It’s frightening to imagine that a perfectly healthy human being can suddenly and inexplicably burst into flames. But that’s what a number of experts believe happened to several victims of spontaneous human combustion (SHC), a much-debated phenomenon involving the burning of a human body despite the absence of an external ignition source.
The term “spontaneous human combustion” and the idea of it were first published in a 1745 article by Paul Rolli that appeared in the 21st volume of Philosophical Transactions. According to the account, one morning in 1731, the remains of Countess Cornelia Bandi were discovered with most of the body in ashes but with the legs from the knees down, along with the beddings, remaining unscathed.
By 1995, Larry E. Arnold, in his book Ablaze!, claimed that there existed about 200 documented cases of SHC all over the world. The common characteristics of most of these cases are as follows:
-The victims are chronic alcoholics
-They are usually elderly females
-The body has not burned spontaneously, but some lighted substance has come into contact with it
-The hands and feet usually fall off
-The fire has caused very little damage to combustible things in contact with the body
-The combustion of the body has left a residue of greasy and fetid ashes, very offensive in odour
Strange unexplained phenomenon or pure science fiction? Perhaps, these ten stories involving alleged genuine cases of SHC can help you make up your mind:
10. A Blue Flame Emanated From a Slit in His Stomach
In the morning of September 13, 1967, passersby noticed a strange bright light emanating from an abandoned home in Lambeth, South London, prompting them to call the fire department. When firemen entered the home, they were shocked to find the body of Robert Bailey on the bottom of a staircase. From a four-inch cut on the homeless man’s stomach emanated a blue flame, which firefighters had difficulty putting out when they used fire extinguishers. And strangely, upon closer inspection, investigators noticed that Bailey’s clothing had remained undamaged by the fire, save for the portion where the flame burnt the material. This led them to conclude that the fire had begun from the inside of the man’s body before moving outwards. At the end of the investigation, the incident was simply marked as having been the result of “unknown causes.”
9. Woman on a Bench Bursts into Flames
On November 2 of 2015, a 40-plus-year-old woman from Mauritius was sitting on a park bench in Flensburg, Germany when she allegedly burst into flames for an unknown reason. A shocked passerby rushed to the woman’s aid by using his jacket to try and kill the fire, but the victim still ended up suffering from severe burns throughout her body. The woman was soon rushed to a local hospital and was later flown to a burns unit in Lubeck, where she was declared to be in critical condition. Eyewitnesses later reported that strangely, the woman didn’t even cry out as she was being engulfed in flames. However, investigators couldn’t rule out that the woman had attempted to burn herself in an attempt to take her own life.
8. Indian Baby Caught Fire Four Times
Nine days after Rajeshwari Karnan gave birth to her son, she was horrified to find a flame on the baby’s stomach and on his right knee. Her husband quickly took a towel and extinguished the flame, but to the couple’s shock, the baby inexplicably caught fire three other separate times by the time he was three months old. After each of those incidents, they took the child to a local hospital to be treated, but to learn more about the infant’s condition, they decided to travel to Kilpauk Medical College. There, doctors found no reason why the baby would catch fire without an external ignition source. “We are in a dilemma and haven’t come to any conclusion,” explained Dr. Narayan Babu, the head of pediatrics at the hospital.
7. Only Lower Leg Remains Unburnt
On December 5, 1966, gas meter man Don Gosnell entered the home of 92-year-old Dr. John Irving Bentley in Coudersport, Pennsylvania and was horrified by what he saw. In the bathroom was a detached and browned — although not charred — lower leg joint with its slipper still on. Next to it was Bentley’s partially burnt bathrobe and his walker (a hip fracture had hampered the man’s mobility). However, the rest of the retired doctor’s body was no longer visible. Investigators who were called in noted that Bentley was a pipe smoker whose other garments had burn marks on them, seemingly pointing to the possibility that Bentley’s death was the result of a smoking-related accident. However, it proved difficult to explain why the rubber tips of Bentley’s walker, as well as the surrounding property, remained unburnt. Given these circumstances, Ernest Mosch, Jr., who had investigated the case for over forty years, admitted, “The truth is that we simply don’t know.”
