Burning Issue

With Spontaneous Human Combustion officially opposed, what is the best evidence for this rare phenomenon, and why current science may be unable to understand it.

On 13th September 1967 a group of office cleaners noticed flickering flames inside the upper windows of a derelict house at 49 Auckland Street in Lambeth, London. Presuming they were seeing burning gas, they phoned the fire brigade, who promptly arrived to investigate. First into the building was Station Officer Jack Stacey, and what he saw and later described with such alarming clarity pinpoints what is surely one of the most obscure and fascinating mysteries of human biology.

            Later, when interviewed, Jack Stacey recalled:

The unfortunate Bailey was an alcoholic whose death the Coroner later concluded was the result of the ignition of the contents of his stomach. How this happened, when Bailey was a known non-smoker, was not ventured upon by the Coroner, but the inference must be that the alcohol in Bailey’s stomach must somehow have burst through the wall of his stomach and erupted into flame. Yet how this could have been “at force like a blowlamp” and through a gap four inches wide is where ordinary explanations struggle to prevail. So was the unfortunate Bailey a victim of Spontaneous Human Combustion?

      In spite of his astonishing experience, Fire Office Jack Stacey did not think so, and neither do the majority of the medical professions, for the subject of SHC is not one you will find upheld in textbooks on forensics, pathology, cremation, or any other field of human medicine. Over the past three centuries SHC has been bandied back and forth between writers of novels, who have used the subject’s dramatic qualities to cast judgments of character (Dickens, Gogol, etcetera), and doctors and coroners who, on struggling to explain the phenomenon in terms to fit in with their training, have consistently backed away from bringing it into the fold of acceptable scientific and medical classification.

One argument against Spontaneous Human Combustion is that noone has actually seen anyone mysteriously catch fire. However, some of the more impressive cases are those involving witnesses. In August 1998 Jackie Park collected her mother, Agnes Philips, from a Sydney nursing home by car. After popping into a shop, Jackie returned to find smoke and flames coming from the vehicle, and her mother being dragged out of the car by a bystander. The firemen who examined the scene of the blaze could find no leaked fuel or exposed wiring, and the car’s engine was switched off. After Agnes died from her injuries the coroner recorded an open verdict. But was it SHC?

         Even more perplexing is what happened to Jeannie Saffin in Edmonton, London in 1982. Jeannie had the mental age of five and led a quiet existence with her father. On a September day she was sitting on some newspapers on a kitchen chair while her brother-in-law, Donald Carroll, was decorating elsewhere in the house. Just as he was coming downstairs he heard Jeannie’s father shout “Jeannie’s burning!” Rushing into the kitchen he saw Jeannie standing near the sink with flames coming out of her midriff and mouth, while her dad was throwing cups of water over her. Despite his deafness, Donald described the flames coming from her mouth as “like a dragon... making a roaring noise.” Notwithstanding terrible burns, including to the inside of her mouth, Jeannie did not seem to be in any pain during the experience, and her clothes did not burn. With around 70 percent burns to her body, she lived for only a week afterwards. Donald was adamant that, owing to her low intellect, Jeannie was terrified of fire and would not touch matches. The cause of her injuries he said was “definitely Spontaneous Human Combustion... It was obvious that the flames were coming from her inside.” The official cause of her death was given as bronchopneumonia due to burns, but the testimonies from her family is compelling anecdotal evidence for one of the strangest instances of inexplicable fire ever recorded.

Barbara Latenser M.D. (1952-2015), a Professor of Burn Treatment at the University of Iowa and one of the foremost experts in fire-related injuries, gave me her view of SHC. She found it “a fascinating phenomenon, if it occurs,” although she strongly wondered if its cause was intentional. “We have some pretty sophisticated folks out there,” she told me, “people who would be able to devise means of fire starting that would escape our detection. And some of the older cases could have involved homicides/self-immolation cases when forensics would not have been able to solve the mystery. In short, although it might exist, the laws of nature say that it does not, and that a much more likely explanation would involve intentional harm to oneself or others.” An interesting viewpoint I did not expect. Yet the reticence of those in the Hippocratic spheres to accept SHC means that its possible causes have tended to reflect moral attitudes more than scientific findings.

