"The next morning, at eight o'clock, the neighbours, perceiving a strong smell of smoke, entered her room, and there found the unfortunate woman upon the floor almost completely burned, with her feet turned towards the chimney place, in which, however there was no fire. The face and hair and portion of the neck, and upper part of the shoulders, were not injured. The skin and muscles of the back were, however, thoroughly burnt, as were the sides, and the anterior portion of the trunk. There was nothing left of the upper extremities but the bones.....The upper portions of the lower limbs were also burnt. The stockings were entire. Under one of her arms there was still a portion of the chair upon which she had been seated, and under her an earthen pot, such as is used by the poor to hold a few coals to warm their feet. The chair was almost completely burned, the floor was covered with a black soot and an exposed beam in the wall of the room was charred upon the surface. The chest was untouched, as was also the muslin curtains, only three feet distant from the body."
Charles Dickens wrote of Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) on more than one occasion. He first used it to kill a character in his novel 'Bleak House'. The ensuing wave of popular scepticism after the publication of his novel in 1853 fired his interest in the possible causes of SHC. The first documented case of SHC was reported in 1662 and by Dickens time, there had been well over 30 well documented cases.
What makes a Spontaneously combusted body different from a body that has been caught in a "normal" house fire? Spontaneous combustion is defined as, "The ignition and burning of a mass independently of contact to any burning body." In other words, human beings suddenly burst into flames for no discernible reason.
Cases of SHC have many features which distinguish them from other fires.
i) The burning is never spontaneous. There is always an ignition source present in the room nearby the victim.
ii) The body is normally more severely burned than one that has been caught in a normal fire. The burns are not distributed evenly over the body; the extremities are usually untouched by fire, whereas the torso usually suffers severe burning. In many cases the torso is completely destroyed, the bones being reduced completely to ash.
iii) In 80% of cases the victims are female. A large proportion of victims were also overweight or alcoholics. Furthermore, death usually occurred after the victim had been drinking.
iv) The combustion is localized to the body. Almost no fire damage is done to other objects in the vicinity of the body. Often the victims clothes are left untouched by the fire.
v) The floor around the deceased is often covered with a viscous, foul smelling, oily yellow liquid.
vi) All cases occur inside. The victim is was always alone for a long period of time. It is always fatal. Witnesses who were nearby (eg in adjacent rooms) never heard any sounds, such as cries of pain or calls for assistance.
If SHC is so well documented why is there such an air of mystery surrounding it. After all, are not SHC victims people who have simply had the misfortune to set themselves on fire?
Under normal circumstances, human bodies do not burn very well. The body is approximately 80% water. Getting a body to burn independently is a very difficult thing to do, as many a would be murderer has found to his or her cost. (quite a few cases of supposed SHC have turned out to be murders) One such example involves someone who wanted to destroy a foetus. The foetus was soaked in alcohol over a long period of time so that the alcohol has time to penetrate all of the bodily tissues. However the foetus would only burn so long as a flame was applied. As soon as the flame was removed the body stopped burning.
A similar experiment can be demonstrated quite effectively in the home. Take the traditional custom of setting light to the christmas pudding. When the pudding is lit it is the brandy that burns, not the pudding itself.
Human bodies can be made to burn to completion under certain circumstances. When bodies are cremated they are reduced to ash. However the temperatures that are used to do this are much higher than those found in a normal house fire. If such conditions were reached then the whole body would be destroyed, not just the limbs. There would also be little chance of nearby objects escaping the fire. Certainly the subjects clothing would not escape destruction. In fact it is difficult to see how a fire hot enough to cause incineration of bone could start. Although there are always ignition points in the room they are usually fairly small, such as candles or small coal or electrical fires. Even in large fires when whole buildings have been destroyed there are always some skeletal remains of those unfortunate enough to be caught inside.
The theories that have been put forward to explain SHC are varied and colourful, to say the least. Most have some scientific basis. There are some, of course, that do not.
As soon as the first SHC case became well publicised then the theory of divine retribution was put forward. The weekly World News carried the headline, 'PREACHER EXPLODES IN PULPIT!' The paper claimed that an evangelist in San Francisco exploded whilst giving a fire and brimstone sermon to his congregation. However the Weekly World News is a paper that never let the facts get in the way of a good story and so the authenticity of this report leaves a lot to be desired. The second type of implausible theories fall into the "Death Rays from Space" category. The less said about these the better. It is interesting to note that these more far fetched ideas seem to have gained more popular support in this century than in earlier ones...
Most of the early theories put forward in the 1800's were concerned with alcohol consumption. It was thought that has most of the victims had been drinking heavily before they died that the accumulation of such a substance in the body tissues would dramatically increase the combustibility of the body. It was also thought that the body metabolised alcohol to produce hydrogen and other inflammable gases which were then stored in the body tissues. A spark, produced by the body's own electricity would then ignite the body. Thomas Mitchell wrote that he would not be surprised to see alcoholics, "Blown into the air in consequence of the explosion of combustible gases formed in their systems." As knowledge of body metabolism increased this theory was dismissed.
