In December 1966, the body of 92-year-old Dr. J. Irving Bentley was discovered in his Pennsylvania home by a meter reader. Actually, only part of Dr. Bentley’s leg and slippered foot were found. The rest of his body had been burned to ashes. A hole in the bathroom floor was the only evidence of the fire that had killed him; the rest of the house remained perfectly intact.
How could a man catch fire — with no apparent source of a spark or flame — and then burn so completely without igniting anything around him? Dr. Bentley’s case and several hundred others like it have been labeled “spontaneous human combustion” (SHC). Although he and other victims of the phenomenon burned almost completely, their surroundings, and even sometimes their clothes, remained virtually untouched.
Can humans spontaneously burst into flames? A lot of people think spontaneous human combustion is a real occurrence, but most scientists aren’t convinced.
In this article, we will look at the strange phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion, see what believers have to say about it and try to separate the scientific truth from the myths.
What is Spontaneous Human Combustion?
The first known account of spontaneous human combustion came from the Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholin in 1663, who described how a woman in Paris “went up in ashes and smoke” while she was sleeping. The straw mattress on which she slept was unmarred by the fire. In 1673, a Frenchman named Jonas Dupont published a collection of spontaneous combustion cases in his work “De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis.”
The hundreds of spontaneous human combustion accounts since that time have followed a similar pattern: The victim is almost completely consumed, usually inside his or her home. Coroners at the scene have sometimes noted a sweet, smoky smell in the room where the incident occurred.
What makes the charred bodies in the photos of spontaneous human combustion so peculiar is that the extremities often remain intact. Although the torso and head are charred beyond recognition, the hands, feet, and/or part of the legs may be unburned. Also, the room around the person shows little or no signs of a fire, aside from a greasy residue that is sometimes left on furniture and walls. In rare cases, the internal organs of a victim remain untouched while the outside of the body is charred.
Not all spontaneous human combustion victims simply burst into flames. Some develop strange burns on their body which have no obvious source, or emanate smoke from their body when no fire is present. And not every person who has caught fire has died — a small percentage of people have actually survived what has been called their spontaneous combustion.
- Can Humans Spontaneously Combust? ‘Unexplained Files’ Investigates (illuminutti.com)
- Crashed and Burned: King Tut’s Spontaneous Combustion (livescience.com)
- Can humans spontaneously combust? ‘Unexplained Files’ investigates (sott.net)
- Top 10 Unsolved Cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion (toptenz.net)
News reports of a recent death by fire in Tulsa, OK read, “Sheriff: Oklahoma Man Died of Spontaneous Human Combustion,” and “Sheriff Rules Out Homicide, But Not Spontaneous Combustion After Autopsy.”
It’s actually not difficult to rule out spontaneous human combustion (SHC) – you can rule it out because SHC does not exist. The notion of SHC is that some process occurs in the body that causes it to heat to the point of spontaneous ignition, without an external ignition source. There simply is no known process by which this could occur.
This is not a trivial objection. While it is, of course, impossible to completely rule out the unknown, the laws of physics can make something so improbable that we can comfortably treat it as if it were impossible. At the very least the burden of proof should be extremely high – not so high that if the phenomenon were genuine we could not demonstrate it, but high enough to rule out other, even unlikely, causes.
The lack of a possible mechanism has inspired some SHC proponents to hypothesize new elementary particles as an explanation. Larry Arnold, in his book, Ablaze, posits the existence of the pyroton to explain the energy source that leads to SHC. He is not a theoretical physicist and is therefore probably not aware that you can’t just make up new particles and insert them into the standard model just to explain your alleged phenomenon. This is a rather extreme example of special pleading.
It is also curious that there are no pre or partial SHC phenomena. No one has heated up to near combustion. We also don’t see alleged cases of SHC in animals – why isn’t there spontaneous pig combustion?
Plausibility aside – what does the empirical evidence say? Are there any compelling cases of SHC, as Sheriff Lockhart seems to believe, saying:
“I think there’s only about 200 cases worldwide, and I’m not saying this happened. I’m just saying that we haven’t ruled it out.”
The hallmark of the SHC claim is that ignition occurs without an external source. It is curious, then, that one fairly consistent feature of alleged SHC cases is the presence of an external ignition source. The typical profile of a victim is an elderly or infirmed individual, or someone taking sedating medication or a heavy alcohol drinker, who lives alone and is also a smoker. Being overweight also is a common feature.
MORE . . .
- Spontaneous Combustion Suspected in Oklahoma Death (livescience.com)
- Another Alleged Spontaneous Human Combustion Case (theness.com)
- Spontaneous human photo-bombing (idoubtit.wordpress.com)
- Oklahoma Sheriff surprised by fire victim, considers spontaneous human combustion (doubtfulnews.com)
- Spontaneous combustion looked at in death (science.nbcnews.com)
- Sheriff not ruling out spontaneous human combustion (wtvr.com)
- Spontaneous combustion looked at as cause of Oklahoma death (science.nbcnews.com)
- Man May Have Died From Spontaneous Human Combustion (foxcharlotte.com)
- Audio: Sheriff Says Spontaneous Human Combustion Kills Man (5newsonline.com)
- Oklahoma sheriff: ‘Spontaneous human combustion’ killed 65-year-old man (rawstory.com)