      An attitude which took root in the 19th century, and persists even today, is that heavy drinking was at the root of bizarre, all-consuming fires. This stems from a completely erroneous belief that alcohol consumed in sufficient excess can somehow ‘leech’ through the skin making it perilously volatile. And even though simple experiments have proved it is impossible to keep alcohol-impregnated skin lit for no longer than a Christmas pudding soaked in brandy, (plus the fact that drinkers in pre-smoking ban pubs were decidedly not going up in flames all over the place every Friday night) the alcoholic theory remains the benchmark of SHC-related ignorance, often coupled with the even more frowned-upon spectre of tobacco smoking. The spectres of drinking and smoking are indeed so persuasive on the imagination that, even up to the present day, a wide assumption persists that drinking, coupled with careless smoking behaviour, explains many apparent instances of SHC (with a possible the underlying assumption that such victims are really ‘better off’ being immolated than continuing to live in the grip of their intoxicants.) Another largely-unquestioned assumption is that cigarettes are fiendishly good at igniting fabrics. In fact, they are not, even when doused in flammable liquids as John E. Heymer in his very good study, The Entrancing Flame, demonstrated very well. Even so, cigarettes are still blamed for many domestic fires.

So with the difficult ‘spontaneous’ part of the phenomenon explained away, the ‘human combustion’ part is, for SHC skeptics, merely the result of the “wick effect”, a quasi-scientific term coined to explain how the clothed human body can act as a kind of inside-out candle, with fabrics augmenting the surprising propensity for human body fat to smoulder for hours – provided certain conditions are met, conditions, incidentally, that only rarely exist outside controlled laboratory settings, hence the scarcity of SHC cases.

      A bigger quandary for medical science is explaining how organs and even bones can be reduced to white powdered cinders, when even oven cremation at around 500, and up to 1300 degrees centigrade can take hours to achieve this.

      This very problem was tackled by Dr. Angi M. Christensen, a forensic scientist at FBI laboratories in Quantico, Virginia. In 2002 she published a paper,  ‘Experiments in the Combustibility of the Human Body’, in which she details an experiment to compare how healthy bones cremated in comparison to bones with osteoporosis, a disease that reduces the density of bone material, often found in the elderly. Her initial hypothesis was that localized cremation fires were so successful in destroying bones because, in Dr. Christensen’s words, “the victims of alleged SHC fit the profile of those at highest risk for osteoporosis. Having less dense bones, their skeletons are predisposed to quicker, more thorough destruction should their bodies catch fire.” It seems, on the face of it, a reasonable starting point, since many of the most commonly-cited victims of SHC do indeed happen to be elderly people: Dr. John Bentley was 92; Henry Thomas, 73; Mary Reeser, 66; Jeannie Saffrin, 61 (see boxout). Perhaps unsurprisingly, the osteoportic bones in Dr. Christensen’s experiment showed more damage than healthy bones subjected to the same temperature. She concluded that the ‘wick effect’ was supported, because the human body, aided by cotton clothing, could burn at a very low heat until a “significant amount of mass” was consumed, and that, “while human beings do not spontaneously combust, they are surprisingly combustible...” The significance of the low heat, Dr. Christensen wrote, was supportive of the curious failure of flames to spread much beyond the body, a noteworthy feature of Spontaneous Human Combustion. Dr. Christensen qualified her results as more of a benchmark experiment than a scientific study. Not convinced that SHC had been explained away by these tests, I submitted to Dr. Christensen that these findings were more to do with the way isolated bones can be cremated rather the process which might underlie the ‘spontaneous’ part of SHC, suggesting that framing her study within the context of SHC was an overextension of her findings. Unfortunately, she was unable to reply to my questions due to US Government restrictions.

Doctors and coroners who, on struggling to explain the phenomenon in terms to fit in with their training, have consistently backed away from bringing it into the fold of acceptable scientific and medical classification.

So is Spontaneous Human Combustion wrongly dismissed by medical specialists? John E. Heymer was convinced that SHC was a truth too disturbing to face. “I am becoming more and more of the opinion,” he wrote, “that, while there is no official conspiracy as such, there is a tacit agreement on the part of the establishment to play down reports of SHC so as not to disturb the public unduly.” Although unable to directly prove SHC is a fact he was adamant that “the answer is not the much vaunted ‘wick effect’ which opponents of SHC quote incessantly as though it were an effective incantation to ward of the evil spirit of SHC.” For how do you prove the existence of something that by definition destroys the very evidence that may help to explain it? Could it be that the causes of SHC lie beyond the scope of medical knowledge, shading into fields of physics and other sciences, that, by their specialist training, medical professionals are unable to investigate?

