Spontaneous human combustion

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Jump to: navigation, search

Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is the burning of the human body without an external source of ignition. There is speculation and controversy regarding SHC. There are about 200 cited cases [1] worldwide over a period of around 300 years; however, most of the alleged cases are characterised by the lack of a thorough investigation, or are based on hearsay. In many of the more recent cases, where photographic evidence is available, it is alleged that there was an external source of heat present (often cigarettes), and nothing occurred 'spontaneously'.


[edit] The causes of spontaneous human combustion

There are many hypothesised explanations which account for the various cases of spontaneous human combustion. These generally fall into one of three groups: supernatural explanations (e.g. a ghost caused it), natural explanations that credit some unknown and otherwise unobserved phenomenon (e.g. raised levels of blood alcohol cause spontaneous ignition), and natural explanations that involve an external source of ignition (e.g. the victim dropped a cigarette).

[edit] Some suggested explanations

Many hypotheses have attempted to explain how SHC might occur, but those which rely on current scientific understanding say that with instances mistaken for spontaneous combustion, there actually was a source of ignition. The likelihood that truly spontaneous human combustion actually takes place within the body is quite low.[2]

  • 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.
  • Another possibility is that the both clothing and the person are caused to burn by a discharge of static electricity. Static electricity meters have detected thousands of volts on persons walking across carpeted flooring for instance (and usually in low humidity conditions).
  • Another theory poses that, since every human body contains varying strengths of electrical field and the human body also contains flammable gases (mainly methane in the intestines), an electrical discharge could be able to ignite these gases. The oxygen needed for combustion is ostensibly provided by the air around the victim.
  • Yet another theory suggests that an external but naturally occurring phenomenon (e.g. high energy particles/gamma rays for instance (Arnold)) perhaps coupled with susceptibilities in the potential victim (e.g. possibly increased alcohol in the blood for instance) triggers the initial reaction. This process may use no external oxygen to spread throughout the body and which may not even be an oxidation-reduction reaction in the first place. Normally bone destruction in a crematorium requires 12 hours at temperatures above 2500 degrees Fahrenheit. Since the destruction to the victims bones are often complete, resulting in pure ash, the implied operating mechanism must achieve extremely high temperatures, perhaps in the several thousands of degrees for a short duration in order to achieve complete "ashing" of the body with low damage to nearby flammable items (e.g. like clothing in contact for instance). Demographic attempts to categorize the victims fail since many age groups are represented including infants as are animals. However, the elderly population seems to be more represented than other age groups.
  • The victim is an alcoholic and has been smoking whilst drinking or shortly after drinking a strong spirit. There are claims that this raises the blood alcohol level to a point where it ignites, however, this 'explanation' is implausible, since ethanol typically burns only if the concentration is greater than about 23%, whereas a fatally toxic level is about 1%.[3] (To reach a blood alcohol level of 20% would mean drinking many bottles of pure vodka, for example.) Many attempts to assign the cause of a fire to a drunk who dropped a cigarette fail since the clothing is unable to be brought to a burning (vs slow smoldering) state by experimentation afterward. Also, many times the human burns up but not the clothing they were wearing. In many cases, no cigarettes or pipe are found on the scene and witnesses who knew the victim confirm that the person was a non-smoker. Since SHC is rare among people, these simple conditions alone are insufficient to explain SHC.

[edit] Problems with identifying an accurate explanation

Defenders of SHC object to attempts to link the subject with other unknown phenomena such as "crystal balls", "psychic forces", "curses" and so on. The problem is that agreed facts are few and attempts to replicate SHC for scientific study have not been successful. Some advocates of SHC (Arnold for example) have proposed a theory that it is a natural process whose cause is not at present understood. The merits of this position cannot be assessed until a proper study of SHC is undertaken, but the rarity of the phenomenon is a major obstacle. However, theories attempt to explain the best available evidence and rise or fall based on merit, thus the listing shown above.

