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Last Updated: Monday, 21 November 2005, 13:07 GMT
Does spontaneous human combustion exist?
The Magazine answers...

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A character in Charles Dickens' Bleak House burns to death without any apparent reason. Human spontaneous combustion is a belief which has been around for centuries but does it really exist?

Viewers following Andrew Davies's adaptation of Charles Dickens' Bleak House on BBC One have just seen the dreadful moment when alcoholic Krook - played sinisterly by Johnny Vegas - finds his gin warming his stomach more than usual, and suddenly bursts into flames.

As his charred remains are found, Dickens lets the awful scene unfold: "Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is - is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? Oh, horror, he IS here!"

Dickens is unequivocal in ascribing the death to spontaneous human combustion (SHC), the alleged burning of a person's body with no identifiable source of ignition. "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," he writes.

When the story was first published, Dickens was accused of legitimising superstitious nonsense and there was a minor uproar. But the author responded by saying he had researched the subject and knew of about 30 cases. "I have no need to observe that I do not wilfully or negligently mislead my readers and that before I wrote that description I took pains to investigate the subject," he wrote in the preface to the second edition.

It is thought part of his source was a collection of cases published in 1763, 90 years before Bleak House, by Frenchman Jonas Dupont.

Johnny Vegas as Krook
Body more severely burned than one caught in a fire
Torso is most burned and extremities are least
Fire does not spread away from the body
Soot on ceiling and walls

So is spontaneous human combustion something of fact or fiction?

Modern cases have usually come about when police and fire investigators have found burned corpses but no burned furniture. Bafflement at how a body can be reduced almost to ashes, which requires temperatures of about 3,000 degrees, without any of the rest of the room being affected has driven some of the theories.

One of the most notable cases was Mary Reeser who was found in her home in 1951, reduced to a pile of ashes save her shrunken skull and her left foot which was entirely intact. Damage to the flat in Florida was small, only soot on the ceiling and walls.

The police report claimed the 67-year-old widow's dressing gown had caught fire, perhaps due to a cigarette, although no flame source or accelerant was found.

Wick effect

In 1982, SHC was offered as a cause of death at the inquest into the death of Jean Saffin, 62. Relatives said they saw her burst into flames in her north London home but coroner Dr John Burton said there was "no such thing" as SHC and recorded an open verdict.

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A regular feature in the BBC News Magazine - aiming to answer some of the questions behind the headlines

The human body is mostly water and its only properties which burn readily are fat tissue and methane gas, so the possibilities of SHC appear remote. But supporters of the theory have offered alcoholism, divine intervention, obesity and static electricity as explanations.

In 1998 the BBC programme QED investigated and used a dead pig to try and present a scientific explanation called the "wick effect".

The clothes are the wick and the fat surrounding a person is the fuel source which burns slowly, like a candle, for five to 10 hours.

This theory can account for the state of the remains but it does not explain the absence of any initial flame or accelerant, both of which were required for the experiment on the pig. To compound the mystery, many of the victims in the alleged cases did not try and escape and remained seated throughout.

But Home Office pathologist Professor Michael Green thought the SHC theory had been debunked.

"The way the body burns - the so-called wick effect - seems to me and to my colleagues to be the most scientifically credible hypothesis," he said.

Your comments:

Cell division would never create enough heat to act as a source of ignition. There would be nothing to ignite in the places cell division occurs in the body, even if there were enough heat. Even in energy producing reactions in the body during metabolism, for example, the use of enzymes break down processes into small steps to ensure energy is released progressively. Sorry to a throw a spanner into the works on your theory!
Richard Rue, Dublin

Surely the area around the burning corpse would be affected far more obviously if the temperature of the corpse reached 3000 degrees Celsius over such a long period of time. How does the "wick effect" account for this?
James Clark, Johannesburg, South Africa

To say the body is mostly water is misleading. 18.5 percent of human body weight is comprised of carbon, which is the backbone of organic molecules. 65 percent is Oxygen. That is quite a flammable combination given the right circumstances. It is what those circumstances are that is a mystery. Could it be a simple malfunction of the spleen, which controls homeostasis (the body's ability to regulate temperature)?
Ella Potter, Oxford, England

I remember once being told by a Chief Fireman that he was absolutely convinced that SHC was fact as he had seen evidence of it. However, the debate does detract in my view from Dickens's masterful description of Krook's death. What a pity that the television adaptation could not match the powerful dark description of the novel. The Master at his peak as far as I'm concerned.
Ray Waldie, Leigh-on-Sea, Essex

It has not or rarely been possible to observe SHC in action but experiments have shown that water on it's own can be made to product a violent reaction, after all it's two components are hydrogen (explosive) and oxygen, the food for combustion. The difference between life and death in our own cells is the action inside the cell, the firing off of microscopic chemical and electrical reaction producing relatively masses of heat. It would only take a malfunction of this process where instead of controlled firing off there would be mass reactions throughout each of a mass of cells producing a noisy, bluish flame of immense heat. Enough heat to consume bones to white powder never mind the water in our body which by the way would only act as further fuel for the reaction. The extremities do not burn because by the time the incineration has reached them they have been starved of oxygen enough to make the reaction incomplete.
J L Bird, Rotherham

The wicking effect would be simple to test using a pig carcass, yet it does not seem to have been done. I suggest this is because it is utter nonsense. You cannot get enough heat from the fat in a human body to reduce it to ash. Nor does a normal fire behave in the way observed, with heat being felt by the subject but not objects a few feet away. The TV documentary claimed it worked, but they burned practically the whole room.
James Tyrell, Brighton

I think the wick effect is the most parsimonious explanation for this phenomenon. I believe the victims of SCH didn't try to escape because they were already dead before they set on fire, and the 'initial flame' is provided by a cigarette. I'm sure a review on the documented cases will reveal that many of the victims of SCH are both elderly, or in ill health, and smokers.
Paul Barrett, Leeds

When this topic pops up in the public domain, I often wonder if cell division in the human body might be responsible as a source of ignition. My theory runs like this if heat is created when cells divide, is it not possible that a freak occurrence of cells dividing simultaneously might create enough to burn ? Probably complete hokum but food for thought.
Rob Hegarty, Derby

I presume that residents of Wick will only sleep under fire blankets
Bruce Child, Stockport UK

I saw the QED documentary in 1998 and thought it made a very good case for the wick effect, and am utterly convinced that this explains all cases of SHC where a body (or lack of body) is discovered. It seems absurd to suggest that this phenomenon occurs without initial flame (cigarettes seem the most likely) and an accelerant could easily be provided by flammable clothing or spilled alcohol. People don't try and escape as they are already dead when they catch alight, because presumably they are already dead!
George Mark, Cardiff



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