Can people spontaneously combust? The Romans (and Dickens) thought so. As it’s given as a cause of death by a coroner, what IS the truth?
By Peter Hough
When firemen were called to 76-year-old Irishman Michael Flaherty’s home in the middle of the night last December, the sight that greeted them could have leapt from the pages of a Victorian murder mystery.
Mr Flaherty’s body had been burned away to little more than a pile of ashes. Apart from the floor below him and ceiling above, the room was not damaged. There were no signs of foul play or anything that could have caused the ignition.
Mr Flaherty was lying on his back in the living room with his head near an empty fireplace, but firemen found no sign of accelerants such as petrol and there was no evidence of anyone having entered or left the scene.
He was alone in the house and his neighbours were only alerted when the smoke alarm sounded. By the time the firemen had arrived, the flames that had engulfed the pensioner had left barely a trace of him to identify.
So what is the explanation? Having dismissed all alternatives, the West Galway coroner Dr Ciaran McLoughlin last week made headlines by officially recording Mr Flaherty’s demise as a case of ‘spontaneous human combustion’.
But while many may scoff at the idea that the human body can catch fire and burn of its own accord, I’m rather more open minded than most when it comes to cases such as this. For, having written a book on the controversial subject and researched the area for 20 years, I have learned of many similar deaths that are very hard to explain away.
So what is spontaneous human combustion, and how long has it been happening? I first came across the idea in Charles Dickens’s novel Bleak House, where the author does away with the alcoholic rag-and-bone man Krook by making him mysteriously burst into flames.
Dickens had done his research: in the 1850s, the main theory used to explain these occurrences was alcohol — that, if you drank enough, it seeped into your skin and made it possible to catch alight if you brushed past a flame. Thankfully, that explanation was later revealed to be nonsense.
But Dickens was not the first to touch on this phenomenon in print. The first sketchy mentions were made as far back as Roman times by the natural historian Pliny — though it wasn’t until 1613 that the first proper written account emerges in an English medical journal.
A lady called Mrs Russell was staying with her daughter’s family in Christchurch, Dorset, when she woke in the night during a noisy thunderstorm with the feeling she had been clouted on the side of her head. She decided to check on the rest of the family and found, to her horror, her daughter burning in her bed.
The report says the poor woman couldn’t be properly extinguished even after death, so she spent the next couple of days smouldering — which does suggest her body was somehow burning from the inside.
It’s not surprising that this fire has been linked with the electrical storm — was she struck by lightning? Or was it the little-known phenomenon of ‘ball lightning’ recorded during storms, where a ball of electricity can explode when it reaches the earth?
Most cases cannot be explained in this way, however. We don’t know exactly how many instances of spontaneous human combustion have occurred, as many may have been unreported or put down to something else (not many coroners are willing to be associated with ‘mumbo jumbo’ or cause additional hurt to the family).
But with my co-researcher Jenny Randles, I found at least 111 cases around the world where the cause of the fire hasn’t been found — and there have been many more since the book was published in 2007.
The basic case usually follows a set pattern — the person was found only after they had burned, nobody heard screams and their surroundings were relatively untouched by fire.
According to our statistics, 59 per cent of cases involved women, and half occurred between midnight and 6am. Often the walls and ceiling were coated in greasy soot, thought to be burnt remnants of body fat.
There have been people who have survived this sort of experience. The most interesting case we found was an American called — fittingly — Jack Angel. In 1974, Angel, a travelling salesman from Georgia, parked his motorhome outside a Ramada hotel and went to sleep.
He awoke to find his arm had been charred so badly that it had to be amputated; other parts of his body had suffered burns, too.
No part of his motorhome was damaged, he didn’t smoke and there was no fault with the vehicle. Angel — and his lawyers — insisted on a major investigation. Police took the mobile home apart hoping to find some electrical short circuit that would allow Angel to sue the manufacturers.
After months of effort they hadn’t found anything to explain Angel’s burns, and the case was closed.
Over the years, theories have been put forward to explain spontaneous human combustion. It has been linked with paranormal activity — one Lincolnshire case in 1905 where a maid burst into flames was blamed on a poltergeist that was also said to have beheaded chickens.
Nowadays, the favourite scientific theory is the ‘candle’ or ‘wick’ effect. Under certain circumstances, it is believed that the human body can burn like an inside-out candle, with the clothing acting as a wick.
For this to happen, someone would have to collapse from, say, a heart attack and fall on a source of ignition such as an open fire or cigarette that then sets light to their clothing. The fire would have to burn away the top layer of skin, allowing the highly flammable fat below to seep into the clothing and fuel the flames for hours.
Scientists suggest this could go on until nothing remained but ash. The theory was demonstrated using a dead pig wrapped in cloth on BBC’s QED show in the Eighties.
So why doesn’t the rest of the room catch on fire? The theory is that if it happens (as in most cases) in a closed space with limited oxygen, the fire would burn very slowly and be insufficient to burn the rest of the room.
What people often overlook is that it is very hard to completely burn a human body, as we are 90 per cent water. In crematoriums, bodies are exposed to heat of 1,100c for an hour-and-a-half, and the bones still remain.
So scientists suggest the wick effect would take, at the very least, 16 hours of smouldering to turn a body to ash. Not quite ‘bursting into flames’, then.
The trouble is that — for that reason alone — many of the stories I have come across just don’t fit with this ‘candle’ theory.
Take the case of Barry Soudain, from Folkestone, Kent, in 1987. His landlord, chasing him for rent money, found him on the kitchen floor: all that remained were his feet — the rest (you guessed it) was ash.
The police were adamant it was the ‘candle’ effect, but there was a half-full kettle of water boiling on a gas ring on the hob. If he had caught alight from the gas ring, he couldn’t have been burning for hours or the kettle would have burned dry.
I talked to the coroner — and he believed that the candle effect wasn’t the answer.
Another explanation is the ‘Haystack’ theory. Farmers are familiar with the phenomenon of haystacks and compost heaps catching fire. At the end of hot, dry summers it is not uncommon for harvested hay or steaming compost to spontaneously combust due to a combination of flammable matter and micro-organisms such as bacteria and mould breeding within the tightly packed material.
It is not inconceivable that similar types of bacteria in the human gut, aided by methane gas, could cause a person to erupt into flames and burn with the ferocity of a tinder-dry haystack. As one of the fire officers I spoke to for my book, Preston-based Tony McMunn, told me, the results of a normal fire death and a case of spontaneous human combustion bear no comparison to one another.
He had witnessed both, and described most people caught in a fire as having crisp, blackened skin but little damage beneath the surface. But with spontaneous combustion, often all that is left is an arm or leg.
As he chillingly put it: ‘It’s as if they burned from the inside out.’
Perhaps we can explain away some of these strange deaths, but I don’t believe we will ever solve them all. Take the chilling tale of two little sisters in 1899 from Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire — Amy and Ann Kirby, aged four and five.
For some unknown reason, they lived a mile apart, one with their mother, one with their grandmother. One day, so the records show, the grandmother ran into Amy’s room to find her on fire, with no explanation. The child died from her injuries.
Her grandmother had to make the agonising walk to tell the girl’s mother of the tragedy. But instead she was met by the mother bearing the news that Ann had passed away, too. How? She had gone up in flames — at exactly the same time as her sister.
Perhaps some things will always remain a mystery.
Peter Hough is author with Jenny Randles of Spontaneous Human Combustion.
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