Possible lines of enquiry include the following:

  • Radiation counters /sensor count with timestamp ref to location and time elapsed (Arnold).
  • Blood chemistry analysis per distance from ashed region (for unburned remaining flesh).
  • Detailed ash analysis of victim(s) (e.q. liquid gas chromatography, mass spectrometry, etc.)
  • Detailed inventory of food and drink on the scene (including water samples from sink, cups. etc.
  • Research into what the victims ate or drank for several days prior to the event.
  • Sampling melted and unmelted plastics with documentation of distance from main heat source. The detailed composition of these plastics should be compared.
  • Details of local weather in the days before the event.
  • Listing of any other anomalies within a several block area of SHC event even if thought to be unrelated (noises, flashes of light, EMI, EMF, radio disturbances, power failures or brown outs, etc.)
  • Non-contact temperature readings of "remains" videotaped over time from arrival on scene to 12–24 hours later. Same for infrared spectrum.
  • Monitoring of first actors'/responders'-in-contact health to see if any after affects result and are in common with others.

It would be desirable - though probably impracticable - to have specially trained teams to investigate cases of suspected SHC. The immediate response time requirement almost dictates that local fire response personnel be trained in this regard of extended forensic data collection.

[edit] John E Heymer and The Entrancing Flame

Described by Joe Nickell as an "English coal-miner-turned-constable,"[4] John E. Heymer wrote a 1996 book entitled The Entrancing Flame.

The title is derived from one inductive conclusion that he had reached from examining many cases; namely that SHC victims are lonely people who fall into a trance immediately before their incineration. Heymer suggests that a psychosomatic process in such emotionally-distressed people can trigger off a chain reaction by freeing hydrogen and oxygen within the body and setting off a chain reaction of mitochondrial explosions.

Ian Simmons, in a review of The Entrancing Flame, criticized Heymer thus: "He seems to be under the illusion that hydrogen and oxygen exist as gases in the mitochondrial cell [sic] and are thus vulnerable to ignition, which is, in fact, not the case."[5]

Heymer's theories may be thematically but not specifically correct in that "blue jets of flames" are commonly seen in the SHC victims (both deceased and survivors). "Brown's gas" [6] also exhibits a similar trait in the burning of Hydrogen (and Oxygen) and may thus be somehow relevant especially with regards to the higher temperatures reached (especially with a "welding arc" assist/ supplement). However, the production of an Oxyhydrogen mix is unlikely with the mild conditions in the body relative to the stability of the H2O molecule, as well as the fact that hydrogen burns with a translucent nearly invisible flame in the presence of oxygen.

[edit] Alleged deaths and survivals

[edit] Deaths

[edit] Survivals

A number of people have reported serious burns that injured their bodies with no apparent cause, suggesting SHC or a very closely-related occurrence. This list is not intended to be taken as comprehensive.

  • Jack Angel
  • Many more cases are discussed in Larry E. Arnolds book [1][8] .

[edit] Survivors of static flash fires/events

Two examples of people surviving potentially-catastrophic static flash events are given in Heymer's book The Entrancing Flame. Both cases are supported by eyewitnesses. The accounts are in the form of written and signed statements from named individuals, shorn of some details to protect the privacy of correspondents.

  • [9] In September 1985, a young woman named Debbie Clark was walking home when she noticed an occasional flash of blue light:
It was me. I was lighting up the driveway every couple of steps.
As we got into the garden I thought it was funny at that point. I was walking around in circles saying: 'look at this, mum, look!' She started screaming and my brother came to the door and started screaming and shouting 'Have you never heard of spontaneous human combustion?'
Debbie's mother, Dianne Clark:
I screamed at her to get her shoes off and it [the flashes] kept going so I hassled her through and got her into the bath. I thought that the bath is wired to earth. It was a blue light you know what they call electric blue. She thought it was fun, she was laughing.
  • [10] In winter 1980, Cheshire, England resident Susan Motteshead was standing in her kitchen, wearing flame-resistant pajamas, when she was suddenly engulfed in a short-lived fire that seemed to have ignited the fluff on her clothing but burned out before it could set anything properly alight.
I was in the kitchen and my daughter just screamed out that my back was on fire. As I looked down it sort of whooshed all over me. It was like yellow and blue flames all over me. I was not burned at all. Not even my hair was burned.
The daughter, Joanne Motteshead, confirms this account and adds that the fire brigade arrived and tried (unsuccessfully) to set fire to Susan's pajamas.
  • [10] : The two subjects (Debbie Clark and Susan Motteshead), speaking independently and with no knowledge of each other, give similar histories.
I was not wearing any nylon clothing [at the time of the flashes]. I used to suffer a lot with static electricity so I tended not to wear anything nylon. I used to crackle with static when taking off my clothes and if I touched any metal thing it used to hurt me. I used to have a lot of trouble with electrical things. They would break down or blow up.
I had just washed and dried my hair [at the time of the incident]. I used to have a lot when I was younger. I used to get shocks from touching fridges, things like that.