6. Man on Couch Survives Bursting into Flames
In June of 1995, a Vietnam war veteran with two purple hearts, Frank Baker, was comfortably sitting on his couch at his home in Vermont with his friend, Pete Wiley. The two were preparing to go fishing when suddenly, Baker burst into flames from his left side, causing the two men to panic. Fortunately, Wiley was able to help his friend put the fire out and seek medical help for Baker. Meanwhile, the doctor was just as confused as the two men and concluded that the fire had “burned from the inside out.” Baker later explained that he was not near any source of heat and that he had no idea what had gone on in his body.
5. Man Suddenly Burns While Waiting for Train
An unnamed man was simply standing outside a music store at the central train station of Gothenburg, Sweden at around 10:30 in the evening in November of 2011, when he suddenly and inexplicably burst into flames. The terrified man began screaming, but several people just watched him as they were unsure of what to do. Fortunately, a man who had seen what had happened removed his coat, and with the help of another bystander, put out the fire. Nevertheless, the victim suffered serious injuries and had to be brought to the Sahlgrenska hospital, where doctors sedated him. Police could only say that they had no knowledge of the circumstances surrounding the incident.
4. Sheriff Believes Oklahoma Man’s Case May Be SHC
“This is a case I’ve never seen before,” admitted Ron Lockhart, a sheriff at Sequoyah County, Oklahoma. He was referring to the mysterious death of Danny Vanzandt, a 65-year-old man, who in 2013, was found incinerated in his home. Strangely, the fire didn’t do any damage to the house and the furniture, and there was no sign of struggle. Another piece of the puzzle that investigators couldn’t figure out was why the back window of Vanzandt’s pickup truck turned up broken. The sheriff also couldn’t determine if the victim’s alcoholism and heavy smoking might have played a role in the mysterious death.
3. Only Lower Legs and Skull Remained
What makes this case particularly strange is the condition in which the victim’s remains were found; only the lower legs and the skull of the 73-year-old Henry Thomas could be located, the rest being in ashes. Even more strangely, Thomas’s feet and lower legs were still in socks and trousers, as if they hadn’t been near a fire. Furthermore, while the knobs on a nearby television set were melted and a chair Thomas was apparently sitting on was burnt, the rest of the home was undamaged by fire. All of this took place in 1980 at the living room of the victim’s home in Ebbw Vale, south Wales. In the end, investigators concluded that Thomas accidentally set fire to his hair, after which he sat down in his chair and slowly burned like a candle. For obvious reasons, many doubted the police’s official version of events.
2. Handicapped Woman Burns in Front of Father
War veteran Jack Saffin was restfully sitting in his Edmonton home in September of 1982, when he turned his head to talk to his handicapped daughter, Jeannie Saffin. He was soon scared out of his wits to see that she was burning around her hands and face. Strangely, the 61-year-old woman was silently sitting as if nothing was happening. Jack, who had by this time asked his son-in-law Donald to assist him, put out the fire with pans and water, then quickly called for medical assistance. Tragically, Jeannie didn’t recover from her injuries and died eight days later. At an inquest to look into the strange death, the policeman stated that he believed Jeannie could have been a victim of SHC. The judge, however, declared that there was no such thing as SHC and left the verdict open.
1. Coroner Rules SHC Responsible for Death of Elderly Irish Man
At around 3:00 AM on December 22 of 2010, Tom Mannion of Galway City, Ireland heard the smoke alarm go off at the home of his neighbor, 76-year-old Michael Faherty. Mannion immediately proceeded to the source of the alarm and witnessed heavy smoke billowing from the house. When banging on the Faherty’s door didn’t result in a response, Mannion called the police and the fire department, who later discovered a nearly cremated Faherty on his back in a living room. Strangely, nothing else in the home had been damaged. Gerry O’Malley, a fire officer, could not identify a cause for the incident and noted that he had never seen such a case where no indication of a fire, except for the burnt body, was evident. Meanwhile, the coroner, Dr. Kieran McLoughlin, declared, “The fire was thoroughly investigated and I’m left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation.”