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Spontaneous Human Combustion

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The following is an analysis of the characteristics present in Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) cases, followed by a theory that might explain this strange phenomenon.


Although SHC is a rare phenomenon, these cases are usually well documented, because a person died in unseal circumstances, what makes people pay attention to anomalous nature of the combustion, and sometimes an investigation is launched.

People in past centuries were well familiar with fire and its consequences. They knew that a SHC was something completely different, but they were at a loss to explain it.

It is important to look at the details because they show that SHC is a phenomenon that does not fit the characteristics of a normal fire. Debunkers of SHC are often not even aware of these details. They certainly cannot explain the few rare cases of SHC that have been witnessed or in which the victim survived.

I have also assembled individual cases of spontaneous human combustion. You can find them by going to last chapter.



Efforts to Explain SHC

The Strange Characteristics of SHC

Reduction of the Skeleton to Ashes

From Partial to Complete Combustion

Nothing burned outside the body

Burning from Inside Out

Flames Coming out of the Body

The Oily Soot

Radiation Effects

Flash of Light

The Cause and Nature of SHC

Links to pages with SHC cases


Efforts to Explain SHC

Spontaneous Human Combustion is a rare phenomenon, but it has been happening throughout the ages. People noticed that it was quite different from a normal fire, but were always at a loss to what the cause of the combustion might have been. They tried to explain it based on what they understood about normal fire. However, none of these explanations really matches up with all the characteristics of the phenomenon.

In past centuries, it was generally believed that SHC was due to the saturation of the body with alcohol, as they noticed that a lot of SHC victims were heavy alcoholics. “The bodies of some few drinkers have been so thoroughly steeped in spirit, as literally to take fire and consume to ashes. It is said that no case of this spontaneous combustion has ever occurred, except among hard drinkers, and it is altogether probable that in every such case, an inflammable air has exhaled from the lungs or skin, or both, and has been kindled by the too near approach of a lighted taper, or some ignited substance” (American Temperance Society, 1829, p45)

Of course, this is not possible. The alcohol in the body cannot set a person on fire.

Some chemists looked for flammable chemicals in the human body. In 2000 a German chemist John Emsley found that human feces contains both phosphate and diphosphane. He thought that in incredibly rare cases, diphosphane levels could build up in a person overtime and if it were to encounter oxygen in the body, could ignite a pocket of methane and phosphate causing a person to burst into flames from the inside out. I guess he didn't understand that a human body  is composed of more than 75% of water.

But scientists keep on looking for chemical causes. Brian J. Ford, a British biologist, thinks that it is acetone that makes the body burn.  Acetone is a highly flammable substance that is used by the body to break down fat. Ford conducted an experiment in which he created scale models of humans out of pork tissue, marinated them in acetone and clothed them before igniting the models which, “Burned to ash within half an hour.”. Ford went on to describe, “The remains- a pile of smoking cinders with protruding limbs- were exactly like the photographs of human victims.”. I guess he failed to notice that a living human is not soaked in acetone! Not to mention the 75% water content.

Pork meat is popular with SHC debunkers...

Their most popular theory nowadays is the so-called wick effect. The theory is that an external ignition source burns through the victim’s clothes and skin very quickly, releasing fat which is then reabsorbed into the surrounding clothing creating a source of continual combustion that continues until the fuel is burned up, similar to the way in which the string down the center of a candle absorbs wax and keeps the flame alive. In a well-intention attempt to replicate the wick effect in 1998, scientists at the California Criminalistics Institute  wrapped a dead pig in a blanket, lit it on fire and left it to burn. The end result was a corpse similar to SHC remains, but that was only after several hours of smoldering. Other attempts to replicate the wick effect in pigs, however, have failed. SHC victims have burned in less time than 20 minutes, in contrast to the many hours of smoldering required to the turn pig to powder. Also, SHC victim were not rolled up in big blankets to begin with, and some SHC victims had their cloths not burned.

They always forget to look at the details.

The problem with scientist and debunkers of SHC is that they don't investigate the many cases of SHC. They presume that the body caught fire by an external source, such as a cigarette, or an active fireplace that caused the clothing of the person to catch fire.

