Spontaneous Human Combustion
The remains of Dr. John Irving Bentley
The mystery surrounding SHC came about
from the way the bodies seem to burn, with intense heat, reducing the
body to a pile of ashes. In reality this would normally be hard to
achieve, the heat source needed to burn bone to ash being of
temperatures not normally reached in a normal house fire.
However, tests recently done by scientists on the corpse of a pig,
have proved that the human candle effect (or in this case a pig) does
Here are a few case studies in to the phenomena:
John Irving Bentley
This is probably one of the most well documented cases of SHC. On
December 1966, Friends had said goodbye to a 92 year old man named Dr.
John Irving Bentley. The time they said was around 9.00pm.
The next morning a meter reader, who had been allowed to enter the
house on his own due to Dr. Bentley's poor physical state, had let
himself in to the basement of the house to read the meter. On entering
the house, he noticed a foul smell. he also claimed he had seen a
strange blue smoke.
Worried by this, he made his way in to Dr. Bentleys bedroom, which he
discovered was full of smoke. It wasn't until he entered the bathroom
that he discovered the charred remains of the doctor. All that remained
of him was the lower half of his right leg, still wearing a slipper.
The bath which was next to the body had been virtually untouched by
the fire, and the rest of the bathroom was unaffected, apart from
staining from the smoke. the coroner recorded his death, and stated that
he had suffered 90% burns to his body.
Another fascinating case of SHC, is that of Mrs. Reeser. The 67 year
old widower was discovered on the morning of July 2nd 1951 by painters
who were decorating her house.
When she was discovered, her body was still smouldering from the
intense heat that had obviously been generated. All that remained of her
was a burnt-out corpse. Her left foot however, remained almost
untouched, and as with the first case above, it still had a slipper on.
According to those who examined her, the heat generated was so
intense, her skull had been shrunk to the size of a small ball, and her
liver was found to be fused to her spine. The surrounding area was
almost untouched by the fire.
A greasy substance was found to be coating the walls of the room, and
a light switch had been melted, but apart from this, the only area area
affected was a small circle around the body of Mrs. Reeser. Experts say
that the temperature needed to cause this kind of scenario would be in
the region of 2,500 degrees.
Robert Francis Bailey
Early in the morning of 13 September 1967, some people walking to
work in Lambeth, South London, noticed a bright light inside a derelict
house at 49 Auckland Street.
At 5:19 AM, one of them telephoned the emergency services. At 5:24,
the Lambeth Fire Brigade arrived with Brigade Commander John Stacey. The
crew entered the building and discovered the bright light was the
burning body of a local alcoholic, Robert Bailey, who had sought shelter
in the abandoned house overnight. Strangely, though, neither the fabric
of the house itself, nor its internal fittings was damaged. The only
thing on fire was Bailey himself.
"When we entered the building," said Stacey, "he was lying on the
bottom of the stairs half-turned onto his left side and his knees were
drawn up as though he was trying to bend the pain from his stomach."
Stacey said, 'There was about a four inch slit in his stomach and the
flame was emanating from that four-inch slit like a blow-torch.
It was a blue flame.' Thinking the man might possibly still be alive,
Stacey and his men emptied several fire extinguishers over the body,
putting out the flame but with difficulty.
The flame was actually coming from the body itself, said Stacey,
"from inside the body. He was burning literally from the inside out. And
it was definitely under pressure. And it was impinging on the timber
flooring below the body, so much so that the heat from the flame was
charred into the woodwork." One especially bizarre feature of the case
was that Bailey, while still alive and apparently convulsed in agony,
had bitten deeply into the solid mahogany newel post of the stairs.
His body remained with its teeth locked into the wood and had to be
prised open by the firemen. Bailey's clothing was undamaged except in
the area of his abdomen. The area around him was largely undamaged
except for the wooden planking immediately under his abdomen where a
hole had been burnt. Combustible material only inches away was unburnt.
