Spontaneous combustion or auto-oxidation of human beings
is one of the most baffling types of unexplained phenomena.
For centuries, cases have been reported of individuals who
burst into flames for no apparent reason; although their bodies
were destroyed by fire, their clothes and surrounding objects
were often unaffected. For example, on December 16, 1904,
Mrs. Thomas Cochrane, a widow of Falkirk, Scotland, was
burned to death in her bedroom. There was no fire in the grate
but she was burned almost beyond recognition, although the
chair in which her body was found and the pillows and cushions
with which she was surrounded were not even scorched. In January
of the same year Elizabeth Clark of Hull, England, was
found with her body covered with burns. There was no fire and
her bed was not scorched. Although still alive when found, she
could not explain what had happened, and she soon died. On
December 13, 1959, Billy Thomas Peterson was found burning
in his garaged automobile in Pontiac, Michigan. His left arm
was so badly burned that the skin rolled off; his nose, mouth,
and ears were burned; and his genitals were charred to a crisp.
The hairs on his body were unsinged, however, and all his
clothing remained unscorched, although the heat involved was
so intense that a plastic religious statue on the auto dashboard
Such cases are usually explained away by rationalizations
that do not meet the facts. For example, when a victim of spontaneous
combustion has been seated near a fireplace, the usual
explanation is that a cinder from the fire ignited the clothing
ignoring the fact that the calcined body indicates tremendous
heat but often clothing is unaffected. In some cases of victims
who were seated in autos, the instrument panel and fuel tanks
were unaffected in spite of the great heat required to burn up
a human body. Of course there are cases that are less ambiguous,
where clothing and surroundings have been burned and
some natural explanation is indicated.
The phenomenon of spontaneous combustion has been recognized
by the medical profession over many years, although
it is frankly admitted that a coroners verdict of death by spontaneous
combustion or even accidental death explains nothing
in such cases.
The first professional recognition of spontaneous combustion
recorded in print appears to be in the book Acta Medica &
Philosophica Hafniensia Ann. 1671 & 1672, by Thomas
Bartholin, published in Copenhagen in 1673. The earliest detailed
account of spontaneous combustion of a human body is
in De Incendiis Corporis Spontaneis, by Jonas Dupont, published
in Leyden in 1763. During the nineteenth century, the phenomenon
was often discussed in medical works and journals,
but there was a tendency to dogmatize on insufficient evidence.
An 1833 paper by M. J. Fintelle for the French Academy of Sciences
suggested that the victims were usually corpulent women
who were addicted to alcohol, thus generating inflammable
gases in the stomach, and were usually seated near a source
of heat or flame. Examination of numerous cases of spontaneous
human combustion has shown these assumptions to be little
more than inaccurate generalizations. There have been many
male victims, most not heavy drinkers and often not seated
near a source of flame.
The case of John Greley, helmsman of the S.S. Ulrich is instructive.
On April 7, 1938, he was steering the ship toward Liverpool,
England, when the second mate noticed it was beginning
to yaw. The second mate ran to the wheelhouse, where he
found the helmsman burned to a crisp at the wheel. The compass,
varnished wooden wheel, and even the holystoned deck
were not scorched. Interestingly enough, on the same day two
other individuals died of spontaneous combustion. George
Turner, a British truck driver, was heading for Liverpool from
southeast England when the vehicle stopped and rolled into a
ditch. Turner was later found calcined in his cab, but nothing
else was burnednot even a grease stain on the passenger side
of the truck. Willen ten Bruik, an 18-year-old Dutchman, also
similarly died at the wheel of his vehicle while driving into Ubbergen,
The extraordinary coincidence of these three similar deaths
on the same day is heightened by the fact (pointed out by Michael
Harrison in his book Fire From Heaven) that the deaths
were geographically linked, taking place in a triangular area
with two sides roughly 340 miles long. Is this another fatal triangle
mystery No other similar coincidences have been recorded
in the same area, although the mystery remains. As
journalist Michael McDougall wrote in the Newark Sunday StarLedger
It was as if a galactic being of unimaginable size had
probed Earth with a three-tined fork three fingers of fire,
which burned only flesh.
