The Legend:

For as yet scientifically unknown reasons, times occur when an unsuspecting person can just burst into flames and be incinerated. The flames begin within the victim's own body and are horribly complete in their work, reducing their human fuel to a pile of ashes in minutes -- sometimes seconds. The whole event is so quick and selective that objects near the victim show only minor heat damage, if any at all; sometimes, even the victim's clothes are left untouched. These inner flames have been occurring for as long as mankind has existed; but most coroners, pathologists, scientists, and fire officials ignore such evidence, blithely choosing much neater and less controversial explanations for these unexplained deaths.

A Brief History

Many contend that Spontaneous Human Combustion is first documented in such early texts as the Bible, but, scientifically speaking, these accounts are too old and secondhand to be seen as reliable evidence. The first reliable historic evidence of SHC appears to be from the year 1763, when Frenchman Jonas Dupont published a collection of SHC cases and studies entitled De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis. Dupont was inspired to write this book after encountering records of the Nicole Millet case, in which a man was acquitted of the murder of his wife when the court was convinced that she had been killed by spontaneous combustion. Dupont's book on this strange subject brought it out of the realm of folkloric rumor and into the popular public imagination.

Continuing belief in SHC in the 1800's is evidenced in the number of writers that called on it for a dramatic death scene. Most of these authors were hacks that worked on the 19th century equivalent of comic books, "penny dreadfuls", so no one got too worked up about it; but two big names in the literary world also used SHC as a dramatic device, and one did cause a stir. The first of these two authors was Captain Marryat who, in his novel Jacob Faithful, borrowed details from a report in the Times of London of 1832 to describe the death of his lead character's mother, who is reduced to "a sort of unctuous pitchey cinder."

Twenty years later, in 1852, Charles Dickens used SHC to kill off a character named Krook in his novel Bleak House. Krook was a heavy alcoholic, true to the popular belief at the time that SHC was caused by excessive drinking. The novel caused a minor uproar; George Henry Lewes, philosopher and critic, declared that SHC was impossible, and derided Dickens' work as perpetuating a uneducated superstition. Dickens responded to this statement in the preface of the 2nd edition of his work, making it quite clear that he had researched the subject and knew of about thirty cases of SHC. The details of Krook's death in Bleak House were directly modeled on the details of the death of the Countess Cornelia de Bandi Cesenate by this extraordinary means; the only other case that Dickens actually cites details from is the Nicole Millet account that inspired Dupont's book about 100 years earlier.

After this brief flap blew over, general interest in the subject ran cold until 1951, when the Mary Reeser case captured the public imagination. Mrs. Reeser was found in her apartment on the morning of July 2, 1951, reduced to a pile of ashes, a skull, and a completely undamaged left foot. This event has become the foundation for many a book on the subject of SHC since, the most notable being Michael Harrison's Fire From Heaven, printed in 1976.

SHC has been investigated by chemical physicists and biophysicists in Canada in hopes of determining the cause of 6 unexplained deaths up North near the Ogyukak Island underground military testing lab. The theory goes like this: We breathe in 17% pure oxygen; if we were to breathe in 23% O2 we would actually be flammable. Every single cell in our bodies would be on the brink of an explosive reaction. This is regardless of the fact that we are composed of nearly 70% water. A single spark/flame from a cigarette would be enough to wipe us all out. This is one reason for the astonishing complexity behind our air and is the theorized reason for those 6 deaths. Deep in the caverns where these 6 scientists were working, one scientist lit up and burst into flames. His proximity to the other 5 individuals caused the same reaction. Only their bodies were torched. Upon investigation, the physicists discovered that the breathable air contained a higher proportion of O2 in certain regions of the cavern. The dead scientists unfortunately were in that region, unaware. Presently, no reasonable solution has been put forth as to why the entire room did not go up because of the increased amount of oxygen.

On SHC and its "celebrated" Mary Reeser case

A couple of notes before beginning.

Investigation has never turned up anyone who has witnessed the start of such an "event." And the person is always left alone for hours before being discovered—Reeser was alone for around 12 hours.

While it was once popular to suggest alcoholism/alcohol consumption as a contributing cause as far as accelerant, no one really seriously maintains that. One would die of alcohol poisoning long before consuming anywhere near enough to facilitate SHC. On the other hand, an alcoholic would be more prone to the sort of accident that causes fire of this nature.

Joe Nickell of CSICOP (yes, a skeptic) has spent time investigating such claims, uncovering some of the often conveniently ignored facts about the Reeser case.

The walls and floor (aside from the carpet directly around the chair) showed little damage. Why? They were made of concrete.