THE CANDLE EFFECT
This theory was first put forward about 100 years ago and has continued to gain support. The theory assumes that the combustion is not spontaneous and that there is always an ignition source. Any cases where no source of ignition are present are assumed to be misreported or hoax. Instead the theory tires to explain the increased combustibility of the body.
Dupuytren states that alcohol is not directly involved in the increased combustibility of the victims. Instead alcohol serves to stupefy and incapacitate the victims prior to them being set alight. Dupuytren's scenario goes something like this:
The victim usually drinks a lot of alcohol before going to sleep in front of a fire or other naked ignition source. During the course of the night the victim comes into contact with an ignition source which sets a portion of the victims clothing alight. We must now consider what happens to bodies that have been set alight (in the presence of a separate fuel source to allow the fire to continue burning). Superintendent Tozer8 of the Manchester Fire Brigade commented on what happens to a burning body; "The flesh presents a parboiled appearance; the skin then becomes loose and comes off on the fingers of any person touching it; finally the skin dries and cracks; the fat melts, and some bodies may burn independently."
Given this information it is possible to see how a body will burn when it is set alight. At first the fire is fuelled by the original ignition source. This burns the skin and melts the subcutaneous fat. This then soaks into the victims clothing which then acts as a wick. The fat will burn and so the body will fuel its own combustion. The body will continue to burn until there are no more fatty tissues left.
This theory offers some explanations for some of the more puzzling aspects of SHC. The large number of alcoholics among SHC victims is explained by the fact that people who were not drunk at the time are a lot less likely to set fire to themselves in the first place. People who were not drunk are a lot more able to rescue themselves or call for help if they have set themselves alight. People who are in an alcohol induced sleep are of course unable to do this.
Women and overweight people have a greater amount of subcutaneous fat. (Alcoholics also tend to be overweight) The excess fat is usually found on the torso and thighs. The more fat that is present then the more fuel is available for the body to burn independently. The areas that are usually the most badly damaged in cases of SHC are exactly those areas that have the largest concentration of fatty tissues (ie the torso and thighs).
Parts of the body which are not covered by clothing will not burn. The melted fats need a wick for them to burn effectively. However, areas not covered with clothing will suffer scalds from the hot oils and fats. There is evidence for this taking place, as exposed parts of the skin in SHC victims often has a reddish and blistered appearance, as would be expected in a scald.
A fat fuelled fire is supported by other bits of evidence. Burning fat would produce large amounts of smoke, which would account for the large amounts of soot found in the rooms of SHC victims. The melted fat would also account for the yellow liquid found around some SHC victims. Some of the melted fat would run off the victims and pool on the floor where it would remain unburnt (due to lack of a wick).
Whatever the reasons for the increased combustibility of the body, the chances of bursting into flame whilst walking down the street seem fairly slim. I will leave the last word to Dave Lister, who has just found the remains of his ex-girlfriend...
"So Krissie's dead.", he said, staring at the small hummock of dust. "I, ah, had this sort of plan that one day I'd had enough money to buy a small farm in Fiji. It's cheap land there, and...in a half assed kind of way, I always pictured she'd be there with me."
"Well," Holly said, "She wouldn't be much use to you on fiji now."
"No." said Lister.
"Not unless in snowed," said Holly, "and you needed something to grit the path with."
Although I have explained some cases of spontaneous human combustion, there are still those that defy our every explanation. These are the few cases that are truly intriguing. The following is one of those cases, and a well recorded one at that.
On January 8, 1985, seventeen-year-old Jacqueline Fitzsimons, a cookery student at Halton Technical College in Cheshire, England, had left the kitchen and was talking to classmates in the corrider when she suddenly burst into flames. She'd first complained of a burning sensation in her back while talking to a friend, Karen Glenholmes. "Suddenly, Jacqueline said she did not feel well," Karen said. "There was a smell of smouldering and we saw her shirt burning. She screamed to us for help and said she was burning all over. In a moment even her hair was on fire." Staff members and students in the hallway ripped away Jacquleine's apron, then beat her burning clothing in an effort to stifle the flames. She was then rushed to a hospital, where they found 18 percent of her skin was burned away. After fifteen days in ICU, she died. Cheshire fire prevention officer Bert Gilles admitted he was as baffled as anyone. "I have interviewed seven eyewitnesses, and so far there is no clear explanation of the fire, though spontaneous combustion is a possibility that should be examined."
Why do people burst into flames for no reason? How can it happen without an ignition source? These, and the many questions like them may never be answered. So until that day, just remember: No one is safe.