009). "Ignition of a human body by a modest external source: a case report". Forensic Sci Int 188 (1–3): e17–9. doi:10.1016/j.forsciint.2009.03.027. PMID 19410396. 
  15. ^ Campbell, S. J.; S. Nurbakhsh (1999). "Combustion of animal fat and its implications for the consumption of human bodies in fires". Science & Justice 39 (1): 27–38. 
  16. ^ Watson, Stephanie. "How Spontaneous Human Combustion Works". HowStuffWorks. HowStuffWorks Inc. Retrieved 24 September 2011. 
  17. ^ http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn1720#.U50cjLGeud8
  18. ^ Joe Nickell (Nov–December 1996). "Not-so-spontaneous human combustion". Skeptical Inquirer. Retrieved 16 August 2010. 
  19. ^ Ford, Brian J. (2012). "Solving the Mystery of Spontaneous Human Combustion". The Microscope (60): 63–72. Retrieved 23 August 2012. 
  20. ^ Ford, Brian J. (18 August 2012). "The big burn theory". NewScientist: 30–31. Retrieved 23 August 2012. 
  21. ^ Nickell, Joe (December 1996). "Spontaneous Human Nonsense". Skeptical Inquirer 6.4. 
  22. ^ a b c d e Nickell, Joe (November–December 1996). "Not-So-Spontaneous Human Combustion". Skeptical Inquirer 20.6. 
  23. ^ Heymer, John E (1996): 'The Entrancing Flame'; London; Little, Brown; ISBN 0-316-87694-1
  24. ^ Ensor, Josie (23 September 2011). "Irish pensioner 'died of spontaneous human combustion'". Telegraph. Retrieved 23 September 2011. 
  25. ^ Saradha Mohan Kumar (10 August 2013). "In rare condition, Tamil Nadu infant keeps catching fire". Times of India. Retrieved 10 August 2013. 
  26. ^ Meenakshi Mahadevan (Aug 11, 2013). "TN: 3-month-old baby bursts into flames whenever he sweats". IBN live. Retrieved 11 August 2013. 
  27. ^ "KMC lodges complaint over 'blazing baby'". The New Indian Express. 23 August 2013. Retrieved 2013-08-23. 
  28. ^ "‘Human torch’ baby tests normal, doctors stumped". Times of India. 13 Aug 2013. Retrieved 13 August 2013. 
  29. ^ Sujatha, R. (August 16, 2013). "Baby burning case: docs hint at child abuse". The Hindu. Retrieved 2013-08-17. 
  30. ^ Marryat, Frederick (1834). Jacob Faithful. Retrieved 2013-10-09. 
  31. ^ Dickens, Charles (1852). Bleak House. 
  32. ^ "Spontaneous Human Combustion". BBC. 28 March 2013. "There are those who assert that the first documentation of this phenomena appeared in the Bible; however, their accuracy may be disputed as these accounts are much too old and based on second-hand knowledge to be considered reliable evidence." 
  33. ^ "Trevor". The X-Files. Season 6. 11 April 1999. Fox Broadcasting Company.
  34. ^ "Face Lift". CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Season 1. Episode 17. 08 March 2001. CBS.

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