- NEW YORK (APBnews.com)
-- For hundreds of years, mystery lovers have theorized about spontaneous
human combustion -- the strange physical phenomenon that allegedly turns
its victims into columns of fire, without an apparent spark and without
doing damage to anything else around.
- Stories of death by such magic flames have been written
about since Charles Dickens' era and repeated by generations of believers
in the paranormal. These rumors have proved so persistent that they are
still commonly accepted as fact on the Internet, on television and in the
minds of many people today.
- But almost 50 years ago, a source no less authoritative
than the FBI testing lab came to a different conclusion on the issue of
"SHC" after examining the immolation of an elderly St. Petersburg,
Fla., woman who mysteriously burned to cinders in her easy chair.
- 'Absolutely no evidence'
- Instead of finding a case worthy of the X-Files, the
lab discovered that spontaneous human combustion is, in fact, a lot of
- "It is not generally realized the extent to which
the human body can burn once it becomes ignited," the bureau wrote
in a report now posted here for the first time online. "It was formerly
believed that such cases arose from spontaneous combustion or the burning
was sometimes attributed to preternatural causes.
- "There is, however, absolutely no evidence from
any of the cases on record to show that burning of this nature occurs."
- Before the bureau's dismissal of the spontaneous combustion
rumors, the 1951 case of Mary Hardy Reeser's burning had stumped local
- On July 1, the grandmotherly 67-year-old -- upset over
a delay in plans to move back to Pennsylvania -- took a dose of the sleeping
pill Seconal to calm herself and settled into her easy chair to have a
- It was her usual ritual, but that night it would have
- Nothing but cinders -- and one foot
- At about 8 a.m. the next morning, Reeser's landlady,
Patsy Carpenter, arrived at her door with a telegram bearing news of the
impending move. When Carpenter reached for front door, however, she found
the knob hot and became suspicious.
- When she went inside, she found a tableau that would
stun the city of St. Petersburg and provide fodder to paranormal enthusiast
- In a quiet corner of the apartment's living room, strewn
over a burnt easy chair, lay Reeser's ashen remains. There were teeth and
bone, and a small clump of soot that some observers initially took to be
the woman's shrunken skull. Reeser, in fact, was so thoroughly immolated,
the local press started calling her "cinder woman."
- The only part of the woman's zaftig body still intact
was her left ankle and foot, which was still wearing an undamaged shoe.
- But this fire -- which was hot enough to destroy a human
body -- did not destroy several items sitting just a few feet away, including
things as flammable as a pile of newspapers. And the only damage to the
structure of the house was some charring to the carpet and a layer of soot
and grease high on the walls of the room.
- Turning to the FBI for answers
- Police were stunned. How could this happen? It seemed
possible that Reeser could have fallen into a deep sleep from the pills
and dropped her cigarette onto the highly flammable rayon acetate nightgown
she was wearing.
- But how could a cigarette fire destroy a body? Maybe
if gasoline or some other accelerant was used it could explain this level
of burning. But no such liquid was found at the scene. Some writers at
the time quoted the proprietors of a crematory as saying their furnaces
reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and still did not completely destroy bone,
as was done in the Reeser case.
- And even if the fire from a cigarette could get that
hot, how could such a roiling blaze fail to spread to the many flammable
items sitting just feet away and, ultimately, fail to consume Reeser's
- With this mystery fueling a firestorm of rumor even hotter
than the fire that killed Reeser, St. Petersburg police chief J.R. Reichert
turned to the FBI for answers.
- On July 7, 1951, he sent a box of evidence from the crime
scene to bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover. The package included glass fragments
found in the ashes, six "small objects thought to be teeth,"
a section of the carpet, the surviving shoe and a host of other items that
could hold some clue as to the cause of the blaze.
- Also included was a note saying: "We request any
information or theories that could explain how a human body could be so
destroyed and the fire confined to such a small area and so little damage
done to the structure of the building and the furniture in the room not
even scorched or damaged by smoke."
- A human candle wick
- The FBI's answer was simple -- though not intuitive.
And, ultimately, not everyone accepted it.
