Over decades, several cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion have been reported across the world. However, is it reality or a myth? Back in December 2010, a 76-year-old man called, Michael Faherty was found dead in his home in Galway, Ireland. The body was brutally burned and the investigators could not find any foul play in the manner of the death.
The investigators eliminated the possibility of being burnt by a fireplace. Forensic investigators were left with only Faherty’s burned body and the fire damage to the ceiling and floor above and below.
After extensive deliberation, a coroner determined that Faherty died of spontaneous human combustion, a judgment that sparked considerable controversy. Many see the event with a mixture of awe and horror, wondering if it is indeed conceivable.
The Phenomena of Spontaneous Combustion
Medically speaking, spontaneous combustion dates all the way back to the 18th century. Paul Rolli, a fellow of the Royal Society in London and the world’s oldest continuously operating scientific academy, created the word in a 1744 work titled Philosophical Transactions.
Rolli defined it as “a process in which a human body reportedly catches fire as a result of heat generated by internal chemical activity, but without proof of an external ignition source.”
The concept gained momentum, and spontaneous combustion became a death sentence reserved for alcoholics during the Victorian Era.
Charles Dickens used it in his 1853 novel Bleak House, in which the minor character Krook, a con artist with a propensity for gin, spontaneously catches fire and burns to death. Dickens came under fire for his portrayal of a phenomenon that science had roundly condemned— despite the fact that impassioned witnesses in the public swore to its truth.
It was only a matter of time before other authors, most notably Mark Twain and Herman Melville, hopped on board and began incorporating spontaneous combustion into their works as well. Fans supported them by citing a lengthy variety of documented instances.
The scientific community, on the other hand, has remained dubious and has viewed the approximately 200 instances recorded worldwide with mistrust.
Cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion on Record
The first documented case of spontaneous combustion occurred in late 14th-century Milan when a knight named Polonus Vorstius purportedly burst into flames in front of his own parents.
In the majority of the occurrences of spontaneous combustion, alcohol was apparently involved, as Vorstius was believed to have belched fire following a few glasses of unusually powerful wine.
Cornelia Zangari de Bandi, Countess of Cesena, met a similar end in the summer of 1745. De Bandi went to bed early, and the countess’s chambermaid discovered her the next morning in a pile of ashes. All that remained of her was a half-charred head and stocking-adorned legs. Despite the fact that de Bandi had two candles in the room, the wicks remained intact.
Additional combustion events occurred over the next few hundred years, spanning the length and breadth of the globe, from Pakistan to Florida. Experts were unable to account for the fatalities in any other manner, and significant parallels emerged.
To begin with, the fire was often restricted to the individual and their close surroundings. Additionally, burns and smoke damage were frequently seen immediately above and below the victim’s body — but not elsewhere. Typically, the body was reduced to ash, leaving only the extremities.
However, scientists assert that these occurrences are not as puzzling as they appear.
The explanation behind Human Combustion
Despite investigators’ failure to identify another plausible cause of death, the scientific community remains suspicious that spontaneous human combustion is caused by something internal — or particularly spontaneous.
To begin, the seemingly miraculous way in which fire damage is often limited to the victim and his or her immediate vicinity in situations of purported spontaneous combustion is not as uncommon as it appears.
Numerous fires are self-limiting and extinguish naturally when their fuel source runs out: in this case, the fat in the human body. As the fires burn upward rather than outward, the sight of a badly charred person in an otherwise unaffected room is not unreasonable – fires frequently fail to spread horizontally, especially in the absence of wind or air currents.
One fact that explains how the phenomena of human combustion cause a lack of harm to the surrounding room is the wick effect, which gets its name from the way a candle’s wick is kept burning by a flammable wax substance.
The wick effect demonstrates how human beings, like candles, can function similarly. The wick is made of clothing or hair, and the flammable ingredient is body fat.
As a human body burns, subcutaneous fat melts and saturates the clothing. The constant supply of fat to the “wick” keeps the fire going at incredible temperatures until there is nothing left to burn and the blaze extinguishes.
However, how do flames begin? Additionally, scientists have an answer for that. They point out that the majority of those killed by apparent spontaneous combustion was old, alone, and sat or sleeping near an ignition source.
Numerous victims have been recovered beside an open fireplace or with a burning cigarette nearby, and a sizable proportion had been last seen consuming alcohol.
While the Victorians believed that wine, a highly combustible beverage, triggered a chemical reaction in the stomach, resulting in spontaneous combustion (or possibly summoning the Almighty’s wrath), the more plausible explanation is that many of those who burnt was unconscious.
This also explains why the elderly are frequently burned: older persons are more prone to experience a stroke or heart attack, which might result in them dropping a cigarette or other source of ignition – implying that the bodies that burned were either disabled or already dead.
Almost every reported case of spontaneous human combustion occurred in the absence of witnesses — just as one would expect if the fires were caused by drunken or sleepy individuals.
Without nobody to extinguish the flames, the ignition source burns, and the ensuing ash appears unexplainable. The enigma fuels curiosity — but the myth of spontaneous human combustion is, in the end, smoke without fire.