Little is known of the reason for spontaneous combustion,
but the Transactions of the Medical Society of Tennessee for 1835 reports
a remarkable case of partial combustion that offers clues
to the onset of the phenomenon. On January 5, 1835, on a very
cold day, James Hamilton, professor of mathematics of the
University of Nashville, walked home, a distance of about
three-quarters of a mile. Forty minutes later he was inspecting
a hygrometer that he had hung outside his house when he felt
a sudden pain in his left leg like a hornet sting, accompanied
by a sensation of heat. He looked down and saw a bright
flame, several inches long, about the size of a dime in diameter,
issuing like a gas flame from his trousered leg. After slapping
the flame several times, he eventually extinguished it by
cupping his hands around it to cut off oxygen. After putting out
the flame he found that his leg had an injury that resembled
an abrasion; the wound was very dry and the scar tissue had
gathered in a roll at the lower edge of the abraded surface.
Other writers have stated that spontaneous combustion begins
with a bluish flame that extends rapidly all over the body until
all parts are blackened and burned to a cinder. Throwing water
on this flame only aggravates it, they say.
During the nineteenth century the phenomenon of spontaneous
combustion was so familiar that it was referred to in various
works of fiction, such as Frederick Marryats Jacob Faithful
(1833), Honore de Balzacs Le Cousin Pons (1847), Herman
Melvilles Redburn (1849), Charles Dickenss Bleak House
(1853), and Mark Twains Life on the Mississippi (1833).
Cases of human spontaneous combustion are still reported.
Various theories have been advanced to account for this weird
phenomenon, such as unusual effects of ball lightning, static
electricity, or even psychical effects related to levitation and
telekinesis. If this latter theory should seem far-fetched, it is
worth quoting a comment of Soviet parapsychologist Genady
Sergeyev about the telekinetic subject Nina Kulagina, reported
in the British newspaper Sunday People (March 14, 1976) She
Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology 5th Ed. Fires, Paranormal
can draw energy somehow from all around her. . . . On several
occasions the force rushing into her body left burn-marks up
to 4 inches long on her arms and hands. . . . I was with her once
when her clothing caught fire from this energy-flowit literally
flamed. . . .
Of the many recorded cases of spontaneous human combustion
it is probable that there is no single appropriate explanation
but rather various types of phenomena. In some cases
there may be a simple explanation, in others a mysterious and
as yet inexplicable reason. Joe Nickel and John F. Fischer,
skeptics of the paranormal, tried their hand at explanations,
but fared little better than previous observers. Jerome Clark
suggested that spontaneous human combustion may be a manufactured
mystery bringing together a series of unrelated cases,
each of which has its own explanation.
Bartholin, Thomas. Acta Medica & Philosophical Hafniensia
Ann. 1671 & 1672. Copenhagen, 1673.
Clark, Jerome. Encyclopedia of Strange and Unexplained Phenomena.
Detroit Gale Research, 1993.
Gaddis, Vincent H. Mysterious Fires and Lights. New York
Harrison, Michael. Fire From Heaven. London, 1976. Reprint,
New York Methuen, 1977. Rev. ed. London Pan, 1977.
Lair, Pierre. Essai sur les combustions humaine, produites par l
abus des liqueurs spiritueses. Paris, 1808.
Michell, John, and Robert J. M. Rickard. Phenomena A Book
of Wonders. London Thames and Hudson, 1977. Reprint, New
York Pantheon Books, 1977.
Nickell, Joe, and John F. Fischer. Secrets of the Supernatural
Investigating the Worlds Occult Mysteries. Buffalo, N.Y. Prometheus
Rickard, Robert, and Richard Kelly. Photographs of the Unknown.
London Book Club Associates, 1980.
Russell, Eric Frank. Great World Mysteries. London, 1957.
United States Army. Index-Catalogue of the Library of the Surgeon-Generals
Office. Washington, D.C., 1882.