Spontaneous Human Combustion
The world is full of the unexplained and mysterious, but is spontaneous human combustion truly spontaneous caused by the paranormal, or just simply human combustion? Most people think of spontaneous human combustion, or SHC, as …the reduction of an otherwise normal, healthy human body to a pile of fine black ash, the consistency of which is finer than that of a cremated corpse (Spontaneous). This is simply not true. First of all, it is not complete consumption because in most cases extremities and internal organs remain because the high temperature outside the body does not penetrate internally. Secondly, the fact that the ash is so fine is often used by SHC proponents as to why the fire must by paranormal. They say that the fire has to be extremely hot because even in a crematorium calcified bones often remain, but this fine ash can also be attributed to simple combustion.
To learn more about SHC and how it works we must take a look at the victims. Victims of SHC are mainly elderly females that smoke. Almost all the victims have weight problems. They are often at least overweight. It must be understood that no well-documented cases of infant SHC have ever been reported. Some researchers say that there is …a fairly equal representation of the sexes among the victims, with ages ranging from infancy to 114 years; many were abstemious and thin (Mysteries 80). To get a personal opinion on this matter, one must research this kind of information for themselves since much of it can be misconstrued.
Some may believe the SHC phenomenon has only been around for the past few decades but …spontaneous human combustion (SHC) began to appear in medical reports as far back as the 17th century… (Mysteries 80). Rare and abnormal deaths caused by fire were just as common back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as they are nowadays. To find a logical explanation scientists looked for a common thread in the cases. This common thread seemed to be alcohol. During this Victorian era, an evil of the Christian society was drink. SHC …was viewed as a sort of a moral punishment for drunkenness (Cohen 195). Since the cause of SHC was believed to be drinking, many had oral remedies for SHC. In Germany the common people had great faith in liquid manure as a preventive for spontaneous combustion… (Bondeson 7). If you lived in Scandinavia at that time you may have had heard of an even more unlikely preventive. Swedish and Norwegian folklore prescribed human urine, preferably freshly voided by a woman, to be thrown into the mouth of a flowing drunkard… (Bondeson 7).
During this Victorian era SHC became popular in literature. Mark Twain was one writer who popularized SHC in his book, Life on the Mississippi, during early America. Jimmy Finn was not burned in a calaboose, but died a natural death in a vat of a combination of delirium tremens and spontaneous combustion. (quoted in Cohen 192). Charles Dickens also wrote about SHC in his book, Bleak House, and he attributed it to alcohol. Dickens described the death of the drunken man, Krook, in the following manner:
Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tender from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is- is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal, O Horror, he is here! and this, from which we run away, striking out the light and overturning one another into the street, is all that represents him. (quoted in Cohen 193)
Dickens was so avid about the topic that when the book was reprinted, a slip was added that quoted Dickens on his support of SHC. It can only be believed that alcohol would have only attributed to the death but did not directly cause it.
There has been a lot of paranormal phenomenon that has been used to explain alleged spontaneous human combustion. Cases of individuals capable of generating explosive bursts of electrical energy by manipulating internal organs appear throughout the world and… amongst the Chinese and Pacific Asian cultures (Spontaneous). Some cases are reported in which electromagnetic fields are seen, and …fluorescent light-tubes illuminate when held underneath… pylons, apparently from the intense ionization and electromagnetic field filling the surrounding air (Randles 14). They have been associated with SHC. According to Yoga, Kundelini is an energy that is supposed to pervade the individual’s astral body… (Bondeson 14). If it is released uncontrollably, it is believed a person could combust. Some have postulated the existence of a pyrotron, a… particle, capable of starting a chain reaction that vaporizes the entire human being (Bondeson 14-15). Such evidence for such a particle is still to be seen. Phosphinic farts and methane gases produced by the body during digestion have been used to explain SHC. It is known both of these gases are volatile and combustible. There are many believers that say SHC is started by static electricity:
Some people have been known to build up… charges, occasionally generating up to 30,000 volts. Ordinarily this static electricity is harmlessly discharged through the hair, but in certain volatile situations, such as… hospital operating rooms using gaseous anesthetics, these people can spark off explosions. But these explosions have never been known to burn a person to ashes, leaving the room and furnishings undamaged. (Mysteries 91)
This simple fact should deny static electricity as a cause of SHC. Last of all these phenomenon is, of course, alcohol. There are those that say SHC is punishment by God for alcoholism or that believe that excessive use of alcohol may cause deposition of flammable, nitroglycerin like phosphogens in the muscle tissue… (Bondeson 14).
Scientists that are less prone to believe in SHC are often against such paranormal explanations. Some often say that …mechanisms through which any of these might work are unexplained (Mysteries 91). Even author Mark Benecke said, I will restrict my observations to the facts as given by expert sources because the speculations on cases of alleged SHC in popular articles are, in my opinion, nonscientific (Benecke 48).
A scientific explanation for SHC is often referred to as the candle, wick, or multiple wick effect. This idea …is that the cause of fire is smoking, and the victim is often old and disabled or drunk and therefore unable to respond quickly enough when the fire starts (Cohen 196). It has been argued that the victims suffer a 2nd or 3rd degree burn on a small area of their body [often fires started from cigarettes], shock sets in, [and] the victim falls unconscious (Spontaneous). After falling unconscious, the fat begins to melt and it is drawn into the clothing. This can then support the fire for hours as the body is consumed. Mark Benecke associated alcohol and SHC by saying:
The preponderance of alcoholics among historical victims, although not among twentieth- century ones, remains a mystery. It is very unlikely that their bodies were really more combustible. Instead, a drunken individual is prone to be more clumsy with fire, and might be too befuddled, drowsy, or even unconscious to escape. (Bondeson 17-18)
This scientific explanation for alleged SHC and why drunkards may be more prone to combusting. SHC supporters often cite cases that are often very old and do not include whether or not the victim drank or smoked.
There have been various experiments that have been used to show how SHC might start. Animals have been soaked in alcohol for extended periods of time, then set on fire to see what would happen. The skin blazed up fiercely, charring some outer layers flesh, but the rat’s internal organs were hardly affected (Mysteries 91). Experiments show that liquefied human fat burns at a temperature of about two hundred and fifty YCelsius; however, a cloth wick in such fat will burn even when the temperature falls as low as twenty-four YCelsius (Investigative).
There have been many ideas about how heat affects the body. Those that are pro- SHC often state that only high temperatures produced by a crematorium can produce a body that is so completely reduced. A scientist by the name of Drysdale explains why this is not true:
In a crematorium you need high temperatures -around 1,300 YC, or even higher- to reduce a body to ash…. 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 YC -and if given enough time- the bone will transform into something approaching a powder in composition. (Investigative)
This shows that an intense fire is not needed to completely reduce a body to ashes and that a simple smouldering flame is all that is needed.
Spontaneous human combustion is easily explained by physics if careful research is done and speculations are dismissed. The continued lack of scientific evidence for SHC … keeps proponents looking for cases they can attribute to the alleged phenomenon… (Fiery 15). There is no need to invent bizarre chemical reactions, or paranormal activities to explain what is mistakenly called ‘spontaneous combustion’ (Benecke 50). What is more interesting than this is that …there are no known cases in which internal organs of a burned corpse were damaged more severely than the outer parts (Benecke 50). This is so compelling because SHC allegedly starts from inside the body. It has been wondered why there are no well-documented cases of animals and children spontaneously combusting. Is it because they …do not become drunkards or, of course, smoke!… (Randles 182). Is spontaneous human combustion truly spontaneous caused by the paranormal, or just simply human combustion?