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Spontaneous Human Combustion

Updated on January 7, 2011

What is Spontaneous Human Combustion?

Is it possible for somebody to burst into flames for no apparent reason and with no external heat source, such as a naked flame, to ignite them? Strangely many people do believe that it is possible and there is even a name for the phenomenon. It is called spontaneous human combustion.

There are many well-documented cases of spontaneous human combustion, some of which have been investigated by the FBI, yet nobody is sure just why or how it is possible for something so strange to happen. Is it due to a chemical reaction in the victim’s body? Or is it perhaps the result of witchcraft or the wrath of a vengeful god? It doesn’t seem likely, does it, but none of the aforementioned things are any more unlikely than someone bursting into flames in the first place.

One of the most frightening things about the phenomenon is that, when you look at the varied cross-section of society that this has happened to, it seems to indicate that it could happen to anyone. Does that scare you? It might do when I tell you that the number of reported cases in just the last few hundred years can be measured in triple figures. Statistically speaking though, the number is not that high, so I wouldn't worry too much about it.

One of the strangest things about spontaneous human combustion is that the fire is often extremely localized. In fact the clothes the victim is wearing and any nearby furniture and fittings have often been known to escape almost unscathed, even though very little of the victim’s body is left to tell the tale. This fact could be the strangest one of all because it would take a heat of at least 2,500 -3,000 degrees Fahrenheit to incinerate a human body to the extent that occurs in cases of spontaneous human combustion. How that much heat can be present and yet spare the victims clothes is as amazing as it is puzzling.

Just Another Victim

Very little remained of Dr Bentley
Very little remained of Dr Bentley

Just a Few of the Victims of Spontaneous Human Combustion

Nicole Millet (1600s)

Nicole Millet was a resident of Paris and her remains were found on the straw bed that she had been sleeping on. The straw itself was almost undamaged by the heat and yet all that remained of Nicole Millet was her skull and a few bones from her fingers. At the authorities believed that her husband had murdered her, but after all the evidence was presented the courts ruled that the cause of her death was spontaneous human combustion.

Countess Bandi of Casena (June 1731)

Countess Bandi was an Italian noblewoman. When her body was found all that remained of the Countess was her head, her fingers, and a pile of ashes.

Grace Pett (April 9th 1774)

Grace Pett was a sixty-year-old alcoholic who lived in the English town of Ipswich. Grace’s body was found by her daughter, who later stated that her mother’s body resembled a log of burnt wood. It would take a lot of heat to do a thing like that and yet some clothing that had been in the vicinity of the blaze was left undamaged.

Phyllis Newcombe (1938)

Phyllis was only twenty-two-years-old. She had been to a dance at the Shire Hall in Chelmsford (England) and leaving the hall when tragedy struck. As she was walking down the stairs her dress burst into flames. There was no visible cause for this and Phyllis ran back into the ballroom, where she collapsed onto the floor. She was rushed to hospital, but the doctors were unable to save her. At the time there were theories that a match or a cigarette may have been discarded on the stairs and that it had caused the blaze, but no substantiating evidence could be found.

This case is a little different from the others mentioned here because the fire appeared to start on Phyllis’ clothing, rather than within her body, so it is quite possible that there is a natural explanation for what happened, but at the time none could be found and Phyllis’ Newcombe’s name can now be found on many lists of the victims of spontaneous human combustion.

Mary Reeser (July 1st 1951)

Mary Reeser was sixty-seven-years old and lived in Florida. Mary’s landlady discovered her body when she tried to deliver a telegram. The landlady realized that something was wrong when put her hand on the doorknob and found it too hot to hold. She then enlisted the help of a couple of painter who were working nearby, and as soon as the door was opened a blast of hot air escaped the room. The little that remained of Mrs Reeser could be seen in her armchair, which was surrounded by a black circle on the floor. All that was left was piece of charred liver, part of her backbone, her skull (which had shrunk to the size of a fist) and one of her feet, still inside its slipper. A pile of papers stacked beside her remains was totally untouched by the fire.

Anna Martin (May 18th 1957)

Anna Martin was 67 years-old and lived in West Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her body was so completely incinerated that only her shoes and a piece of her torso remained.

Helen Conway (November 1964)

Helen lived in Pennsylvania. Her body was reduced to nothing but ashes, except for her legs which, for some reason, were spared from the knees down.

Dr J. Irving Bentley (December 5th 1966)

Dr Bentley was ninety-six-years-old and lived in Coudersport Pennsylvania. The meter reader found his remains in the bathroom. Bentley’s body had ignited in the bathroom and burned a whole straight through the floor. Only one leg remained.

Mr Bailey (1967)

Mr Bailey was a tramp and his body was discovered on a stairway. Witnesses actually saw his body burning and told of a blue flame that came out of his abdomen. Mr Bailey’s teeth were sunk into the mahogany banister on the staircase.

Jean Lucille Saffin (1982)

Jean was sitting at home with her father, in Edmonton, London. While they were talking a flash of light caught her father’s eye and when he looked up he saw that the upper part of Jean’s body was in flames. Mr Saffin and his son-in-law managed to put out the flames, but Jean died of third degree burns the following week. The interesting thing about this case is that the son-in-law, Donald Carroll, stated that he saw flames shooting out of Jean’s mouth like a dragon and that he heard a roaring noise as they did so.

George Mott (1986)

Mr Mott was eighty-seven-years-old and a retired fireman. He died in the bedroom of his New York home and the blaze consumed not only most of his body, but also his mattress. All that remained of Mr Mott were some pieces of his ribcage, one of his legs, and his skull, which had shrunk considerably in size.

These are just a few of the cases that have been attributed to spontaneous human combustion, but many more have been documented over the years. Perhaps some cases do have alternative explanations that are more acceptable to a cynical mind than somebody bursting into flames for no reason, but the sheer number of cases reported should make even the most cynical of minds think twice about dismissing the phenomenon completely.

There are many theories about what causes spontaneous human combustion and if you want learn a little more about them you can do so by clicking hereThis article from the BBC might also be of interest.


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    • em_saenz profile image


      7 years ago from Europe

      Phyllis Newcombe lived for some time after the occurrence, and was visited in hospital before she died by friends and family

    • em_saenz profile image


      7 years ago from Europe

      Animals have also been known to spontaneously combust

    • TurtleDog profile image


      7 years ago

      I didn't realize that there were so many documented cases! Ron's comment makes a good point too. The spontaneous human combustion fire burns differently than anything I've heard of.

      Thanks for posting!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      This is such an interesting topic which you have handled so very well with this article. The descriptions of the victims' remains bring up so many questions. For example, how can a body burn so completely upon or around flammable materials that themselves do not burn? One would surmise that these incidents are not burning in the usual manner of conflagrations. It is so baffling what possibly could cause such sudden and intense heat.

    • othic profile image


      7 years ago

      Very interesting to read! I have heard about this but I didn't know much.

    • libby101a profile image


      7 years ago from KY

      Very interesting! I enjoyed reading this! It is something to really think about...there is something causing this! It has to be some sort of spark within the body. Our bodies have electrical currents from within! Even the synapses in our brains carry electrical currents...maybe something causes these electrical currents to spark...such as some sort of gas build up! Who knows! Very interesting indeed! Voting up!


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