Death by spontaneous human combustion

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic
Considered an unresolved mystery, a myth, a miracle, a failure of the investigating authorities, an urban legend, or simply ignored as something impossible. But is it really impossible?

Submitted: September 30, 2011

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Submitted: September 30, 2011



 Spontaneous human combustion has been reported for continuous period of time. The remains of the victims were often found in their beds, in their living rooms or elsewhere in their homes, with no traces of violence or arson. Most certainly the absence of a scientific explanation was always causing the public opinion making the supernatural forces involved - or denying the phenomenon itself as impossible. The science, as we got used to understand it, was always clearly ruling out such possibility, as technically the main material of the human body is classed as "oxide" because our body contains over 80% of water, which is Hydrogen Oxide, so basically there is nothing to self-ignite in it, given that "combustion" is a process of vigorous oxidation of something into oxides. The rest constituents of human body (fats, proteins, Calcium Phosphate of the skeleton) require a major input of the external energy to be burnt or decomposed, so Chemically we present a sort of a perfect example of a reducer, which requires to be burnt a serious amount of the oxidiser, while our atmospheric air contains only about 20% of Oxygen.

Nevertheless, we do have the reports of spontaneous human combustion continuing to come forwards, and the most recent case was reported in Ireland by respected BBC news ( The details in the media report seem to allow a rational assessment of the event and the phenomena itself.

"...Michael Faherty, 76, died at his home in Galway on 22 December 2010.
Deaths attributed by some to "spontaneous combustion" occur when a living human body is burned without an apparent external source of ignition.
Typically police or fire investigators find burned corpses but no burned furniture.
An inquest in Galway on Thursday heard how investigators had been baffled as to the cause of Mr Faherty's death at his home at Clareview Park, Ballybane.
Forensic experts found that a fire in the fireplace of the sitting room where the badly burnt body was found, had not been the cause of the blaze that killed Mr Faherty.
The court was told that no trace of an accelerant had been found and there had been nothing to suggest foul play.
The court heard Mr Faherty had been found lying on his back with his head closest to an open fireplace.
The fire had been confined to the sitting room. The only damage was to the body, which was totally burnt, the ceiling above him and the floor underneath him.
Dr McLoughlin said he had consulted medical textbooks and carried out other research in an attempt to find an explanation.
He said Professor Bernard Knight, in his book on forensic pathology, had written about spontaneous combustion and noted that such reported cases were almost always near an open fireplace or chimney.
"This fire was thoroughly investigated and I'm left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation," he said.
'Sharp intake of breath'
Retired professor of pathology Mike Green said he had examined one suspected case in his career.
He said he would not use the term spontaneous combustion, as there had to be some source of ignition, possibly a lit match or cigarette.
"There is a source of ignition somewhere, but because the body is so badly destroyed the source can't be found," he said.
He said the circumstances in the Galway case were very similar to other possible cases.
"This is the picture which is described time and time again," he said.
"Even the most experienced rescue worker or forensic scientist takes a sharp intake of breath (when they come across the scene)."
Mr Green said he doubted explanations centred on divine intervention.
"I think if the heavens were striking in cases of spontaneous combustion then there would be a lot more cases. I go for the practical, the mundane explanation," he said."

So what we had in this case was a burnt body, resting onto a burnt area of flooring, and the burnt ceiling above it, with the traces of fire isolated from the open fireplace, near which the tragedy occurred. There was no traces of arson, no traces of violence or of the presence at the scene of another human. The victim was simply burnt to ashes (oxides) with no apparent reason, or with some reason which could be detected by post-mortem examination. This may (or may not) mean that this reason could be volatile enough for the forensic experts to leave it unnoticed. What could this reason be?

If we browse through the available forces of Nature, which can potentially initiate combustion of visually non-combustible objects, and if we write off the volcanic forces and hot magma flows in the cellar, as well as the intensive sun UV/IR irradiation or the astray microwave oven action, then we would stay only with Static Electricity. There is simply nothing else to consider! Of course if the target is to find a scientific explanation to the spontaneous combustion. Do we have any data on the action of the Static Electricity on the human body?