         A potentially groundbreaking enquiry into a possible factor behind SHC was undertaken by Livingston Gearhart who looked at the strength of the earth’s magnetic field during times of suspected SHC. He found how the field peaked sharply on the exact day of separate six possible cases of SHC. The US National Geomagnetism Program which monitors the ever-fluctuating field says that direct effects on human health due to the field are “quite frankly, insignificant,” a position echoed by the World Health Organisation.

'When I got in through the window I found the body of a man named Bailey lying at the bottom of the stairs leading up to the second floor... The flame itself was coming from his abdomen. There was a slit of about four inches in the abdomen and the flame was coming through there at force, like a blowlamp – a bluish flame... There's no doubt whatsoever, that fire began inside that body. It couldn't begin anywhere else. That's the only place it could have begun - inside the body.”

The spectres of drinking and smoking are so persuasive on the imagination that, even up to the present day, a wide assumption persists that drinking, coupled with careless smoking behaviour, explains many apparent instances of SHC.

barbara latenser

“I am becoming more and more of the opinion that, while there is no official conspiracy as such, there is a tacit agreement on the part of the establishment to play down reports of SHC so as not to disturb the public unduly.”

SHC theories are as varied as those who have investigated it. Despite his sterling efforts to investigate several SHC cases in some detail John E. Heymer posited the distinctly shakey idea that, by an unknown mechanism, water in the body could somehow break down into its constituent gases of hydrogen and oxygen, becoming volatile. The single factor in common to all his SHC cases was that the victims were living alone, he noted, suggesting how they might have been disposed to a ‘psychic suicide’ effect, an awkward term for what touch on an important insight. As a wider sample of cases shows, however, not all SHC victims live alone or lack for social contact.

         In their book Spontaneous Human Combustion, Jenny Randles and Peter Hough considered the relationship between SHC and the atmospheric phenomenon of ball lightening, describing events where people had suffered heat-related injuries due to this rare occurrence. More interestingly, Randles and Hough also looked at Kundalini, the reservoir of energy residing in the human bodies’ astral dimension. According to the Hindu tantric tradition it is possible to tap Kundalini ‘serpent fire’ by rigorous physical and mental exercises, and is said by successful practitioners to manifest in a feeling of temperate change. A person’s ability to alter the temperature of their body gained wide scientific recognition in 1971 when Swami Rama, a master yogi from northern India, was studied at the Menninger Clinic in the United States. During tests Rama demonstrated a remarkable degree of control over normally-unconscious bodily processes, including producing an 11-degree temperature difference between different parts of his hand. The impact of these findings led to a surge in the already-emerging medical technique of biofeedback, which uses technology to allow a subject to be aware of physical states in real time, thus enabling their awareness of these measurements to allow them to focus on gradually changing their temperature, rate of heartbeat, blood pressure, and other functions. Some ‘faith’ healers possess an innate talent for modifying the temperature of their hands, and the bodies of others, for healing purposes, without necessarily having direct contact. Could these energies be somehow running amok during SHC?

This video captures an alleged SHC event in Serbia in 2015. WARNING: GRAPHIC.

 SHC sceptics often note that animals do not spontaneously combust: a good point, but not for the reasons the sceptics wish it to be. Part of being human, of being self-aware and capable of extraordinary feats that occasionally defy science, is that we are exposed to this rarest of dangers, and therein lies some very elusive truths about why we are thus. Many SHC researchers observe how victims are often overcome by the inner fire while in a calm state, outwardly at least. Might a collision of peculiar circumstances – a mind focused inward, plus special environmental conditions in some instances – allow a link to manifest between the mind and the body that, in those not used to taming the exotic currents of energy released by a very particular mode of consciousness, causes the body to begin a conversion of its mass into energy?

         Our present human biological sciences says no, it cannot. But I maintain that medical science, by its intensely specialist and compartmentalized nature, is simply too fragmentary, too disconnected from its closest disciplinary neighbours even to understand the question of how to approach SHC, let alone to definitively answer it. The enigma of SHC will never be finally resolved, I suggest, without there being a more interdisciplinary approach, working towards a Grand Unified Theory of mind and body, one of the processes of Cell Biology and Physiology, Chemistry, and Psychology. Then perhaps one day a whole host of mysteries relating to the strange energies that lurk within human beings could be fathomed.

Swami Rama (1925-1996)

FURTHER READING

John E. Heymer, The Entrancing Flame, 1996

Jenny Randles & Peter Hough, Spontaneous Human Combustion, 1992

Angi M. Christensen M.A., Experiments in the Combustibility of the Human Body, 2002

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