The first documented case of spontaneous human combustion, (also cited as preternatural combustibility, or auto-oxidation), which reached print in 1763, set off a fire-storm of bewilderment and fascination from both the general public and scientific community due to its cause being shrouded in the unknown. This phenomenon involves an individual suddenly becoming engulfed in flames, with the fire usually fixated on a specific region of the body. The inferno appears to arise quite literally out-of-nowhere, as the flames do not originate from any known source within the victim’s environment (Whittington-Egan, 2012). Even more striking, in some cases, an individual’s body can be torched beyond recognition, while items near the victim, such as furniture and room furnishings, are left completely unscathed. This anomaly was such an avid concern for those living (in France, particularly) during the 1800s, that several prominent authors from that time period composed stories with fictional characters who all met their demise via unexplained combustion (LiveScience, 2013). There has been back-and-forth within the scientific community regarding alternative explanations for this phenomenon, however, controversy was really stirred up in September 2011, when a coroner from Ireland ruled a 76-year-old cadaver’s cause of death’ as likely due to spontaneous human combustion (Whittington-Egan, 2012). Ultimately, the fear of an unknown catalyst/cause for such an impromptu death is what continues to stoke believers’ fears.
Beginning with the common description of a typical victim, most charred remains belong to “elderly, overweight Caucasian women who are socially isolated and have consumed a large amount of alcohol” (Byard, 2016). In fact, alcoholism was once outlined as a leading component to the occurrence of spontaneous human combustion; however, today, this piece of the belief has been reduced to nothing more than mere folklore. Believers of spontaneous human combustion point to a variety of explanations, which fluctuate from religious interpretations to more scientific arguments. Some believers of spontaneous human combustion blame some holistic force with an intent to punish plus-size, alcoholic women who are merely driven by gluttony. Others claim that “movement of vital humors or blood particles within the body” can spark an involuntary fire; yet, others suggest a range of explanations, including flammable phosphates within the body or gastro-intestinal gases that interact poorly when released from an individual (Byard, 2016). The most well-conceived justification, the ‘wick or candle effect’, conjures up the notion that perpetual alcohol consumption can lend itself to much more flammable human fat, which then seeps into an individual’s clothing or bed sheets, allowing them to act as a ‘human wick’ (Byard, 2016).
Nonbelievers point to an assailant-set fire (following a homicide or other crime, with the intent to destroy evidence) to explain the absence of signs of smoke inhalation in a victim’s toxicology report; or, victims’ bodies were set aflame and then moved to a new location—this would explain the lack of fire damage to any immediate surroundings. Additionally, this phenomenon has only been displayed in human beings, despite our close ancestral lineage to primates—nonbelievers point to this fact as lack of evidence to support claims of an anatomical or physiological cause (Byard, 2016). Finally, and quite possibly, the most important of all, there has never been a documented eyewitness to any proposed case of spontaneous human combustion, therefore, it is quite possible that any outside witness fled the scene of the crime.
The belief in spontaneous human combustion, particularly during the 1800s, lent itself to some psychological fear instilled in commoners by the Church. Religious texts extended themselves from a interventionist perspective, where threats of spontaneous human combustion were often combined with an individual’s lack of clerical devotion to God or interaction with the Devil. Further analysis of the belief touches on the idea of “purification by fire”, in which an individual’s last hope involves giving him/herself up to personal demons in order to maintain some sanctity with God (Levi-Faict & Quatrehomme, 2011). Interestingly enough, this public fixation on spontaneous human combustion also aligns with societal expectations that outline what is both appropriate and worthy for a citizen (especially a 19th century woman, at the time) to engage in. As victims’ characteristics are often saddled up with reclusive, alcoholic women, perhaps this belief was invented by a society bent on forcing proper etiquette onto its people. France in the 1800s was set on dictating differences between its social classes of people, and the labeling of alcohol as a sinful drink was an attempt to discourage citizens from giving into bouts of drunkenness (Whittington-Egan, 2012). It was in this way, that any religious claims or beliefs regarding spontaneous human combustion were able to be sustained for decades, until explanations with greater pseudo-scientific backing were able to fill their place.
Ultimately, the beginning fad cases, involving supposed instances of spontaneous human combustion, all contain much more realistic and human-driven answers. For example, a case set in the 18th century involves an inn keeper who murdered his wife and then burned the remains in the inn’s chimney. Following an investigation, a coroner, obviously oblivious to the innkeeper’s homicidal act, claimed that the woman’s death was a direct result of spontaneous human combustion—taking it a step further, he also claimed that the fireplace was of some undisclosed “divine origin”, and it had “come to punish the wife for her overzealous consumption of alcohol” (Levi-Faict & Quatrehomme, 2011). From the historical context surrounding initial reports of spontaneous human combustion mentioned above, it becomes quite clear to see how this belief has been sustained for centuries. The transition of religious explanations to those that appear to backed by more scientific reasoning is what has maintained this extraordinary belief—however, the clear-cut truth resides in societal expectations perpetuating a false phenomenon whose current roots reside in pseudoscience. Putting it all into perspective, the threat of meeting one’s demise through the unknown—and rather unexpectedly, at that—is all that is needed to create some sort of explanation for slightly more tricky deaths.
Byard, Roger W. (2016). The mythology of “spontaneous” human combustion. Forensic Science, Medicine, and Pathology Journal, 12(3).
Levi-Faict, Thierry W. & Quatrehomme, Gérald. (2011). So-called spontaneous human combustion. Journal of Forensic Sciences, 56(5).
Radford, Benjamin. (Dec. 2013). Spontaneous human combustion: Facts & theories. LiveScience. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/42080-spontaneous-human-combustion.html
Whittington-Egan, R. (2012). The enigma of spontaneous human combustion. Contemporary Review, (1704)69.