An inquest sat under coroner Dr Gavin Thurston, who initially wished
to list the death as "asphyxia due to inhalation of fire fumes". However
a second hearing found that Bailey's death was due to "unknown causes".
Subsequent investigation by fire and police disclosed no source of
The mains supply of gas and electricity had been cut off in the house
and no matches were found. Even if the unfortunate Bailey had fallen
asleep and dropped a cigarette on himself, the kind of burning seen at
first hand and extinguished by the fireman on the scene cannot be
accounted for by the 'wick effect'.
It was a rapid, acute burning episode, highly localised in the
victim's abdomen, producing a flame 'like a blow torch' that an
experienced professional fire fighter found difficult to extinguish
Importantly, too, the firemen were on the scene within 5 minutes of
being called, and the body they found had no fire damage apart from the
small area in the abdomen, showing that it had only recently begun to
burn. The flame was a "bright" blue flame -- bright enough to attract
the attention of passers-by in the street. This, too, is not
characteristic of a 'wick-effect' fire.
The physical possibilities of spontaneous human combustion are
remote. Not only is the body mostly water, but aside from fat tissue and
methane gas, there isn't much that burns readily in a human body. To
cremate a human body requires enormous amounts of heat over a long
period of time.
To get a chemical reaction in a human body which would lead to
ignition would require some doing. If the deceased had recently eaten an
enormous amount of hay that was infested with bacteria, enough heat
might be generated to ignite the hay, but not much besides the gut and
intestines would probably burn. Or, if the deceased had been eating the
newspaper and drunk some oil, and was left to rot for a couple of weeks
in a well-heated room, his gut might ignite.
It is true that the ignition point of human fat is low, but to get
the fire going would probably require an external source. Once ignited,
however, some researchers think that a "wick effect" from the body's fat
would burn hot enough in certain places to destroy even bones.
To prove that a human being might burn like a candle, Dr. John de
Haan of the California Criminalistic Institute wrapped a dead pig in a
blanket, poured a small amount of gasoline on the blanket, and ignited
it. Even the bones were destroyed after five hours of continuous
burning. The fat content of a pig is very similar to the fat content of
a human being. The damage to the pig, according to Dr. De Haan "is
exactly the same as that from supposed spontaneous human combustion."
The scientists believe they demonstrated how a case of spontaneous
human combustion can occur through normal processes on a person who has
been knocked unconscious. The wick effect means that a person could burn
slowly without attracting attention from passers-by. It also explains
why only part of the body, the part which is rich in fat, burns while
the rest stays intact.
Here a a few findings as published by the Skeptical Enquirer.
In most cases combustion probably wasn't spontaneous. Candlesticks,
oil lamps, pipes, and the like were often found near the victims. Mrs.
Reeser when last seen alive was smoking a cigarette.
The victims tended to be slow to react. Many were alcoholics; others
were elderly, overweight, or handicapped in some way. Mrs. Reeser was
67, weighed 175 pounds, and had a bad leg. The evening before her demise
she told her son she had taken two sleeping pills and expected to take
Bodies can be totally consumed at temperatures much lower than
previously believed. Proponents of paranormal explanations for SHC often
point out that crematoriums use temperatures of 2,000 degrees or more,
much hotter than the usual household fire.
But experts say high temps are necessary only if the body must be
destroyed in a short time. Smoldering fires can consume an entire piece
of furniture (and presumably the body within it) if given long enough.
Yet they often leave nearby objects undamaged.
Twelve hours passed between the time Mrs. Reeser was last seen alive
and the time her remains were discovered.
In cases where the body was completely destroyed, there was often a
nearby source of combustible material to feed the fire. The floorboards
beneath a number of victims were found burnt through; Mrs. Reeser was
wearing a flammable nightgown and housecoat and was sitting in an
In addition--this gets pretty gross--the fuel sources may have served
to catch melting body fat which then added to the flames. Call it the
"candle effect." A quantity of "grease," Nickell and Fischer note, was
found where Mrs. Reeser's chair had stood.