There is one type of fire that has left mainstream science stumped since the very origins were first recorded. The terrifying Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC).
Thankfully, recorded cases are sporadic at best, but they do happen. With each additional report, scientists do believe that they are closer to explaining at least a part of what takes place. Current beliefs are that an internal fuel source, quite possibly intestinal methane, is allowed to build up over a given amount of time and would eventually ignite. This internal fire will go largely unnoticed and grow as time continues onwards. Eventually, this fire will reach a point that the human body would not be able to contain it any longer and the unfortunate victim will literally burn from the inside out.
One of the most puzzling things about the entire process is how little external damage the fire would leave. With the exception of the victim, additional damage is rarely found at the scene of an SHC fire. In order for a human body to burn beyond just ashes, temperatures have to be extreme to an Nth degree, yet much of the scene is often untouched. While the debate about what causes SHC in the first place – from methane to enzymes to consumed alcohol to static electricity – continues, how such a rampant fire can only damage limited property or belongings isn’t something anyone can fathom. Some investigators would be quick to point out that the fire is strictly an internal one only and never ventures far beyond the confines of the host body, even if other flammable items are within easy reach.
What Causes Spontaneous Human Combustion
Perhaps the best expert in SHC is Cambridge biologist Brian J Ford. Professor Ford has conducted numerous experiments to try to get to the bottom of this mystery and has put forward the idea that, in certain conditions, the human body will act like a ‘reverse candle’. The principle behind the burning of candles is the internal wick of a candle will react to the outer wax and keep the candle burning. In SHC, Ford believes that the person’s normal body fat acts as fuel and their clothing or even hair takes the role of the wick. As the fat melts from the generated heat, it soaks into the clothing and maintains a steady temperature causing the body to burn at a much slower rate. Ford also believes this is why there is insignificant damage to the surrounding areas.
First Reported Case: Polonus Vorstius
The first known case of Spontaneous Human Combustion came from Italy sometime in the late 14th Century. Polonus Vorstius was just another Italian knight who would not really stand out in a crowd. Like many men of the time, he enjoyed the company of women, drink as much as possible in the least possible time, and singing. Reports say that he drank some wine and reacted in a serious way. Vorstius apparently coughed up a fire and erupted in flames on the spot.
Countess Cornelia Di Brandi
Reports in the 17th century indicate that a noblewoman became a victim of SHC during one evening. The body of Countess Cornelia Di Brandi lay halfway between her bedchamber and window. All that was left of her were a trio of fingers of one hand and both lower legs. Soot covered much of the scene, including uneaten bread left on a plate, but the room showed very little damage. When the bread was offered to a dog, the canine refused to touch it.
On July 2, 1951, in St. Petersburg, Florida, landlady Pansy Carpenter found the body of Mary Reeser burned to ashes in a recliner. Many people theorized her death as caused by Spontaneous Human Combustion. The FBI later ruled it as an accidental death due to Mary falling asleep with a lit cigarette.
Related: Death of Mary Reeser
Most Recent Case
Over the years there have been several recorded cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion that have achieved notoriety. In what is likely to be the most recent case of SHC, an Irish pensioner named Michael Faherty was discovered inside his flat in September 2010. Even though he was discovered with his head close to an open fireplace, the fireplace itself did not cause the fire that claimed his life. Accelerants and foul play were quickly ruled out as a cause.
SHC in Court Proceedings
Who would imagine that Spontaneous Human Combustion would actually be used as a legal defense? In 1725, Parisian innkeeper discovered the remains of his wife in the kitchen of the inn. She was reduced to a pile of ashes, but the wooden utensils surrounding her remained unburned. Conflicting reports state that she was discovered on a bed of straw, which was untouched. Suspicion immediately fell on the widower who was tried and found guilty of murder. Using his right to appeal the conviction, he argued that his crime was due to a “visitation from God”. He won his appeal.
A more recent attempt at litigation in America was not so successful. Jack Angel was admitted to a hospital suffering from severe burns. Angel initiated a $3 million dollar lawsuit to the manufacturer of a hot water bottle he had used. He claimed when he went to check on a malfunctioning heater, it exploded in his face and scalded him.
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When a doctor examined him, the doctor discovered the burns originated internally. Once this became public, Angel changed his story and claimed he fell asleep and awoke with burns on him. He tried to cash in on the fact he was one of just a few people to survive SHC.
Not everyone believes in spontaneous human combustion. Many insist that all fires can be explained if the ignition source is known. Fires are avoidable by using basic safety precautions. Others disagree with this assessment and blame the cause of SHC to strange alterations of a victim’s internal body chemistry. They warn that such a shift can happen to anyone at any time.
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