On the night of December 4th 1966, Dr. John Irving Bentley said goodnight to the last of his guests and called it a night. As far as anyone could tell, there was nothing remarkable about this particular night. However, it wasn’t until the next morning when a meter reader visited Dr. Bentley’s house to check the meter that anyone noticed that something was amiss. Sensing something was wrong, the meter reader entered the house looking for Dr. Bentley, he found him in his bathroom. Except for one leg, Dr. Bentley had been reduced to a pile of ashes. Without a clear explanation as to what caused the tragedy, people were left to speculate about what had happened. Dr. Bentley was known to smoke a pipe but it was discovered untouched in his bedroom. Speculation swirled that spontaneous human combustion (SHC) was to blame. Like other alleged cases over the years, there didn’t appear to be an outside source to the flame. Victims supposedly burn from the inside out.
Through the years, there have been numerous cases of unexplained deaths by fire. The debate ranges on as to whether or not there’s truth to this phenomenon. Researchers and academics alike have taken sides and try to debunk the others perspective. Larry E. Arnold wrote the book Ablaze! which documented his research but has been attacked as being based on fantasy and not fact. Whatever science says, it doesn’t change the fact that unexplainable death by fire occurs.
Despite the mystery that surrounds it, there are facts that remain consistent for each case. Read below…if you can stomach the details.
15. First Documented Case Was in the 17th Century
Thomas Bartholin, a Danish physician who lived in the 1600s, published a book that described the case of a Parisian woman who became engulfed in flames and reduced to nothing more than ash and smoke. No external heat source could be identified and so her case remained unexplained. What made her case intriguing was the fact that she was supposedly lying on a straw mattress when the fire took place. Bartholin writes that the straw mattress was undamaged.
Bartholin also wrote about a Polish knight who supposedly drank large quantities of alcohol and began to vomit flames. Shortly after this he burst into flames and died.
Cases of SHC have been written about extensively in popular literature throughout the years (Charles Dickens even used it in his novel Bleak House) and even appeared on an episode of the former hit TV show The X-Files. There have been between 200 – 400 possible cases of SHC but they haven’t officially been classified as such. The only thing that can be agreed on is that the victims’ deaths were unexplainable and involved fire.
14. Extreme Heat is Needed
To think that victims can be reduced to nothing more than a pile of ash is shocking. It would take extreme levels of continuous heat to accomplish this. Adding to the shock is the fact that often times suspected cases of SHC don’t result in extensive damage to items beyond the victim. Other than furniture that was close to the victim, nothing is burned or disturbed. This adds to the overall mystery of the phenomenon.
Keep in mind, it takes approximately 3,000 degrees to produce ashes. In most cases, there’s extensive damage to the victims’ head and torso. In some cases, legs, feet, arms and hands remain untouched by the blaze. Considering the amount of damage done elsewhere to the victim it’s surprising that anything could remain intact and undamaged. In addition to the heat it would take time to see the damage that results. Often times alleged victims are found hours after the accident with no one aware of what’s happening.
13. Alcohol Used to Be Blamed
Since SHC is defined as the absence of an external source of ignition (for example, candles, lamps and fireplaces), historically, believers tried to look inward in order to identify a cause. Original theories tried to connect alcoholism (or a buildup of acetone) to SHC. It was thought that the cells of alcoholics were so saturated with alcohol that a person’s body was capable of bursting into flames. However, this theory doesn’t hold true since not all victims were heavy drinkers. Some believers thought that a person’s state of mind could also cause this phenomenon. Or even specific bacteria in a person’s gut that produce gas could be to blame.
When it comes to hard science, non of these theories have been proven. The human body is mostly made up of water so this factor deepens the mystery. Some think body fat may be a culprit since it can be combustible if the conditions are right. Whatever the cause, the fact remains that alleged victims aren’t always near an open flame. Until there’s an obvious heat source (internal or external), speculation will continue.
12. There Are Rarely Witnesses
One aspect that causes some skeptics to doubt the validity of this occurrence, is the fact that there aren’t any validated and documented accounts of someone seeing another person burst into flames. In the vast majority of suspected cases, victims are discovered after the fact. Rarely are a group of people sitting around together, minding their own business when suddenly, flames appear from out of nowhere. Since victims are found alone, it can be assumed that SHC is fatal since there isn’t help available early enough.
