The strange phenomena of Spontaneous Human Combustion

Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is the burning of a living (or very recently deceased) person's body without a readily apparent, identifiable source of ignition. In some cases the combustion may result in simple burns and blisters to the skin. In other cases there is smoking and in extreme cases a complete incineration of the body.

There is much speculation and controversy over SHC and it is not a proven natural occurrence. That bodies have burnt in peculiar circumstances is not in dispute. At issue is how and why the burning has occurred.

There are many three broad theories which have attempt to explain SHC's existence and how it may occur.

1.) Natural explanations based on unknown or unobserved phenomena (e.g. that the production of abnormally concentrated gas or raised levels of blood alcohol might cause spontaneous ignition)

2.) Natural explanations that involve an external source of ignition possibly working (e.g. the victim was drunk and dropped a cigarette)

3.) Paranormal explanations (e.g., unknown energy field)

Although he human body contains enough energy stored in the form of fat and other tissues it is difficult to see how they would ignite and once ignited stay burning.

Case Histories

Mary Reeser (St. Petersburg, Florida 1951)

On the 2nd July 1951 a resident of St Petersburg, Florida met an horrible, unexpected death. Mrs. Mary Reeser, a 67-year-old widow was seen alive was the day before. Her son, Dr. Richard Reeser, and her landlady, Mrs. Pansy M. Carpenter, who had been visiting said goodnight at about 9:00 pm and left Mrs. Reeser sitting in her easy chair in her apartment.

At around 5:00 am. Mrs. Carpenter was aroused by the smell of smoke and, assuming it was a water pump in the garage that had been overheating, she turned the pump off and went back to sleep. At 8:00 am, Mrs. Carpenter was awakened by a telegraph boy at her door with a telegraph for Mrs. Reeser. Mrs. Carpenter signed for the missive, and walked to Mrs. Reeser's room... but there was no answer to her knock. Checking the doorknob, Mrs Carpenter recoiled in shock; it was hot! Immediately Mrs. Carpenter ran to find some help. A pair of house painters working nearby rushed over to her aid, and, together, they managed to force open the door to Mrs. Reeser's apartment. They were met by a terrible blast of heat. Entering the room they were greeted by a scene that defied belief.

The only portion of the apartment that was burned was a small corner of the room in which sat the charred coil springs of Mary Reeser's easy chair... and of Mary Reeser herself there remained part of her left foot (which was wearing a slipper) and little else. And hidden in the ashes was Reeser’s skull which somehow had shrunk dramatically in size (the report refers to it being reduced to the size of a teacup). Despite the massive temperatures the body had been subjected to, the room in which it occurred showed little evidence of the fire. Plastic household objects at a distance from the seat of the fire were softened and had lost their shapes

The FBI eventually declared that Reeser had been incinerated by the wick effect. A known user of sleeping pills, they hypothesised that she had fallen unconscious while smoking and set fire to her nightclothes.

The St Petersburg Chief of Police J Reichert sent FBI director J Edgar Hoover a report which asked for help in explaining the peculiar circumstances: "We request any information or theories that could explain how a human body could be so destroyed and the fire confined to such a small area and so little damage done to the structure of the building and the furniture in the room not even scorched or damaged by smoke."

The FBI concluded that the death was as a result of a cigarette igniting a slow-burn. “Once the body starts to burn,” the FBI wrote in its report, “there is enough fat and other inflammable substances to permit varying amounts of destruction to take place. Sometimes this destruction by burning will proceed to a degree which results in almost complete combustion of the body.”

However, a
t the request of the Chief of Police, St. Petersburg, Florida, the scene was also investigated by physical anthropologist Professor Wilton M Krogman of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine who had expert knowledge in this field. Krogman was frequently consulted by
the FBI for this reason but after examining the scene and reading the FBI's report, he strongly disputed the FBI's conclusions concerning Reeser. However, the full circumstances of the death—and Krogman's objections to the FBI's version of events—would not become known publicly for a decade. In fact, Krogman had conducted exhaustive experiments and had been unable to replicate the conditions necessary to burn flesh and bone. Krogman theorized that a "super lightning bolt" might have struck Reeser, her body acting as a conductor to ground the current through a wall heater behind the chair. He discarded this theory as soon as he learned that local weather bureau records showed no lightning in St. Petersburg on the night Reeser met her death.

Krogman was perplexed by the size of the skull, stating he had never seen a skull so shrunken or a body so completely consumed by heat. Such evidence was contrary to normal experience, and he regarded it as the most amazing thing he had ever seen adding that if he were living in the superstitious Middle Ages he would suspect black magic.

The fact was that the evidence showed that temperatures had reached in excess of 2500 degrees - a fact concealed by the FBI who also buried Professor Krogman's testimony. It was simply impossible that a cigarette could ignite clothing and produce these temperatures. The electrical outlet melted only after the fire began and not before it. The FBI tested for gasoline and other accelerants - there were none.

With the case unsolved months later and no closure, the Chief of Police and the Chief of Detectives signed a statement attributing the death of Mary Reeser to falling asleep with a cigarette in her hand in the full knowledge it was a scientific impossibility.

The Nicole Millet Case (Rheims, France 1725)

One of the earliest documented cases of SHC occurred in 18th Century France. The location was an Inn called the Lion d'Or in Rheims. On the night of February 19th, 1725, the landlord of the Lion d'Or, Jean Millet retired to bed with his wife, Jeanne Lemaire. He awoke at around 2o'clock to the smell of burning and an "infectious odour". Hurrying around the bedrooms he roused the guests. Crossing the hallway he entered the kitchen.

A horrible scene greeted Jean Millet and his guests. In the kitchen were the remains of Jeanne Lemaire lying about a foot from the hearth. She had been reduced to a pile of ashes, only a section of intestines, and a portion of her skull, a few vertebrae, and lower extremities had escaped from burning. The floor under the remains had been consumed as well, but other wooden implements: a kneading-trough and a powdering-tub nearby were undamaged. The body was found a foot and a half away from the kitchen hearth.

The authorities arrived on the scene and found it beyond their understanding. Jean Millet was arrested and accused of murdering his wife and setting fire to the body to dispose of it. The authorities speculated the motive was the presence of a pretty barmaid employed at the Inn. Jean Millet went to trial and he was found guilty. However, the case was an unusual one and it was appealed. It attracted the interest of a young, up and coming surgeon Claude Nicholas le Cat who would go on to be a leading surgeon in France.

Le Cat had actually resided at the inn for some time and had only left some days earlier. Believing the verdict unsafe and the manner of burning impossible to explain by normal means, he decided to investigate. Le Cat wrote an account (Mémoire posthume) on the circumstances and argued that the verdict was unsafe and more likely to be the result of SHC possibly caused by excessive alcohol consumption.

At the appeal trial, the court recognised the possibility of spontaneous combustion, Jean Millet was acquitted at his trial The conclusion was that Mrs. Millet had died 'by a visitation of God.' that is, to say unknown cause.

More SHC

The theories and the Most disgusting case - Teeth embedded in the stair post as victim writhed in agony
"To their horror they realised the man had bitten the newel stair post in his convulsions"

CLICK Here SHC Part 2