A case of spontaneous human combustion (SHC) was reported in the August, 1745 issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. 62-year-old Italian Countess Cornelia Di Bandi Cesenate was discovered by her horrified maid one morning in 1731. All that remained of the countess was a pile of ashes, two legs still wearing silk stockings, and half her head – only steps from the bed and other furniture, which were not burned. The attending physician declared that a mysterious fire seemed to have begun in the woman’s chest, and closed the file.
French scholar Jonas Dupont documented cases of SHC in De Incendiis Corporis Spontaneis, published in 1763. Among others, Dupont recounted the story of Jean Millet, a man from Reims accused in 1725 of burning his wife, Nicole, to death. All that remained of Nicole were part of her skull and a few vertebrae. A small area of the floor was burned; everything else in the room was intact. Jean Millet was acquitted by the judges, who concluded Nicole had perished from divine fire sent to punish her for her excessive drinking.
SHC eventually found its way into popular literature. Charles Dickens used it to kill off a certain Mr. Krook in his novel, Bleak House (1853). In Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (1883), a character named Jimmy Flinn died “of a combination of delirium tremens and spontaneous combustion”. More recently, SHC has been explored on television shows such as The X-Files, Picket Fences, Dead Like Me, and William Shatner’s Weird or What?
Sporadic cases of SHC occurred without attracting much attention, until a 67-year-old widow named Mary Hardy Reeser was found burned to death in her St. Petersburg, Florida home on July 1, 1951. All that remained of Reeser was a section of her back bone, part of her left foot, and her skull, which had shrivelled to the size of a baseball. It was suspected she had fallen asleep with a cigarette, but one medical examiner admitted that the intense heat needed to cremate her body should have destroyed the apartment, which had suffered only minor damage.
On Dec. 22, 2010, 76-year-old Michael Faherty’s badly burned body was found in his Galway, Ireland home. For lack of a better explanation, coroner Dr. Ciaran McLoughlin determined Faherty’s death was caused by SHC.
Rarely, a victim of SHC survives. On May 25, 1985, 19-year-old non-smoker Paul Hayes suddenly ignited as he walked down a street in London, England. He fell to the ground certain he was dying. Miraculously, the fire subsided and Hayes stumbled to the LondonHospital, where he was treated for unexplained burns to his hands, forearms, neck, and face.
So apparently spontaneous human combustion exists, but what causes it? There are several theories: alcoholism; the burning of body fat, known as the wick effect; a buildup of static electricity; short-circuiting of electrical fields within the human body; peaks in Earth’s geomagnetic field; an explosive combination of chemicals resulting from poor diet; and of course the old standard, divine intervention.
In other words, there is to date no satisfactory explanation for this rare – but terrifying –phenomenon. Just pray it doesn’t happen to you.