Another reason for the lack of witnesses is the fact that the fire could have sinister implications. Fire can be used to cover up foul play. When a cause can’t be determined, for instance, the victim isn’t close to a possible ignition source or they weren’t a smoker or drinker, their case might be written off as SHC.
11. Witnesses are Left Speechless
In extremely rare cases where there are witnesses, they’re understandably unable to clearly explain what they saw. In Larry Arnold’s book Ablaze!, he recounts the story of a 61-year-old woman, Jeannie Saffin, who had the mental capacity of a six-year-old. While sitting in their kitchen together, from the corner of his eye, her father apparently glimpsed a blue flame coming from his daughter’s mouth. Keep in mind, he said she was sitting still in her chair at the time. He said it was accompanied by a loud roaring sound similar to what one would expect from a dragon. He was able to put out the flames but Saffin died a few days later. Her father’s hands were left disfigured as a result of his actions.
The explanation seems like something out of a fictional novel (who knows what a dragon would sound like). Some have questioned whether her father was trying to cover up a crime or guilt. Other publications of this story say that Saffin’s dad was a smoker and ash from his pipe may have accidentally landed on her.
10. Victims Are Usually Alone
To tie in with the fact that there are rarely witnesses to this strange occurrence, victims are usually found in a room or home by themselves after the damage has been done. There aren’t any signs of a struggle, nothing obvious is amiss. The web is full of pictures of suspected cases and in many of them victims were sitting in a chair not splayed across the floor in a position that would indicate that they were trying to run or extinguish the flames that engulfed them.
The fact that victims are found sitting in chairs or lying in bed, adds to the argument of people who don’t believe in SHC. After all, how can someone consciously burst into flames and stay seated? Wouldn’t they yell for help or try to put out the flames. It’s possible they’ve fallen asleep but wouldn’t the trauma they’re experiencing be enough to wake them up? So many questions!
9. Dual SHC Has Been Reported
As previously mentioned, victims are typically found alone and the damage has been done before anyone notices something is amiss. However, there are rare cases in which more than one person succumbs to death by unexplained fire at a time. These cases are extremely rare and while SHC is suspected, haven’t been confirmed. One case involves a 90-year-old woman and her 66-year-old maid. Once investigators arrived on the scene they were intrigued to find both women burned and lying in the older woman’s bed. Based on their position, investigators have assumed that the maid had thrown herself across the bed to save her employer but unfortunately also became a victim.
8. Victims Are Typically Elderly
The reason that this is important to note is because they may also be infirm, obese, heavy smokers, drinkers, and/or mentally ill. As a result, if SHC isn’t the cause, then it’s possible that their deaths are due to accidents based on circumstance. In addition to this, once a fire starts they may be unable to do anything to save themselves or minimize the trauma they experience.
A well known case documents the experience of Mary Reesor. She was an elderly widow who lived in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1951. She had gone to bed as usual the night before and no one suspected anything at the time. No one heard anything. The next morning, the doorknob to her bedroom was reportedly scorching to the touch. When her door was eventually opened, investigators were shocked to see the charred remains of her arm chair and nothing more than a pile of ash and one unburned foot, still in a slipper, left behind.
7. The “Wick Effect” was Used to Disprove SHC
This is an experiment that was initially attempted by researcher and professor Brian J Ford. Based on the Wick Effect theory, an ignition source, such as a lit cigarette could fall onto the victim’s clothes (ex. they’ve fallen asleep or they’ve had a medical crisis like a heart attack and are rendered immobile) and cause a fire. Ford’s thinking was that once there’s a heat source the flames burn through skin and release fat that acts as a wick and amplifies the burning flame. The flame will continue for as long as there’s a source of fat. Because of the prolonged burning, some researchers think that the body’s water slowly evaporates.
The theory was tested on dead pigs since their fat composition is similar to humans. The test showed that with a heat source it would be possible for flames to result. As the flames burn hotter, the source is destroyed (for example, a cigarette but). Also, since the hands and feet have the least amount of fat, this may explain why they’re usually left unburnt after an incident.
