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The Bizarre Phenomenon of Spontaneous Human Combustion

We didn’t start the fire.

The silhouette of a man surrounded by flames.
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  • Photo Credit: Mohamed Nohassi/Unsplash

On July 2nd, 1951, Pansy Carpenter, the landlord of the Allamanda Apartment building in St Petersburg, Florida, was awoken early in the morning by a dull thud. The sound was similar to that of a door closing.

She investigated the noise, but found nothing out of the ordinary, apart from the rising smell of smoke. Assuming it was the dodgy electric pump she kept in her garage, she checked to make sure it was switched off.

A little later on, around 6 am, a telegram arrived for Mary Reeser, one of the building's residents. Pansy decided to deliver the message to Mary.

This was when Pansy realized she couldn't hear the radio playing from within Mary’s apartment, which she always heard around this time in the morning. As she approached, she felt the prickle of heat emanating through the screen door…

What is Spontaneous Human Combustion?

Spontaneous Human Combustion has been a morbidly fascinating topic that has confounded and intrigued the human mind for centuries. The idea was propelled into the mainstream when Charles Dickens released a 20-episode serial novel, Bleak House.

Within the novel, one of the characters, the alcoholic Mr. Krook, is killed off by means of spontaneous human combustion. The public at the time trusted Dickens and his portrayal of spontaneous human combustion, as his other novels contained scientific matters, such as smallpox and brain damage, explained with great accuracy.

But what is Spontaneous Human Combustion?

Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) is the proposal that the human body can quite literally “spontaneously combust” into flames without being ignited by an external heat source.

However, those who have allegedly died this way have not simply perished in a fire that has also consumed their surroundings—the blaze seems to be contained around the body, only tarnishing close items, such as a chair or rug.

When we imagine—or see within movies and TV shows—someone being engulfed by flames, they writhe in agony, screaming as their flesh bubbles from their bones. But in the few cases that have been (somewhat loosely) dubbed as SHC, no one, such as neighbors, hear anything that resembles someone being set on fire.

So, how is it possible for a person to burst into flames seemingly in silence?

According to an article from an online course run by Forensic Archeology and Anthropology, the phenomenon is not quite “spontaneous combustion,” but instead a slower process that causes the human body to burn in “small pieces,” known as “The Wick Effect.”

What is the Wick Effect?

The Wick Effect is described as a “low-intensity fire” that spreads across the body, causing the body's fats to melt. As the body fat melts, it seeps into the victim's clothing, creating a grotesque “inside-out” candle.

This turns the body into a fuel source and the outer clothes into the wick. The slow burn then causes the body to effectively disintegrate into fragments.

The disintegration isn't due to the flames, but rather the older age of the victims. Their bones would be weaker and more porous.

As the flames spread over the body, they begin to die down once they reach the elbows and knees. These regions are less fatty and don't produce as much fuel, so the lower legs and feet are left relatively undamaged.

With regards to the victims seemingly allowing the flames to ravage their bodies, chances are they have already died from natural causes. Due to the low intensity of the fire, the remainder of the room in which the victim is found remains more-or-less untouched.

A figure engulfed in flames.
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  • Photo Credit: Vladimir Fedotov/Unsplash

Cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion

Mary Reeser’s landlord, Pansy, panicked and called out to two painters who were working across the street for help. One of the men entered Mary’s apartment and spotted a pile of smoldering ash. Within it he saw the lower half of Mary Reeser's leg and one of her black slippers.

The case of Mary Reeser stunned the authorities at the time, including the chief of the Fire Department. Not only had Mary’s charred remains been left behind in a seemingly well-contained fire, but the paint on the wall behind the chair she'd been sitting in remained untouched.

The chair had been practically reduced to ash, along with part of the rug that was situated under the chair. The smoke from the fire had blackened the upper walls and the ceiling, but there seemed to be no damage to the floor or on the lower walls.

It rings eerily similar to the “Wick Effect.” But Mary isn’t the only victim of this fiery phenomenon.

Mary Reeser, an alleged victim of spontaneous combustion.
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  • Mary Reeser, an alleged victim of spontaneous combustion.

    Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 1885 on Christmas Eve in Seneca, Illinois, Matilda Rooney burst into flames in her kitchen. The fire incinerated her full body, apart from her feet.

 A further tragedy, her husband also died. His cause of death was smoke inhalation from his “spontaneously combusted” wife.

An investigation into Matilda’s uncanny death produced more questions than answers. There was no other ignition source found at the scene, along with no detection of foul play, and the rest of their home was untouched by the fire, despite the fact that Matilda’s body was reduced mostly to ash and a few bone fragments.

On December 22nd, 2010 in Galway, Ireland, 76-year-old Michael Faherty’s burnt body was found by his neighbor after black smoke set off Faherty's fire alarm at 3 am. After banging on the door and receiving no response, the neighbor called the fire brigade.

Forensic experts found that, apart from Michael’s charred body, the only other damage to the room was the ceiling above his body and the floor directly below him. What was left of his body was found in front of a fireplace, but the fireplace itself was not the cause of the blaze.

Michael Faherty’s cause of death was officially ruled as Spontaneous Human Combustion by coroner Dr. McLoughlin. This was the first case in Ireland's history attributed to SHC.

Another case in Dublin, Ireland happened before Faherty in 1970, but remained off the SHC radar. Even though the cause of death was ruled as “burning,” the cause of the fire was ruled as “unknown.”

Margaret Hogan was an 89-year-old widow who lived alone. She was frequently visited by her neighbor, who had had been by to wash Margaret's hair and feet the night before her ashy remains were discovered.

The neighbor left Margaret sitting in an armchair by the fire, seemingly in good health. Yet at 9:30 the next morning, Margaret was nothing more than ash, except for her two feet.

Again, no accelerants were found in the home. Only Margaret, the armchair, and part of the rug were affected by the fire, and the small coal fire she had in her home was ruled out to have been the cause.

"The lady had been reduced to a little pile of ashes, it was just two little ankles sticking out" —Conor Brady, the first reporter on the scene on March 28th, 1970.

Dublin coroner Paddy Bofin became intrigued by the case. He concluded that Margaret Hogan died from burning, but burning that was closely associated with Spontaneous Human Combustion.

Bofin added that “the term does not mean that the fires are in fact spontaneous in origin, it’s simply a term carried on in forensic literature to describe a set of circumstances in which a person is burned to death without an obvious source for the fire.”

One theory that arose from Margaret's untimely death is that a spark from the coal fire could have ignited Margaret's clothes, but the fact that her body was almost completely destroyed without causing any further damage to the rest of the room is almost incomprehensible.

A Burning Mystery

Those who have lost their lives to this bizarre phenomenon do have a few things in common. They were all elderly and found near a fire source

Additionally, they all consumed alcohol and smoked. Their hands or feet were untarnished by the fire that engulfed the rest of their body, with no extensive damage to the rest of the room. But is it possible that these people did quite literally spontaneously burst into flames with no direct ignition source?

Or do the attributes of the victim’s deaths hold a candle to “the Wick Effect?” A slow, low-intensity fire that effectively transitions your body from a fleshy mass to an inside-out, highly flammable candle?

There are certainly conflicting thoughts on both of these phenomena, from the scientific community to those who love a good morbid tale. It may be safe to say that spontaneous human combustion will remain one of life's great mysteries.

Featured image: Mohamed Nohassi/Unsplash; Additional images: Vladimir Fedotov/Unsplash