The media delivers at least one such recent example - unfortunately we cannot rely on it in full sense as no scientists seem to be ever involved in the process of the incident investigation, it was handled by the Australian local fire brigade in Victoria state. Here I have to provide a secondary or even tertiary reference to the bizarre case, which took place in Australia several years ago. Most certainly I would treat this information as indicative, with no reliance on its factual contents:


Static Electricity in Man's Jacket Leads to Burns
Believe It or Not!

The following story appeared in USA Today. It sounds too unbelievable. We think it is. We have never seen 30,000 Volts of static electricity from a person or jacket burn carpet. We believe the guy may have something else going on: Maybe fraud or just maybe too many refried beans plus 30,000 Volts.
Static electricity in man's jacket leads to burns
SYDNEY, Australia (AP) - A man shocked authorities after he released so much static electricity from his jacket, he left burn marks in the carpet of a business.

Fire officials in Victoria state said the man, Frank Clewer, had built up at least 30,000 volts of static electricity in his jacket simply by walking around the city of Warrnambool, according to a report by the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

He received his first shock when he walked into a local business Thursday afternoon. "It sounded almost like a firecracker or something like that," Clewer told the ABC.

Burns less than an inch in diameter were left on the carpet where he had been standing, the report said. ABC did not say if Clewer was injured.

Fire officials evacuated the building, fearing the incident might trigger electrical problems, but let Clewer go, the report said.

When he got in his car, Clewer's problems continued.

"I actually scorched a piece of plastic I had on the floor of the car," he said. Fire officials took Clewer's jacket and said it continued to give off voltage.
September, 2005"

Basing on the above, one can try reconstructing the actual event. The test must surely involve the following pre-conditions:
1)The actual body and skin of the human OBJECT are clean (common habit of the Aussies to take regular shower)
2)The skin is "dry", i.e. contains little extra moisture on the surface (see above)
3)The air humidity is low (typical Australian weather condition, even in the coastal areas if the wind blows from the inland side)
4)The OBJECT must be firmly isolated from the earth (the actual victim was visiting office buildings, and the local etiquette usually requires NEW SHOES for such undertaking)
5)The OBJECT must wear a combination of clothes, making a good pair of dielectrics (say, a wool-based JACKET and a nylon-based shirt)

As soon as the above 5 conditions are met, one may expect the shirt and the jacket to get involved into the interaction by friction, which may initiate the electric charges split, with the mentioned separated electrical charges accumulating and generating a considerably high voltage between the garments, which would not be immediately neutralized because there is not enough moisture in the contacting media to facilitate the neutralization.

Practically it is possible that a person, wearing the clothes, comprising two different types of dielectric, to have these clothes rubbing each other and generating a considerably high electrical potential difference, by the process similar to the one in Van de Graaf generator. Then the generated negative potential would tend to be "leaked" down to the earth, but if the shoe soils are also working as insulators, it can build up until sparking between the shoes and the nearest conductive surface, be it a moist carpet, a wooden floor or anything similar, closer to the actual earth.

The same effect may occur if a person is wearing some wool garments, say warm socks or underwear, or simply having long clean and dry hair, and is going to bed, prepared using the silk sheets or pillow-cases; the combination of these dielectrics is still capable to produce a considerable electric charge. It would be not in excess to mention that many cases of "spontaneous human combustion" in Victorian times were reported when the victims were asleep, in their beds.

The note above in the BBC article about the often presence of a fireplace or a chimney in the room of the accident suggests that the continuous air flow, facilitated by the chimney of any fireplace, may provide enough external Oxygen to maintain the combustion if such happens due to the other reasons, but hardly explains the combustion phenomena itself. In all cases the actually burned areas are supposed to be closer to the actual body, which becomes a carrier of the increased electric charge, and the other areas may remain unaffected as there is not enough Oxygen in the room volume to involve them as well.

From all above I can make a conclusion that a spontaneous combustion of people is a fully natural phenomenon, originating from the coincidence of the unfortunate circumstances, such as the victim's clothes materials, dryness of the victim's skin, low moisture content in the air and the availability of oxygen flow. In the Australian case there was no chimney or intensive ventilation to deliver the excess of oxidant, so the victim has survived.

© Copyright 2017 Anton Cheglov. All rights reserved.

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