- The bureau ruled Reeser died from a phenomenon known
today as "the wick effect," in which a small simmering fire sparked
by something such as a cigarette grows to an intense heat with the body's
own fat acting as fuel source.
- The fat, in effect, seeps into the victim's clothes and
causes the victim to burn like the wick of a Coleman lantern.
- This process causes great heat in the immediately vicinity.
But the heat only goes straight up, leaving flammable items next to the
fire as unharmed as a camper sleeping next to a crackling campfire.
- "Once the body starts to burn," the FBI wrote
in its report, "there is enough fat and other inflammable substances
to permit varying amounts of destruction to take place.
- "Sometimes this destruction by burning will proceed
to a degree which results in almost complete combustion of the body."
- Body fat as fuel
- The FBI determined that Reeser's death was a case of
an elderly woman who made an unwise decision to fire up a cigarette while
waiting for her sleeping pills to take effect.
- The cigarette likely toppled out of her mouth and onto
her chest, igniting her highly flammable bedclothes. The fire began to
smolder, and Reeser likely began to be badly burned. She was so doped up,
though, she probably never knew what was going on.
- As the blaze grew, the overweight woman's copious fat
liquefied and provided the fuel. This turned Reeser into a giant candle
in the middle of her living room. The heat rose and scorched the cement
ceiling. But the heat, which was intense in the inches near Reeser's body,
never spread beyond the vicinity of her body before the fuel was exhausted.
- This gruesome scenario, described by FBI scientists nearly
50 years ago, is what skeptics say is the most common cause behind most
of the more than a dozen cases of fire death attributed to spontaneous
human combustion over the years.
- Experiment on a pig
- "People wonder how these kinds of things happen,"
said Dr. John De Haan of the California Criminalistics Institute. "It
turns out the subcutaneous body fat of animals is a pretty good fuel. It
has about the same caloric content as candle wax."
- To test this theory, De Haan recently wrapped an entire
pig carcass in cotton and set it on fire. Gasoline was used as an accelerant
to mimic a blaze started by a cigarette.
- In the test, the pig fat leeched into the cotton and
caused the fire to simmer for hours, eventually destroying the pig's entire
body. Such decimation of bones happens as the fat fire rises to the 1,700-
or 1,800-degree heat of a crematory at the immediate point where it touches
bones and sinew. This sort of fire, it turns out, actually does more damage
than a flame coming from outside the body, such as in a house fire.
- "The elderly, the infirmed and sometimes the inebriated
are the ones that are most likely to start an accidental fire in their
bedding or clothes ... and then be overcome," De Haan said. "So
the fire starts literally near them, but not on them, and then it's the
fire from the furnishing that actually gets the process going. By that
time they've succumbed."
- From 'pyrotrons' to Dickens
- Despite the experiments and explanations of scientists,
the legend of spontaneous human combustion goes on.
- Over the years, it has been attributed to many causes
from ball lightening to subatomic particles dubbed "pyrotrons"
that SHC believers say get out of control and cause a person to just burst
- In the 1800s, the legend of spontaneous human combustion
often was supported by members of the temperance movement, who saw it as
a way to scare people off drink. The legend said that too much liquor or
beer could soak one's body so completely with alcohol one would become
- Charles Dickens even described such a scene in his novel
- "Call the death by any name your Highness will,
attribute it to whom you will, or say it might have been prevented how
you will, it is the same death eternally -- inborn, inbred, engendered
in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself, and that only -- spontaneous
combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died."
- But despite the theories, and literary heritage of the
SHC story, skeptics say that most of cases follow a similar, mundane plotline:
An incapacitated, often elderly person (sometimes drunk or on sleeping
pills) dressed in flammable clothing or sleeping in a flammable place decides
to smoke, or comes into contact with a flame for some other obvious reason.
- "What's happening is a lot of people who are putting
out the notion of spontaneous human combustion are primarily mystery mongers,
and they are in the mystery-mongering business," said Joe Nickell,
a writer for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. "They are trying to convince
you that if you don't know what the explanation is, therefore it's supernatural,
and that is a logical fallacy."
- Disputing the wick effect
- One investigator who viewed the Reeser case as an unknowable
mystery -- and possibly as a case of spontaneous human combustion -- was
Dr. Wilton Krogman, who wrote a well-known article in the 1960s disputing
the FBI's findings.
