Spontaneous Human Combustion

Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is the alleged process of a human body catching fire as a result of heat generated by internal chemical or nuclear action. While no one has ever witnessed SHC, several deaths involving fire have been attributed to SHC by investigators and storytellers. Charles Dickens used SHC as the cause of death of a heavy drinker in his novel Bleak House (1852), fueling a popular belief that excessive drinking could lead to SHC. Responding to criticism that he was encouraging nonsense, in the second edition of Bleak House Dickens claims he knew of some thirty cases of SHC, but he mentions only two. Both cases allegedly happened over one hundred years earlier. Dickens or his source probably got his information about SHC from stories collected by Jonas Dupont published in De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis (1763).

One 17th century tale claims that a drunken German self-ignited due to his having imbibed an excessive amount of brandy. If drinking a great quantity of brandy or any other alcoholic beverage causes self-combustion, there should be many more such cases to study.

Many of the modern SHC stories have originated with police and fire investigators who have been perplexed by partially burned corpses near unburned rugs or furniture. They are completely baffled as to how a body could burn down to ashes except for a leg or a foot, while the rest of the room avoids being consumed by the flames.

Many of the allegedly spontaneously combusted corpses are of elderly people who may have ignited themselves accidentally. Some may have been murdered. Many are elderly women who may have had osteoporosis, making their bones burn at a lower temperature than needed for healthy bones. Self-ignition due to dropping a lit cigarette or ignition due to another person are ruled out by some investigators as unlikely because they think the whole room should have gone up in flames in such cases. Even when candles or fireplaces present a plausible explanation for the cause of a fire, some investigators favor an explanation that requires belief in an event whose likelihood is extremely implausible.

The physical possibilities of spontaneous human combustion are remote. Not only is the body mostly water, but aside from fat tissue and methane gas, there isn't much that burns readily in a human body. To cremate a human body requires a temperature of 1600 degrees Fahrenheit for about two hours.

Fringe researcher Larry Arnold has advanced a theory that sometimes human cells are hit by a mysterious particle, the pyrotron, that causes a nuclear chain reaction inside a person's body. Skeptics say that his theory is based on wild speculation and ignorance of both cellular life and spontaneous nuclear fusion.

Other Theories:
maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation) induction, geomagnetism, and even kundalini (a form of yoga/mystic body heating).

A more economical and reasonable theory of how human bodies burn in rooms without having the entire room engulfed in flames is the idea of the wick effect. The ignition point of human fat is low and to get the fire going would require an external source. Once ignited, however, a "wick effect" from the body's fat would burn hot enough in certain places to destroy even bones. To prove that a human being might burn like a candle, Dr. John de Haan of the California Criminalistic Institute wrapped a dead pig in a blanket, poured a small amount of gasoline on the blanket, and ignited it. Even the bones were destroyed after five hours of continuous burning. The fat content of a pig is very similar to the fat content of a human being. The damage to the pig, according to Dr. De Haan "is exactly the same as that from supposed spontaneous human combustion." A National Geographic special on SHC showed a failed attempt to duplicate the burning pig experiment. However, it is obvious that the failure was due to leaving the door to the room open to the outside, which created a draft and led to the flames igniting everything in the room. Had the room been closed up, as are the rooms in which many of the elderly persons have died in fires attributed to SHC, it is likely that the pig would have smoldered for several hours without the rest of the room becoming engulfed in flames.

In their investigation of a number of SHC cases, Dr. Joe Nickell and Dr. John Fisher found that when the destruction of the body was minimal, the only significant fuel source was the individual's clothes, but where the destruction was considerable, additional fuel sources increased the combustion. Materials under the body help retain melted fat that flows from the body and serves to keep it burning. The reason some bodies are totally consumed except for the legs or feet probably has to do with the fact that these victims were seated when they caught fire and flames move upward.

Some alleged cases of SHC are cases of spontaneous combustion but they are explicable by natural means. For example, a chemical reaction on or in a person's clothing can result in spontaneous combustion. National Geographic investigated a case of a woman whose clothes suddenly caught fire and burned the skin on her thigh. The most likely explanation is that she put a shell in her pocket that was covered in sodium from a fireworks show that had taken place on the beach where she had retrieved the shell. Later, she stuck a wet handkerchief in her pocket with the shell. The sodium may have reacted with the water, releasing hydrogen that self-ignited, causing her burns. In any case, she did not burn from the inside, as is claimed happens to SHC victims.

Richard Milton, the alternative scientist, lists several cases that he thinks are convincing proof of SHC. All but one of the cases he cites come from Larry Arnold.

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