If that would be the case, the person would immediately try to get up, out of bed, or out of the chair, run around frantically, trying to extinguish the flames, either by hand, or by running to the water faucet. When you look to the many cases of SHC, only in a few cases did the person get up and moved around before succumbing to the combustion. All the other ones stayed where they were, in their bed, or in their chair; they didn't move an inch. Something else took place, so quick that they couldn't even react.

If scientists would read and analyze the many SHC cases, they would find that there are strange characteristics present in these cases, that show that there was no external flame that set the body on fire. All too often, the fireplace or the candles were not burning, and a burning cigarette was ruled as unlikely by firefighters because of the very strange pattern of the fire. 

It has been noted many times that the combustion took place from within the body. It was a combustion process that was different from a normal fire, a process that was sudden, quick and devastating, which was  limited to the body, and it also left strange effects in its immediate environment.

Let's have a look at these strange characteristics that show up with SHC.

The Strange Characteristics of SHC

Reduction of the Skeleton to Ashes

It is important to understand that with SHC the entire body gets consumed by the combustion process, except, in certain cases, some parts of limbs or a couple of vertebrae, or a small piece of the skull. Sometimes the surviving foot or limb is not burned, and it still has its shoe and sock, also not burned. If it had been a normal fire, these would have been gone up in flames too.

What makes SHC different from an ordinary fire is that overall there are no bones left. Everything is reduced to ashes. In a crematorium where they use a high temperate (1,500°F to 1,900°F; or 800°C to 1000°C)  to incinerate the body. However, all the bones are still left after the cremation, because bones just don't burn up that easily, not even in a crematorium. The crematorium uses a special machine to grind up the bones afterwards, and the powder then get mixed with the ashes. To reduce bones into ashes it requires a much higher temperature. Also, consider that most some SHC lasted only a very short time, even less than 20 minutes.

What process can reduce an entire human body (remember more than 75% water) and the entire skeleton (minus some small parts) into ash in a short time?


From Partial to Complete Combustion

Most of the time, an entire human body is reduced to ashes, sometimes a foot, or an arm is still intact, not burned. Sometimes the combustion is not entire, and the remains of organs are still visible, although carbonized.

In some rare cases SHC can be very small and localized. A firefighter saw a blue flame coming out of the body of a victim (Robert Francis Bailey). He was able to put it out. A professor saw a flame coming out of his leg (see James Overton), which he immediately put out. Some internal process started a combustion process but was not able to spread through the body.

However the emerging combustion process can engulf the entire person at once. Jeannie Saffin, for example, was seen instantly and completely on fire.

It seems that some internal combustion can start at a particular place and be limited to that place, or it can spread gradually (in the few cases where the person stood up and moved around), or it can encompass the entire body at once (most cases where the person never got up).

In 1841 the Royal College of Surgeons of England published a summary of SHC cases with some of their unusual characteristics. Already at that time it was well-known that SHC had some variation to its combustion process but thorough combustion with some parts of the body not combusted was a sure sign of the strange nature of SHC. Here is a list of the degree of combustion that was gathered from a number of cases. If we would make a list of modern cases it would be very similar. In the list, each line corresponds to a case where there was a complete combustion of the body except some parts:

Complete combustion and reduction to ashes.

Except a portion of the skull and the bones of the fingers.

Except the skull, a part of the face and three fingers.

Except a thigh and a leg remained intact.

Except some bones.

Except the skull and fingertips.

Except a large part of the head and four members.

Except a part of the head and extremities. Carbonaceous skeleton.

Except for a few bones that crumbled into dust, a hand and a foot.

Except some bones which turned to dust.

Except the skull and a part of the skin of the neck wrapped in a tissue.

Except the right leg dressed with its bottom and the shoe.

Except some parts of the body.

Burning of the skin of the right arm and thigh.

Unspecified combustion but very advanced.

Only the hand and thigh altered.

Finger of the left hand alone affected.

Burning of the core muscles, buttocks and upper limbs.

Almost complete combustion.


Nothing burned outside the body

I already mentioned that in 1841 the Royal College of Surgeons of England published a summary of SHC cases with some of their unusual characteristics. They already knew that in SHC cases virtually nothing had burned or gone up into flames around the charred or carbonized body. One of the items they mentioned was writing paper lying next to the victim's completely burned up body, and this writing paper was unburned.  

