Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects including education and creative writing.
In 1964, firefighters and paramedics were confronted by an unimaginably gruesome scene at the residence of Helen Conway. They entered the bedroom of the Delaware, Pennsylvania home to discover a scorched upholstered chair under blackened walls in a corner. At the foot of the chair were the recognizable remains of Conway.
Her upper body, along with portions of her chair had been reduced to ashes. However, her legs and the rest of the room were unscathed.
The fire inspector believed Conway's death was caused by her heavy smoking habit (it was documented that there were several cigarette burns throughout her house and bedroom). Still, there were others who viewed the graphic photo taken at the scene and came up with another conclusion: she was a victim of spontaneous human combustion (SHC).
Conway's death wasn't the first or the last to be associated with this phenomenon. However, her case—and the photo—has been the most iconic. One look at the condition of her remains and the term for SHC is obvious.
By definition, SHC refers to a purported condition in which humans suddenly burst into flames. Although extremely rare, the mere thought of being burned alive—besides being spontaneous and seemingly with no known cause—is enough to horrify anyone.
However, a closer examination reveals something less spontaneous. Fire inspectors, researchers, and skeptics have been able to demystify it and discover some of the factors involved in creating it.
SHC has been rarely witnessed. In the few isolated cases in which somebody did observe something, the witness was in another room or was not fully paying attention to the victim. In other cases, the burning appeared to be the act of someone trying to cover up a murder.
Also, there may have been cases in which the eyewitness accounts were tainted. This happened in the case of 61-year-old Jean Lucille Saffin. The mentally handicapped woman caught on fire in her kitchen (Carroll, 2012). The eyewitness, her father, stated he was seated at a nearby table and had “saw a flash of light out of the corner of his eye.”
The father and son-in-law stated the flames were around her face and hand and it may have lasted a minute or so. The exact time or the reason for the flame was never verified or given. Instead, an investigating officer reported it as being SHC.
Often, when someone was injured or killed by fire, and no immediate cause could be found, the case was often listed as SHC. Many cases of SHC were never fully investigated due to negligence or not having the proper material to investigate the matter. This may have been the case at the time Saffin death was being investigated.
Other traits in SHC cases were the victims and the places where they perished. For one thing, many died alone in enclosed rooms or apartments. Also, they were elderly (like Conway), infirm, obese, heavy smokers, drinkers, and/or mentally ill.
In what would later become known as the classic “cinder woman” mystery, Mary Reeser, a widow living in an apartment in St. Petersburg, Florida in 1951 became a victim of SHC. Much was made about the fact that everything but her foot with a slipper had been disintegrated. Also, like Conway, the chair she died in was virtually burned away, while the rest of her apartment suffered little or no damage.
Believers in SHC, such as Larry E. Arnold (who wrote the book, Ablaze!, which contained this account) claimed this was the definitive proof that SHC existed. However, a closer examination revealed that the apartment’s wall and floor were made of concrete (Nickell, 1996).
Also, according to Joe Nickell’s article, “Not-So-Spontaneous Human Combustion”, the last person to see her alive, her physician son, described the obese woman as “sitting in an [overstuffed] chair, wearing flammable nightclothes, smoking a cigarette after having taken two Seconal sleeping pills, and stating her intention of taking two more.”
Internal Chemical Reaction or Something Else?
In the cases of Reeser and Conway, negligence with the cigarettes and other factors such as wearing flammable clothing have played major factors in their death. Another aspect of their deaths was their health. While Conway was infirm and elderly, Reeser (also elderly) was reported to be “plump.”
An argument for an internal chemical reaction is based on the notion that the human body is made up mostly of water. Therefore, something mysterious or supernatural was occurring within these people. While it is true that the human body is made up of water, it also contains body fat. Under the right condition—such as a flame—body fat is combustible. In fact, in the case of Reeser, blackened greasy substance—the residue of burned fat - was found in the vicinity where the body burned up.
... the experiment has been reproduced with similar results: the charred remains coupled with nearly undamaged appendages or undamaged portions of the room.
The Wick Effect
There had been numerous tests supporting the concept called the wick effect in which the body burns like a candle. According to the BBC 1’s QED—which brought together fire experts from around the world to look into SHC – it discovered that the body can be set ablaze by its own body fat and burn for hours. It can also burn in a limited area. Often, this is where most of the fat on the body is located.
BBC News reported the team used a dead pig wrapped in cloth, and set it ablaze in a controlled environment for a long period of time. The pig was used because it often resembles a human’s fat content (BBC 1998).
Since then, the experiment has been reproduced with similar results: the charred remains coupled with nearly undamaged appendages with undamaged portions of the room.
Still, cigarettes, fat cells, and even alcohol (in which many incidents were associated with) were not enough. In many cases, a seemingly random mix of ingredients inside and outside the body played a crucial role.
Ball Lightning and Static Electricity?
There have been several cases in which a rare phenomenon called ball lightning suddenly struck an unsuspecting victim—while inside the house! In other documented cases, static electricity and combustible fabric or liquids caused something akin to spontaneous combustion.
In fact, there's video evidence of static electricity starting combustion at gas station pumps. These videos (from surveillance cameras) have documented unsuspecting drivers at the pump being engulfed in flames. Evidently the environment around the pump (as well as the person) can collect and spark enough static electricity to ignite the fumes coming from a pump. This is not uncommon.
Flatulence often contains the flammable gas. This is something nearly every drunken or foolish college fraternity member knows (albeit the hard way)
Part of Bruce Dickinson's Inside Spontaneous Human Combustion
Another unusual—yet plausible—explanation for the cause of SHC has to do with the gas one emits from the body (i.e., methane). Flatulence often contains the flammable gas. This is something nearly every drunken or foolish college fraternity member knows (albeit the hard way). Also, as demonstrated on a BBC production hosted by Iron Maiden frontman, Bruce Dickinson, it can have disastrous effects on an individual.
For the most part, SHC has been debunked. However, somebody suddenly catching on fire is a real thing. Since the advent and popularity of cell phones, a slate of unfortunate accidents have occurred. There are numerous reports of faulty batteries suddenly bursting into flames. The injuries incurred can be serious, and have the potential of being fatal. Most often, the victims received a severe burn on their legs or skin near their pockets.
The specter of catching on fire is there. However, several elements including the type of ignition or fuel have to be present. Nobody can "just bursts or explode" into flame at a moment’s notice. Thus, as skeptic investigator Joe Nickell puts it when he entitled his article on the matter, it should be called not-so-spontaneous human combustion.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 Dean Traylor
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on April 16, 2016:
Spontaneous Human Combustion has always intrigued me, Dean. This was a very interesting and informative hub largely debunking SHC.