The Quick 7: Seven Cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion

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Don't you hate it when you're just sitting there at home, watching some TrueBlood (any other fans out there?) and enjoying a night at home on the couch, when all of a sudden your leg just randomly bursts into flames? No? Is it just me? Well, it's not just me "“ there are about 200 reported cases of incidents that may have been spontaneous human combustion (SHC). Here are a few of those cases.

1. Henry Thomas was a 73-year-old man living in South Wales when he came to his mysterious end in 1980. The policemen and forensic scientists deduced this from Thomas' remains: he had been sitting comfortably in his easy chair when he somehow caught fire near the top of his body and burned to death. And it was an intense fire "“ all that was left of Mr. Thomas were his legs below the knee and his skull. Oddly, his feet were completely unburned and what was left of his legs were still clothes in socks and trousers that were practically untouched by the fire. Although there was evidence of a fire in the fireplace, there was no evidence that it had spread from there. One of the non-SHC theories was that Thomas had somehow managed to set his hair on fire while stoking it, then sat down in his chair unaware of the fact. The trained crime scene officer who analyzed the place argued that if a man had been sitting down when he realized his hair was on fire, he certainly wouldn't sit there and continue to let it burn. In the end, though, Thomas' death was ruled "death by burning" with no mention of SHC.

denatured2. Robert Francis Bailey apparently experienced something similar about 13 years prior to Thomas' incident. A group of office workers were waiting for the bus around 5 a.m. on September 13, 1967, when they noticed flames in the upper window of a building. They immediately called the police, who rushed to the scene of the derelict building. There, they found the still-burning body of Robert Bailey, a homeless man. The policeman first to the scene reported that a blue flame was being emitted forcefully from a four-inch slit in Bailey's abdomen, and his teeth were clenched down on the newel post of the staircase he had collapsed next to. They managed to extinguish Bailey by forcing a hose into the abdominal cavity. No external means of ignition were found on his body, and he was a non-smoker. He was a known alcoholic, though, drinking denatured alcohol because it was cheap. Denatured alcohol is the stuff without any beverage properties to it "“ it's often used to ignite fires while camping and to remove stains from clothes and upholstery. One theory was that all of the denatured alcohol in his gut somehow reacted with an igniter of some sort.

3. Mary Reeser of St. Petersburg, Florida, was found dead in her home on July 2, 1951.

Her landlady showed up at the door around 8 a.m. on July 2, and when she touched the doorknob to the apartment it was alarmingly warm to the touch. Getting no response from inside, the landlady called the police. They found what was left of Mary Reeser in a chair, just like Henry Thomas. Part of her left foot remained, including the slipper it was encased in. Her skull remained as well, but some reports say the heat shrunk it down to the size of a teacup. Reports and evidence were sent off to the FBI; they concluded that Reeser had taken sleeping pills "“ something she was known to do regularly "“ and then inadvertently set herself on fire with her cigarette after the pills had taken effect. Professor Krogman of the University of Pennsylvania had another theory, though "“ someone had murdered her, then incinerated her remains in a crematorium and brought them back to her apartment for someone to find. What's more, they used some sort of a portable heating device to burn the spots that surrounded Mary's body and burn the doorknob to make it hot.

4. John Irving Bentley enjoyed an evening of visiting with friends at his home on December 4, 1966, and then, apparently, he spontaneously combusted. Sometime after 9 p.m. when his friends departed and the morning of December 5 when his meter reader showed up to check the meter, Bentley was reduced to a pile of ashes, except for his right leg (seeing a trend here?). The meter reader noticed a weird odor and saw some blue smoke and decided to investigate; when he reached Bentley's bathroom he found Bentley and ran to get help, yelling, "Dr. Bentley has burned up!!" At first, it was thought that the elderly man had accidentally set himself on fire with his pipe, but then his pipe was found intact by his bedside. Nevertheless, it remains the culprit in this case: investigators determined that he dropped ashes from his pipe onto his robe and then went to the bathroom to fetch a pitcher of water to put out the flames. This was supposed by the broken remains of something that may have been a pitcher and by Bentley's smoldering robe, which was found next to the hole that had burned through the floor. Bentley apparently kept matches in his robe pocket, which are thought to have intensified the fire when they caught.

pipe5. Jeannie Saffin is an unusual case "“ someone actually witnessed her combustion. Jeannie was 61 years old when she died, but had the mental capacity of a six-year-old. According to her father, who was 82 at the time, he and Jeannie were both sitting in the kitchen when he saw a bright surge of light out of the corner of his eye and turned to ask his daughter if she had seen it. To his amazement, when he turned his head to look at her, she was on fire, but just sat still with her hands in her lap. He yanked her over to the sink to try to put her out and disfigured his hands in the process. Jeannie suffered "full thickness" burns on her face, hands and abdomen. That means the flesh was burned off down to the subcutaneous fat. Her hands and face were pretty much destroyed; she lapsed into a coma and died eight days later. Her combustion is largely unexplained, although an attempt has been made: supposedly, a speck from her father's pipe had fallen into her clothing sometime earlier and was only ignited when a gust of wind from an opening door fanned it. Hmm. Not sure I buy that one.

6. George Mott of Crown Point, N.Y., was enjoying an episode of The Twilight Zone the night before he burst into flames, and is said to have remarked, "Nothing weird like that ever happens to me. I wish it would." Umm"¦ be careful what you wish for. The next day, according to Weird New England, his son found the three and a half pounds of bone and ash that used to be George Mott. Unlike some of the other people on this list, Mott was not a smoker and therefore couldn't have accidentally touched a cigarette to his clothing or anything along those lines. An investigation could come up with no means of external ignition whatsoever. Another kicker: Mott was a retired fireman.

angel7. Jack Angel is a man who spontaneously combusted"¦ and survived. At least, that's his story. He says he simply went to sleep in his trailer in a hotel parking lot and woke up four days later with burns and blisters all over his body, including a giant hole in his chest. He got up and showered and walked over to the hotel, where he collapsed. He woke up in a hospital and was so badly burned that his right hand became horribly infected and was unsalvageable. He had to have his arm amputated at the elbow. However, this totally contradicts what Angel said in court when he sued the manufacturers of his trailer's hot water heater for $3,000,000. The conclusion? Angel was taking a shower when the water stopped and when he went out to check it, the pressure valve released and the hot water scalded him. But the doctor who examined Angel signed a report saying that Angel had burned from the inside out, not the outside in "“ so was the doctor mistaken? Or did Angel really spontaneously combust and then try to pass it off on a faulty hot water heater to get the money? Illustration from Weird Georgia.

So, what do you think? Can SHC always be explained by things like smoldering cigarettes and strange alcohol reactions, or is there something more mysterious at work? Share your theories in the comments. By the way, there are some rather horrifying pictures of spontaneous combustion, but I chose not to show them in case some of you are squeamish. But just do a Google Images search and you'll see the ones I mean.

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July 14, 2009 - 12:15pm
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