It is a most interesting anomaly with the SHC phenomenon: the sharp confinement of the combustion process. The body got consumed, but not anything that was in contact with the body, like a mattress or chair went up into flames. They do show signs of being blackened or roasted by a radiant heat, or by another type of radiation, but they did not burn in a normal way.

It has been observed many times that objects directly in contact with the body, or at very short distance from the body are only scorched or partially burned. If the body of the victim, and his/her clothes were burning in a normal way, anything around that is flammable would immediately catch fire. However, nothing around the body caught fire. Furthermore, why did a foot or an arm not burn at all, not even the sock or shoe on it?

Although the combustion process inside the body must be very intense, because of the reduction of bones into ashes, and the very short time period, the 'fire' does not spread through the room, apartment or house. Even a newspaper next to the person, in one of the SHC cases, did not catch fire.

It is clear that the combustion process is not a normal fire, that it is limited to the body of the person, and that the scorching of nearby objects is due to a type of radiation coming from the combustion process itself.

Burning from Inside Out

In many cases of SHC there was no external fire or flame present, no burning candles, no active fireplace, no cigarette. The body of the victim started to combust by itself. This combustion is very different from ordinary fire, as nearby highly flammable objects, such as bed sheets or newspapers, did not catch fire.

The combustion process must be a very high temperature, because in most cases the entire skeleton was reduced to ashes. Yet everything around did not catch fire. It doesn't take much to put a curtain on fire.

It is obvious that the body burns from the inside out, but this cannot be a normal fire, simply because the human body is, after all, composed of three quarters of water.

A normal fire is the rapid oxidation of a material in the exothermic chemical process of combustion, releasing heat, light, and various reaction products. An oxidizer must be present, which is usually the oxygen in the air. Then a chain reaction must take place, by which the released energy will create further oxidation, and thus the fire sustains itself.

The combustion process in SHC is different. From the strange characteristics we can deduce that it starts inside the body and usually causes a very rapid chain reaction throughout the entire body.

In the case of Jeannie Saffin, her father saw a bright flash upon which he turned to his daughter who was engulfed in flames. This rare case where the spontaneous combustion was witnessed, shows that some very intense energy, causing the bright flash of light, caused instantaneous burning of the entire person. Her father also saw flames coming from Jeannie’s mouth and said she was “roaring like a dragon” although no burns were found in Jeannie’s mouth.

This shows that this phenomenon is not a gradual burning of normal fire. We are dealing with an intense energy that instantaneous sets a person on fire, with the understanding that this fire is of a different nature.

Something of a very intense nature takes places that is able to transform the human body into a highly flammable object, instantaneously.

In 1841, a publication by the Royal College of Surgeons of England contained an article summarizing characteristics of SHC based on previous cases studies. It mentions that "The flame that occurs in spontaneous combustion is light blue, motionless; it is useless to pour water on it, at times it even seems to animate the fire; so that combustion does not stop until the body parts have been reduced to charcoal or ashes." This is an interesting statement that shows clearly that the flames are not from an ordinary fire, but moreover that water seems to fuel the 'fire'. This fits very well in the theory of M. Sue Benford (below) who theorizes that the SHC is fueled by a nuclear process that splits the cell water in the very flammable hydrogen radical (or hydrogen atom), and the hydroxyl radical. The latter is the most reactive radical known to chemistry.

Flames Coming out of the Body

In some rare cases, witnesses saw the human combustion process in action, and they saw flames that were not the normal flames one would expect if somebodies clothes would catch fire.

The1841 publication just mentioned also states "The flame that occurs in spontaneous combustion is light blue, motionless." This was based on investigated cases, so these SHC cases must have been witnessed by other people.

In the case of Robert Francis Bailey, people on the street saw flickering blue flames through the upper window where Bailey was, and when the firefighter entered, he saw a blue flame coming out of a gash in his body: "It was a blue flame. The flame was actually coming from the body itself. From inside the body. He was burning literally from the inside out. And it was definitely under pressure." None of Bailey's cloths were burned. It took three fire extinguishers to put out the flames!

James Overton mentions a case (1835) of a professor who had a very small spontaneous combustion on his leg, out of which he saw a flame emerging: "Directing his eyes at this moment to the suffering part, he distinctly saw a light flame of the extent at its base of a ten cent piece of coin, with a surface approaching to convexity, somewhat flattened at the top, and having a complexion which nearest resembles that of pure quicksilver."