The contention that nothing else was really damaged is often mentioned. Besides the chair she was sitting in, an adjacent table and a lamp were destroyed. Additionally, a ceiling beam had to be put out when the firemen arrived.

When she had last been seen, she was sitting in an overstuffed armchair in a nightgown and housecoat, smoking a cigarette. She told her son that she had taken two Seconal and intended to take two more.

The official police report reads: "Once the body became ignited, almost complete destruction occurred from the burning of its own fatty tissues." She wasn't a small woman and there was "fatty residue" left where the fire had taken place. Further, "as the fat liquefied in the fire, it could have been absorbed into the chair stuffing to fuel still more fire to attack still more of the body."

A smoldering "fire" (say, from a dropped cigarette) can consume "fuel" without bursting into flame (or with very little flame) and even destroy furniture or tissue. Also, since fire, by nature, burns upward as its path of least resistance, less damage to the lower extremities would not be surprising. Reeser had a stiff leg that she often left extended when she sat—its being relatively untouched could also be explained by a probable lack of contact with the chair, immediate carpet, or clothes which would compromise the " wick effect." As for not consuming everything, consider a log left smoldering overnight on a campfire that has mostly turned to ash in the center but remains relatively intact on the ends.

From Kirk's Fire Investigation, a widely used and highly respected forensic text:

Most significantly, there are almost always furnishings, bedding, or carpets involved. Such materials would not only provide a continuous source of fuel but also promote a slow, smoldering fire and a layer of insulation around any fire once ignited. With this combination of features, the investigator can appreciate the basics—fuel, in the form of clothing or bedding as first ignition, and then furnishings as well as the body to feed later stages; an ignition source-smoking materials or heating appliances; and finally, the dynamics of heat, fuel, and ventilation to promote a slow, steady fire which may generate little open flame and insufficient radiant heat to encourage fire growth. In some circumstances the fat rendered from a burning body can act in the same manner as the fuel in an oil lamp or candle. If the body is positioned so that oils rendered from it can drip or drain onto an ignition source, it will continue to fuel the flames. This effect is enhanced if there are combustible fuels—carpet padding, bedding, upholstery stuffing—that can absorb the oils and act as a wick.
It appears that the "mystery" surrounding SHC is primarily for those unaware of the science of fire and burning.

It is known that "human fatty tissue will burn, the water it contains being boiled off ahead of the advancing fire." It has also been found that "liquefied human fat" will burn at a temperature of 250° C (482° F). Even more interesting is that a cloth wick in it will burn even as low as 24° C (75.2° F). And the so-called "wick effect" does not require a corpulent person to work. No matter how trim and lean a person is, there will be fat which can be used for fuel: "once the body starts to burn, there is enough fat and inflammable substances to permit varying amounts of destruction to take place. Sometimes this destruction by burning will proceed to a degree which results in almost complete combustion of the body."

While much is made of the high temperatures used in crematoria (around 1300° C/2372° F or higher), it isn't necessary to get the same "effect." In fact,

it's a misconception to think you need those temperatures within a living room to reduce a body to ash in this way. You can produce local, high temperatures, by means of the wick effect and a combination of smouldering and flaming to reduce even bones to ash. At relatively low temperatures of 500° C [932° F]—and if given enough time—the bone will transform into something approaching a powder in composition.
None of this is fringe science. In fact, the FBI testing lab suggested the general scenario outlined above during the original investigation.

A side note is that the victim's family dislikes the SHC claims:

My husband always hated all this stuff. He tried to tell people that she burned up slowly and naturally and there was no artificial business there. It was just a natural situation, though it was an unusual situation. There wasn't anything supernatural there.
Ernestine Reeser, Mary Reeser's 88-year-old daughter-in-law

The "Pig" Experiment

In order to test the "wick effect," fire investigator Dr. John De Haan, of the California Criminalistics Institute, decided to attempt it using a pig. He found that "it turns out the subcutaneous body fat of animals is a pretty good fuel. It has about the same caloric content as candle wax."

So, in April 1998, he got a dead pig from a meat supplier. He had it wrapped in cotton (clothes) and used a little gasoline as an accelerant.

In the test, the pig fat leeched into the cotton and caused the fire to simmer for hours, eventually destroying the pig's entire body. Such decimation of bones happens as the fat fire rises to the 1,700- or 1,800-degree heat of a crematory at the immediate point where it touches bones and sinew. This sort of fire, it turns out, actually does more damage than a flame coming from outside the body, such as in a house fire.
(Sources: an article from the Nov-Dec 1996 Skeptical Inquirer, available online at, quotes from there except the "pig" quote and the quote from Reeser's daughter-in-law, which are from

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