6. A Sweet and Smoky Smell Lingers
Folks who’ve found victims of suspected SHC have reported there being a smoky and sweet smell in the air. Let your imagination run wild because you can probably guess what caused the smell. What’s surprising is that it’s been described as sweet smelling. But if this is the case, it makes you wonder why no one noticed anything prior to finding the victim. Even though there’s minimal damage to items around the victim, it’s interesting to think that the smell would only be limited to that room.
In addition to the reported smell, there’s usually evidence of a greasy residue left on the walls and other surfaces surrounding the victim. The grease has been explained away as possibly being the residual fat from the victim’s body. You’ll likely agree that this isn’t a pleasant thought. Both the smell and the residue are evidence of just how hot fire burns and what it leaves behind.
5. Shrunken Skulls Remain at the Scene
In the case of Mary Reesor and George Mott, coroners found shrunken skulls in what remained after the fires. To date, there isn’t a plausible explanation as to what would have caused this. The heads of victims reportedly shrunk to the size of a baseball or teacup. This phenomenon adds to the mystery of SHC. In the case of Reesor, investigators at the scene collected evidence that was eventually sent to the FBI for analysis. While the FBI classified Reesor’s death as the result of the Wick Effect, they were unable to provide a reason as to why her head would have shrunk to the size it had.
Mott was a fire fighter who died due to suspected SHC. Even though he was thought to be an alcoholic and heavy smoker, no concrete evidence was found to confirm that these contributed to his death. A gas leak and electrical short were also ruled out as possible causes of the fire.
4. There Are a Few Survivors
While SHC is typically fatal because victims are alone, there have been a small number of cases where a potential victim has survived. One such victim is Frank Baker. In June of 1995 while at his home in Vermont preparing for a fishing trip, he reportedly burst into flames. Just like that, without any warning. He explained that he began to scream and was fortunate to have someone close enough to help. He managed to extinguish the flames and make it to the hospital. While there, he was shocked to discover that doctors believed he’d began to burn from the inside out.
He didn’t discuss his case until October 1995 on an edition of The Unexplained Files which aired on the Science Channel. Strangely, instead of answering more questions about SHC, curious individuals are left with even more questions after watching his segment.
3. Victims Appear Calm
There have been a few recent cases of suspected SHC where the victims appeared to be on fire but very calm at the same time. In Serbia, a man was caught on video lying on the ground with his stomach and torso on fire. What’s eerie about this is that he was completely calm throughout the ordeal. A concerned passer-by asked what happened and the man simply waves him off. Since no one saw how the blaze started it’s unclear whether this is a true case of SHC or if it was something the man intentionally did to himself.
In Germany, a woman appeared to burst into flames while sitting on a park bench. She was calm throughout the ordeal until a passer-by helped extinguish the fire and call for help. She was transported to hospital where she was put on life support. Again, no one saw how the blaze started so it’s unclear if she started the fire by herself.
2. Most Recently Confirmed Case was in 2010
In a move that shocked many at the time, Dr. Ciaran McLoughlin a coroner in Ireland, chose to classify the death of 76-year-old Michael Faherty as SHC. When Faherty was found in December 2010, he was lying near an open fireplace. His head was closest to the fireplace. Despite the fact that this tragedy could have been linked to him accidentally falling hear the fireplace (perhaps it was lit at the time and he was rendered unconscious), there was no evidence of fire anywhere else in the room (other than the ground directly below where he was lying and the ceiling above). Surprisingly, since investigators couldn’t find a link between the fireplace and the fire (perhaps it wasn’t on after all), no other explanation was available other than SHC. This case is the most recent death classified as being the result of SHC.
1. Blue Flames Appear
In cases where witnesses are involved, one thing many of them have claimed is mention of a blue flame just prior to the blaze. These flames are said to originate in the victims’ stomach and shoot out through their mouths. It’s this initial appearance that supposedly triggers the resulting fire. This is incredible to think about since blue flames are generally hotter than red or yellow flames. To think that such intense heat could originate from inside of a person makes it hard to completely accept SHC theories as fact.
Also, in some cases where SHC is suspected, internal organs aren’t completely burnt. This discrepancy goes against the theory that victims burn from the inside out. If this were the case, organs would be reduced to ash very quickly. Despite this stretch in belief, it’s another factor that adds to the general intrigue and mystery of SHC.