[edit] In fiction

The second and third chapters of Charles Brockden Brown's 1798 novel Wieland focuses on the emigration of Wieland, a German, to colonial America. Wieland practices a solitary form of Protestantism. As part of his religious practices he spends solitary hours in a temple constructed on his property. One night his family hears "a loud report, like the explosion of a mine." Rushing to the temple, they find Wieland lying with his clothing burned off and delirious. He dies soon after. While the term "spontaneous human combustion" was not yet created, Brown includes a footnote at the end of chapter 2 that suggest the phenomenon and its existence in 18th century medical studies. The footnote reads:

"A case, in its symptoms exactly parallel to this, is published in one of the Journals of Florence. See, likewise, similar cases reported by Messrs. Merille and Muraire, in the "Journal de Medicine," for February and May, 1783. The researches of Maffei and Fontana have thrown light upon this subject."

Examples of spontaneous combustion occur in three works by the nineteenth-century Russian author Nikolai Gogol. In the story "St. John's Eve" from Gogol's "Village Evenings Near Dikanka" (1831–32) the guilty character Petro the orphan spontaneously combusts when confronted with a vision of a child he had killed. In the story "Vii," a huntsman in a Cossack village combusts after an encounter with a witch: "And once, when they came to the stable, instead of him there was just a heap of ashes and an empty bucket lying there: he burned up, burned up of his own self." In the novel Dead Souls, the landowner Korobochka laments that her serf-blacksmith burned up: "Something inside him started burning somehow, he'd had too much to drink. A blue flame just came out of him, and he smoldered and smoldered all over, and turned black as charcoal, and he was such a really skillful blacksmith![11]."

In the first chapter of the novel Jacob Faithful (1834) by Frederick Marryat there is a vivid account of the hero's mother perishing "in that very peculiar and dreadful manner, which does sometimes, although rarely, occur, to those who indulge in an immoderate use of spirituous liquor. Cases of this kind do, indeed, present themselves but once in a century, but the occurrence of them is too well authenticated. She perished from what is termed spontaneous combustion, an inflammation of the gases generated from the spirits absorbed into the system."

In the novel Bleak House (1853) by Charles Dickens, the character Krook is killed by spontaneous combustion, "engendered in the corrupted humors of the vicious body itself". Jules Verne describes in his novel Dick Sand, A Captain at Fifteen (1878) that when a fictional African "King of Kazounde" tasted a punch set aflame, "An act of spontaneous combustion had just taken place. The king had taken fire like a petroleum bonbon. This fire developed little heat, but it devoured nonetheless." Verne has no doubt about SHC being the result of alcoholism : "In bodies so thoroughly alcoholized, combustion only produces a light and bluish flame, that water cannot extinguish. Even stifled outside, it would still continue to burn inwardly. When liquor has penetrated all the tissues, there exists no means of arresting the combustion."

In the video game Twisted Metal III, the character Damien Cole is described as having "mastered the fine art of spontaneous combustion", leading others to believe he has lighter fluid coursing through his veins.

In the novel Brimstone (2004) by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child spontaneous human combustion is discussed as a possible cause of death in some homicides.

In the Television Show Dead Like Me (2004) a reap of Daisy Adair was caused because of Spontaneous combustion. After she stated "I always thought it (Spontaneous Combustion) was a myth."

In the fictional Television Show Picket Fences (season 2, episode 2 "Duty Free Rome") the Mayor of Rome Wisconsin Bill Pugen dies, as the result of Spontaneous Combustion, while appealing his murder conviction.

In the novel Fire Pattern by Irish sci-fi writer Bob Shaw Spontaneous Human Combustion is result of alien invaders taking control of human bodies.