It is even more remarkable when people saw flames coming out of the mouth of the SHC victim.

In a curious witnessed account of Jeannie Saffin, her father "saw flames coming from Jeannie’s mouth and said she was “roaring like a dragon” although no burns were found in Jeannie’s mouth."

A rudimentary account from 1717: "That a Polish Gentleman, in the Time of the Queen Bona Sforza, having drank two Dishes of a Liquor called Brandy-Wine, vomited Flames, and was burnt by them."

I found a newspaper article in The Jeffersonian (Stroudsburg, Pa.), February 28, 1867, Front Page, that talks about the death of man, with severely burned mouth and nose. Considering the SHC can sometimes be very localized and very limited in its effects, this case might well be an example of a small and incomplete SHC:

Spontaneous Human Combustion.

By Telegraph by the Tribune. Indianapolis, Feb. 16.

A well authenticated case of spontaneous combustion occurred in Columbus, 40 miles south of this city, yesterday morning. Andrew Nolte, a German, very intemperate in his habits, was found dead in his shop, his lips entirely burned away, leaving a ghastly hole, his tongue charred to a crisp. I His nose was also burned, as if by fire coming out of his nostrils, and his clothes were still burning when found. No other part of the body save the air passages was burned. Physicians who examined the body pronounce it a clear case of spontaneous combustion. It is supposed that the fire was communicated by at tempting to light cigar.

The Oily Soot

A fire will always create soot, but in SHC cases they often mention that the soot was very different from what one would normally expect from an ordinary fire. People in the past (with historical cases) were well familiar with fires, and modern day firefighters are well-trained in observation. It is not unusual that they remark that the soot covering walls, ceiling and draperies is of a strange oily quality.

Keep in mind that in SHC cases, only the body burned.

In the case of an unnamed woman mentioned in the Acts of Copenhagen (18th century), a 'humid soot' that covered the room.

In the case of George Mott, "A greasy coating covered every horizontal surface."

In the case of Marie Jeanne Antoinette Bally: "...the floor was covered with a black soot." (nothing burned in the room except her body)

In the case of Mary Clues: "I was in the room about two hours after the mischief was discovered. I observed that the walls and every thing in the room were coloured black..."

The ashes of the combusted person are sometimes said to be greasy and oily.

In the historic case of Countess Cornelia Bandi, an unusual yellow fluid was noticed too, and a thick kind of fluid glue on the floor: "...that from the lower Part of the Windows trickled down a greasy, loathsome, yellowish Liquor and thereabout they smelled like a Stink, without knowing of what; and saw the Soot fly around. It was remarkable, that the Floor of the Chamber was so thick smear'd with a gluish Moisture, that it could not be taken off; and the Stink spread more and more through the other Chambers."


Radiation Effects

Usually, attention is paid only to the victim, but in some cases people noticed some strange things around the remains, that seem to be the result of some type of radiation.

George Mott is an interesting case, as a few anomalies really stood out. The water had evaporated from the toilet. Strangely, inside the refrigerator they found that "Not only the butter, but the plastic butter dish itself had melted. There was an unopened packet of hot-dogs that appear to have been boiled in the wrapping." The plastic of the TV had also melted. Remember the fire was limited to only the victim. It seems that some type of radiation penetrated the fridge and effected the butter and plastic, and also the plastic of the TV. These items were not next to the victim but at a certain distance away. 

Waymon P. Wood burned up inside his car: "Plastic fittings had melted, and the windshield glass had bubbled, but all fire damage was confined to the front seat." Only the body had burned, nothing else.

In the Countess Cornelia Bandi case: "Two Candles in Candlesticks upon a table stood Upright; the-Cotton was left in both, but the Tallow was gone and vanished." (tallow, or animal fat was used to make candles). Again, only the body was burned up, but something evaporated the tallow. Is it significant that tallow is of organic origin, like the butter and hotdogs in the Mott case? A type of radiation that acts on organic tissue? Or was it just very intense heat?

There is another case, in 1765, where "The candles in her room had burnt to their ends, and the wicks were still remaining entire in the candlesticks." As the wicks were left intact, the candles were rather evaporated than burned to their ends as was thought.