- According to skeptics, Krogman's was the most common
pro-SHC argument: Because there are some unknowable details, and because
theories such as the "wick effect" cannot be 100 percent proved
because no one ever sees these fire start, then anything could have happened,
even the supernatural.
- "I find it hard to believe that a human body, once
ignited, will literally consume itself -- burn itself out, as does a candle
wick, guttering in the last residual pool of melted wax," Krogman
wrote. "Just what did happen on the night of July 1, 1951, in St.
Petersburg, Florida? We may never know, though this case still haunts me."
- But the doctor's article wasn't the only attempt to explain
- The FBI file posted here contains numerous notes and
letters from the pubic positing theories on how the woman could have died.
They came from as far as Oklahoma City, where a welding company worker
put his expertise to work just six days after the fire by suggesting to
Hoover that an oxy-acetylene torch could have been used.
- Another man, from Woodbury, N.J., suggested that an as
yet unknown cancer could have made her body temperature rise to over 15,000
- The file also contains several letters from other police
departments that said they had similar cases of what they thought might
have been SHC.
- Family denies the supernatural
- The letters kept coming even after the FBI's findings
were reported in the press. Just too many people did not believe the empirical
- This atmosphere wasn't helped by the St. Petersburg police
chief himself, who, after the answers came in from the FBI, still said:
"This is the most unusual case I've seen during my almost 25 years
of police work. ... Since we have had hundreds of suggestions as to how
this incident may have happened, I am not closing the door on the case
- Reeser's family is also still haunted by her death --
nearly five decades later.
- Over the years, they never liked the attention the unusual
demise attracted. Her son, Richard, who died about a year and a half ago,
had always agreed with the FBI findings and disputed conclusions such as
- "My husband always hated all this stuff," Ernestine
Reeser, Mary Reeser's 88-year-old daughter-in-law, told APBnews.com. "He
tried to tell people that she burned up slowly and naturally and there
was no artificial business there. It was just a natural situation, though
it was an unusual situation. There wasn't anything supernatural there."
- From Kevin Daly
- I read with interest the piece on the FBI's debunking
of Spontaneous Human Combustion.
- This struck me at first as the usual smug official "we
know everything, now go back to sleep" response, although I was gratified
that apparently no crash test dummies were involved.
- However, on reflection, I realised that there is one
question about SHC that needs to be addressed if it is a real phenomenon,
or that could even provide a clue as to its nature:
- Where are all the cases of Spontaneous Animal Combustion?
- As a New Zealander, I come from a country with 3 million
people and 60-70 million sheep.Out of that many sheep (just think of the
lanolin-soaked woolly hides), if even a tiny percentage were spontaneously
bursting into flames it's reasonable to expect that someone would have
noticed. So Spontaneous Ovine Combustion appears to be a non-starter. Similarly
for cattle...over the thousands of years that Mankind has kept cattle we
have, to my knowledge, not a single reported instance of the Dread Exploding
Cow. Given the close association between cattle and methane, it could reasonably
be expected that if even one were to spontaneously erupt into flames it
could have serious consequences for the whole herd and any bystanders,
innocent or otherwise. So apparently no Spontaneous Bovine Combustion.
- Moving a little further away in evolutionary terms, there
also appears to be no evidence for Spontaneous Avian Combustion. Since
certain species of bird are given to flying in tight formation, and have
through most of human history been seen in great numbers in the skies,
we can only imagine the potential for disaster as whole flocks of birds
caught fire and dropped en masse from the heavens.
- But this is a subject on which both Charles Fort and
the ancients are silent.
- Now if SHC were the result of internal biological processes,
it would be reasonable to expect it to occur in other animals, since many
have a physiology broadly (and in some cases closely) similar to our own.
In the absence of such evidence we might conclude that SHC does not in
fact occur - or that it is the result of some circumstance which is peculiar
to the human species...this might include our large brain well supplied
with heavily oxygenated blood (but that's stretching things), or the consumption
of large quantities of alcohol or drugs, or the presence of clothing. IMHO
this is an aspect of the problem that deserves further investigation.
- Kevin Daly
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