Spontaneous Human Combustion
The idea that human beings can, quite apart from any outside
stimulus, be consumed from an internal heat source so intense
as to consume even the bones, but leave the immediate
environment relatively unburned, has been a subject of controversy
since the nineteenth century. Incidents had been reported
since the fifteenth century and became the subject of both
public and medical controversy in the 1850s following the use
of spontaneous combustion as a means of disposing of a character
by popular writer Charles Dickens in his novel Bleak House.
During the twentieth century, with the continued if sporadic reports
of burned bodies, the controversy has been pressed by
writers on fortean anomalistic phenomena. In a 1992 book on
the subject, Jenny Randles and Peter Hough tracked some 85
cases that had occurred since 1850.
Though some incidents appear to be cases of spontaneous
combustion in the ancient literature, the modern string of cases
begins with the death of the Italian knight Polonus in 1470. A
century and a half later, John Hillard tried to bring the issue
before the public in his pamphlet Fire from Heaven (1613). The
death of Nicole Millet, the wife of an innkeeper in Rheims,
France, on February 20, 1725, led to the first court inquiry and
ruling. In the middle of the night, Jean Millet awoke smelling
fire. He awakened the inn’s guests and together they found Nicole’s
body in the kitchen. All except her skull, a few vertebrae,
and her lower extremities had been consumed. Wooden objects
close by were untouched. Millet was tried and found guilty of
murder, but on appeal the conviction was reversed based on
the testimony of a physician who had been staying at the inn
that night who concluded that Mme. Millet’s death was due to
a ‘‘visitation of God,’’ that is, an unknown cause. The fact that
Mme. Millet had consumed a significant amount of alcohol was
seen as possibly causing the fire to start and contributing to its
disastrous results. Ever since, alcohol consumption has been associated
with the phenomenon.
The first American case of spontaneous combustion was that
of Hannah Bradshaw in New York City in 1770; however, the
most heralded case has been that of Mary Reeser, a widow residing
in St. Petersburg, Florida. Her body was discovered on
the morning of July 2, 1951, after her landlady’s hand found
the doorknob too hot to grasp. She and two men called to assist
an entry found Reeser’s body, the chair she had been sitting in,
and a side table burned, along with a six-foot circle of carpet.
The remainder of the room, including a pile of newspapers just
outside the circle, remained unaffected. The Reeser case illustrated
the essential problem raised by human combustion
cases. As those in charge of crematoriums are quite aware, it
takes a very high temperature applied over a period of time to
consume the human body, especially the bones. Under normal
conditions, such a concentration of heat would cause considerable
damage in the immediate surrounding area.
In the last two centuries a variety of explanations for spontaneous
human combustion have been offered, ranging from the
scientific to the paranormal. Some have tied it to leys, magnetic
irregularities in the Earth, and UFOs. Writing in 1995, Larry
Arnold, currently the leading proponent of a paranormal explanation
for the phenomenon, was not the first to suggest that
the image on the Turin Shroud might have been caused by
spontaneous human combustion.
Vincent Gaddis, known for his broad study of anomalous
phenomena, suggested a tie to depression and even suicide.
Possibly the same forces which, when directed outwardly, produce
suicide, might when projected inwardly lead to the burning
of the body.
Edinburgh University scientist Dougal Drysdale suggested
what he termed a candle-wick theory, noting that the body,
which contains a considerable amount of fat, could burn like a
candle with great local intensity. This theory is favored by the
major spokespersons of the skeptical community, especially Joe
Nickell and John F. Fischer, as a part of their crusade to remove
any paranormal explanations from anomalous phenomena.
While this theory accounts for the consumption of body fats
and the body’s high water content, its flaw remains in the exThe
Spiritual Scientist Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
1480
tremely high temperatures needed even to begin to consume
bone material.
Spontaneous human combustion remains a rare phenomenon,
and even among those most prone to adopt occult interpretations,
few have followed that lead. Several forteans have
suggested that like the Bermuda Triangle, it may be a constructed
problem that brings together cases that are only superficially
related. Most have accepted the more telling incidents
as unexplained, but view it as a natural mystery whose solving
has been delayed due to the paucity of cases, the high level of
diversity among cases studied, and the limitations imposed on
experimenting on human subjects.
Sources
Arnold, Larry E. Ablaze! The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous
Human Combustion. New York M. Evans and Co., 1995.
Harrison, Michael. Fire from Heaven A Study of Spontaneous
Combustion in Human Beings. London Sidgwick and Jackson,
1976.
Nickell, Joe, and John F. Fischer. Mysterious Realms. Amherst
N.Y. Prometheus Books, 1992.
———. Secrets of the Supernatural. Buffalo, N.Y. Prometheus
Books, 1988.
Randles, Jenn, and Peter A. Hough. Spontaneous Human
Combustion. London Robert Hale, 1992.
Wilson, Damon. Spontaneous Combustion Amazing True Stories
of Mysterious Fires. Sydney The Book Co., 1997.

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