In the Mary Hardy Reeser case, "Electrical wall outlets and plugs above a four-foot level had melted...But closer to the floor on those same walls, similar electric materials were intact. Extreme heat had cracked a mirror ten feet from the burnt chair, and melted two pink candles about twelve feet from it." As only the body burned, and nothing else in the apartment, how can plastic and candles melt at such a distance. If it was extreme heat, then many other objects would have been affected. In the Mott case we had melted plastic of the TV, and here we have melted plastic outlets and plugs. What have candles and plastics (and hot-dogs) in common? They are all made of organic compounds. Plastic is an organic polymer.


Flash of Light

SHC are rarely witnessed, so we are missing crucial information of the initial bursting into combustion. In the Jeannie Saffin case, her father first saw a bright flash of light, turned, and saw his daughter completely on fire.

Although it is just a single case, it is worth mentioning, because it shows the flash of light shows that an instant high energy burst took place.

The Cause and Nature of SHC

Throughout the ages, ordinary people, investigators, authorities and scientists have all tried to find a logical explanation, but have all failed to come up with something that makes sense. Based on the strange characteristics of SHC we mentioned in the above. We now can safely say that the origin lies in a sudden high intensity energy source coming from inside the body. The fact that for many centuries, nobody could come up with a plausible explanation, and that even in our scientifically advanced 21th century there is still nothing that would account for what really takes place during a SHC and the unusual effects on materials around the victim's body, shows us that we really have to look beyond conventional explanations, because a combustion process involving normal fire is not involved.

As a fire or combustion is a release of energy that creates a chain reaction, what else could liberate energy inside a human body, and create a chain reaction that would overcome the hindrance of the non-flammability of the 75% water content of the human body? It must be pretty intense, something that can split water into its components, because water consists of two highly flammable elements when separated: oxygen and hydrogen.

The following is the most interesting explanation for SHC that can explain most if not all the strange characteristics of SHC.

Biological Nuclear Reactions

For a lot of people it is difficult to understand that SHC might be caused by a nuclear process. We are all familiar with ordinary fire, and chemical reactions, but not with nuclear reactions that take place inside molecules, or inside atoms. When you hear about nuclear reactions, you probably think of nuclear explosion, as in atom bombs, or a nuclear power plant. However nuclear reactions, that is, the exchange of energy inside and between atoms, and interactions between subatomic particles, take place all the time. In normal circumstances all these processes are balanced.

Nuclear reactions are linked to transmutation of one element into another. A radioactive element sends out radiation from its nucleus by which it slowly converts itself to another element(s). Nuclear transmutation can also be done artificially.

Although not accepted by main stream science, nuclear transmutation also happens in biological organisms. Corentin Louis Kervran (1901–1983), a French scientist, has studied and written about biological transmutation. He found that organisms can transmute potassium into calcium by nuclear fusion. The process by which this happens is not known. Nature obviously does not need extremely high temperatures and pressures to accomplish this. Mainstream scientists say that this would violate basic physical laws. What they don't understand is that they still don't know all the physical laws. Every year new discoveries are being made. Orthodox scientists tend to not investigate matters that contradict their self-established theories.

Nature doesn't care about their theories. In his book Biological Transmutation Kervran shows that the human body also transmutes certain elements. He writes that animals there is certainly a link between

a. sodium and potassium;

b. potassium and oxygen;

c. hyper-thermy and the increase of the ratio K/Na;

d. the ability of the body to excrete potassium without any intake.

In humans: In the United States (1953), Bass showed that human beings whose temperature increased had a parallel increase of K in the perspiration. The excrement, furthermore, contained a much larger amount of potassium than was ingested through diet.

The body is also able to produce magnesium, phosphorus and calcium out of other elements.

All this implies a cold process of nuclear transmutation, completely different then that of the extremely violent atomic fusion of fission. Without going any further into it, potassium seem to play an important role in biological nuclear transformations.

This leads us to an explanation of Spontaneous Human Combustion:

Idiopathic Thermogenesis

The possibility of biological nuclear transmutation, and that potassium plays an important role in it, leads us to a particular nuclear process that could be the cause of SHC.