In the movie Repo Man, the incineration of a police officer by the mysterious object in the trunk of a car is cited as an example of spontaneous human combustion by a government agent ("It happens sometimes. People just explode.")

In the episode "Soft Light" of the television series The X-Files some murder victims are thought to have died via spontaneous human combustion.

In the animated television series South Park, the episode "Spontaneous Combustion" involves many people in the town suddenly bursting into flames. Stan Marsh's father finds out this is caused by intestinal gas.

One of the interviewers of the show Celebrity Deathmatch, Stacey Cornbread, died because of spontaneous human combustion.

In the film This Is Spinal Tap several of the band's drummers died of freak accidents, including one who spontaneously combusted on stage, leaving behind only a "globule". David St. Hubbins stated "Dozens of people spontaneously combust every year; it's just not very widely reported."

In the BBC TV series New Tricks, an episode called Big Topped featured an apparently impossible crime involving incineration inside a locked circus caravan; spontaneous human combustion is suggested as an explanation, although this is later rejected. At one point one of the characters replicates the QED experiment referred to above.

In the NCIS episode "Heart Break" (season 2), a Navy Commander appears to spontaneously combust in hospital. It is later found to be faked by the Commander's surgeon to cover up her mistake during surgery that caused the commander's death.

In Marvel Comics, the Golden Age Human Torch, his sidekick Toro, and the Fantastic Four's own Human Torch Johnny Storm have the ability to spontaneously combust at will.

[edit] Quotations

There's one mystery I'm asked about more than any other: spontaneous human combustion. Some cases seem to defy explanation, and leave me with a creepy and very unscientific feeling. If there's anything more to SHC, I simply don't want to know.

Arthur C. Clarke (1994)

The opinion that a man can burn of himself is not founded on a knowledge of the circumstances of the death, but on the reverse of knowledge - on complete ignorance of all the causes or conditions which preceded the accident and caused it.

Justus von Liebig (1855)

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ http://www.amazon.com/Ablaze-Mysterious-Fires-Spontaneous-Combustion/dp/0871317893/ref=sr_1_1/189-4652249-1692619?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1237172767&sr=1-1 "Ablaze!: The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion" by Larry E. Arnold
  2. ^ http://skepdic.com/shc.html Skeptic's Dictionary on spontaneous human combustion, Retrieved Oct 20, 2007 "The physical possibilities of spontaneous human combustion are."
  3. ^ Robert S. Gable (2004). "Comparison of acute lethal toxicity of commonly abused psychoactive substances" (reprint). Addiction 99 (6): 686–696. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2004.00744.x. http://web.cgu.edu/faculty/gabler/toxicity%20Addiction%20offprint.pdf. 
  4. ^ Fiery tales that spontaneously destruct - reports on spontaneous human combustion - includes an investigative chronology based on a published photograph | Skeptical Inquirer | Find Articles at BNET.com
  5. ^ Simmons, Ian (1996). in All Fired up With Spontaneity. In Fortean Times, p. 57, issue number 90 (September 1996).
  6. ^ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brown%27s_Gas Brown's Gas aka OxyHydrogen
  7. ^ http://www.amazon.com/Ablaze-Mysterious-Fires-Spontaneous-Combustion/dp/0871317893/ref=sr_1_1/189-4652249-1692619?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1237172767&sr=1-1 "Ablaze!: The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion" by Larry E. Arnold June 2006
  8. ^ http://www.amazon.com/Ablaze-Mysterious-Fires-Spontaneous-Combustion/dp/0871317893/ref=sr_1_1/189-4652249-1692619?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1237172767&sr=1-1 "Ablaze!: The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion" by Larry E. Arnold June 2006
  9. ^ Heymer, John E (1996): The Entrancing Flame, pp. 202–3, London, Little, Brown, ISBN 0-316-87694-1
  10. ^ a b Heymer, op cit, pp. 204.
  11. ^ Lee B Croft. "People in Threes Going Up In Smoke and Other Triplicities in Russian Literature and Culture" The Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature, Vol. 59, No. 2 (2005), pp. l 29–49

[edit] External links

Personal tools