M. Sue Benford, a registered nurse, health care researcher, and Executive Director of a non-profit biomedical organization in Ohio, wrote an article about SHC, called Idiopathic Thermogenesis. In this article she gives her ideas about how an organic body could combust by nuclear chain reaction, caused by a strong chemical imbalance in the body.

It is well-known that many SHC victims were heavy alcoholics, and/or had physical impairments. Benford says that these conditions, over time, cause a lot of stress on the body, and produce a large amount of free radicals. Free radicals by themselves are destructive to the body, but they can also play an important role to facilitate a particular nuclear reaction when conditions are right.

Benford's conclusion of the involvement of nuclear reactions are based on many studies of gamma radiation of the human body. The human body is not just a collection of organic materials and chemical reactions, it also emits and absorbs radiation. During bioenergetic healing treatments, gamma radiation around the body fluctuates, and Benford suggests that this is due to increased gamma ray absorption by the person, resulting in the activation of specific cellular and molecular processes that are beneficial to the body. In other words, the human body absorbs gamma radiation in an effort to re-balance and heal itself. When cells in the body have become incoherent, are under stress or are dysfunctional, they increase their absorption of gamma radiation. This gamma radiation absorption is a self-regulating mechanism of the body.

Most of this gamma radiation absorption is done by cell water, because water is the most abundant substance of the human body. At the same time the radiation causes one of the oxygen-hydrogen bonds in the water to split, leaving a single electron on the hydrogen and one on the oxygen, thus creating two radicals: a hydrogen radical (or hydrogen atom), and the hydroxyl radical. The latter is the most reactive radical known to chemistry.

As we have mentioned before, most SHC victim were alcoholics or had a physical infirmity, and one can expect that their bodyies were loaded with free radicals. The body tries to heal itself by absorbing more gamma radiation than usual, and this create even more free radicals by splitting the cell water. This way their bodies get really loaded with a lot of free radicals. Free radicals are involved in combustion reactions, and they also tend to create chain reactions.

Benford says that there are two ways that free radicals can react. The typical reaction is for the unpaired electron to pair itself with another electron. However, an electron can also react, and annihilate itself, with its anti-matter counterpart, a positron. Positrons can come from the natural occurring radioactive potassium K40. K40 decays in Argon40 via emissions of positrons. K40 decays fast and produces a lot of positrons. These positron emissions, if clustered in and around intracellular free radical electrons within cell water could, theoretically, produce highly energized annihilation events.

Another nuclear reaction can take place at the same time. K40 can also affect deuterium oxide (also called heavy water, deuterium oxide is a form of water that contains a larger than normal amount of the hydrogen isotope deuterium, rather than the common hydrogen-1 isotope that makes up most of the hydrogen in normal water.) Deuterium oxide is rare, but when disintegrated releases a proton and neutron. The bulk of deuterium is found in fat deposits. Fat is far richer in carbon and hydrogen than any of the other primary foodstuffs. The combustibility of fat is due to its high hydrogen content that burns invisibly and generates tremendous temperatures. In SHC, the torso area is predominantly consumed, and this may be explained by the fact that the liver fat is found to contain two to three times as much deuterium as that of other fat depots.

So we have a kind of nuclear explosion by which positrons are released and annihilate themselves with the electrons of free radicals, and a decay of deuterium oxide which produces radiation of protons and neutrons. This would explain certain strange effects found in the immediate surroundings of the SHC victim, which show signs of being hit by some type of intense radiation.

But not all alcoholics or impaired people start to combust, so there must be another factor involved that starts the nuclear reactions. Benford states that the unpaired electrons of the free radicals makes them more attracted to a magnetic field, and the majority of documented SHC events have occurred during times of increased geomagnetic flux in the vicinity of the victim.

The nuclear reactions on the subatomic level might be a little arcane to most readers, but it would explain a lot of characteristics of SHC. As these nuclear reactions take place inside biological cells, this would explain why the clothing of some SHC victims were not burned, although their body was reduced to ashes.  

Links to pages with SHC cases

In the following pages I have put text in bold to emphasize characteristics that are typical for the spontaneous human combustion phenomenon.

Spontaneous Human Combustion: Historical Cases

Combustion of the Entire Body: 19th Century Cases

Combustion of the Entire Body: 20th Century Cases

Combustion of the Entire Body: 21st Century Cases

Partial Burns

Witnessed by Others

More than one person at the same time