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Spontaneous Human Combustion: What is it?

Updated on August 13, 2012

What is SHC?

Spontaneous Human Combustion is a mysterious phenomenon that occurs when someone bursts into flames from a chemical reaction within the body and without any apparent external heat source that could have caused the person to ignite. While victims are often found burned beyond recognition, their surroundings show little- if any- signs of a fire. What is also strange is that the extremities (the hands and feet) and sometimes parts of the legs are unburned, while the face and torso are often completely charred. In rare instances, the organs are not affected as well.

While most of the unlucky victims of Spontaneous Human Combustion die, there is actually a small percentage of people who have survived it. Moreover, not everyone who experiences SHC bursts into flames. Some simply develop mysterious burns on their bodies that have not been caused by any known source, while others may emit smoke from their bodies when no fire is present.


The Wick Effect
The Wick Effect | Source


There are several theories on what causes Spontaneous Human Combustion. One is that it occurs when methane accumulates in the intestines, which is then ignited by the enzymes in our bodies. Another is that SHC is the result of a build up of static electricity inside the body.

However, none of the theories that exist have any scientific evidence to back them up. Consequently, most scientists are skeptical about Spontaneous Human Combustion. One explanation that scientists offer is that supposed cases of SHC were actually caused by the Wick Effect. This theory states that while a person is unconscious, a cigarette or other heat source lights the body on fire and acts like an inside-out candle; the body fat of the person is like the flammable substance and the clothing acts as the wick. "As the fat melts from the heat, it soaks into the clothing and acts as a wax-like substance to keep the wick burning slowly" (How Stuff Works). Scientists say that this is why the bodies of the victims are burned while the surroundings remain virtually untouched. In addition, this may also explain why the extremities are often unburned, since there is usually lower fat content in these areas compared to the midsection of the body.

However, no one yet has conclusively proven or dismissed the idea of Spontaneous Human Combustion.


Actual photo of Spontaneous Human Combustion (Mary Reeser)
Actual photo of Spontaneous Human Combustion (Mary Reeser) | Source


The first case of Spontaneous Human Combustion that was mentioned in the history books was that of Polonus Vorstius, an Italian knight during the late 1400s. One fateful evening, he drank two ladles of very strong wine, and it is said that he vomited fire immediately afterwards. He then proceeded to burst entirely into flames. No one else had, had any problems with the wine and weren't able to explain what had happened.

Since then, several hundred instances of apparent SHC have occurred. Below are some of them:

  • In 1967, a passenger on a bus in England saw blue flames through an apartment building window and called the fire brigade. When they went inside the building, they found the body of a homeless man named Robert Francis Bailey. One of the firemen reported that he saw blue flames ensuing from a slit in the man's abdomen.
  • On July 1, 1951, the burned body of a 67-year-old woman in Florida named Mary Reeser (who also became known as "the cinder lady") was found in her apartment. Her left foot was one of the only body parts that remained intact, as well as her skull (though it had shrunken down to about half its size). This fact was very baffling, as experts said that they would have expected the skull to explode in such intense heat.
  • In 1966, a doctor named John Bentley was found dead in his home. His entire body had been burned, except for his lower right leg. The foot of the leg was still wearing his bedroom slipper, which had been completely unaffected by the fire.
  • In March of 1953, Allen Small's body was found in his home completely charred from a fire. However, the only damage that occurred to his home was a few scorch marks on the carpet below him. This suggests that he had been standing when the fire ignited.
  • In 1982, a mentally handicapped woman named Jean Lucille Saffin was sitting with her 82-year-old father when he noticed a flash of light. When he turned to Saffin, he saw that her upper body was covered in flames. He claimed that "the flames were coming from her mouth like a dragon and were making a roaring noise". Mr. Saffin, with the help of his son-in-law, managed to put out the fire, but Jean died from third degree burns a week later. There was no fire damage or smoke in the room.
  • On August 28, 1998, Agnes Phillips caught on fire in her car while on a busy street in Sydney, Australia. Her daughter saw the smoke and with the help of a man who had been passing by, pulled Phillips out of the car. There was no known source found that could have started the fire, and the engine hadn't even been running. Phillips succumbed to her injuries a week later.
  • In December of 2010, the incinerated body of 76-year-old Michael Faherty was found in his home in Ireland. The ceiling above him and the floor below were the only areas of the home that had been damaged by the fire. No source that could have ignited the fire was found, and there was no sign that anyone had entered or left the house.

© Jennzie at HubPages



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    • ishwaryaa22 profile image

      Ishwaryaa Dhandapani 5 years ago from Chennai, India

      An engaging, well-researched and at the same time creepy hub! This is the first time I have heard about SHC thanks to you! Hope that anytime soon the scientists unravel the mysteries surrounding this shocking phenomenon and also ways to prevent it.

      Thanks for SHARING. Interesting. Voted up

    • jennzie profile image

      jennzie 5 years ago from Lower Bucks County, PA

      Thank you for the comments and share! I'm glad you all found this interesting.

    • Kate Mc Bride profile image

      Kate McBride 5 years ago from Donegal Ireland

      This is a really great hub jennzie and so well researched.Thank you for sharing it here.I have posted it to facebook for others to enjoy too.


    • cashmere profile image

      cashmere 5 years ago from India

      Downright scary! I do not want to become a human candle!

    • stephhicks68 profile image

      Stephanie Hicks 5 years ago from Bend, Oregon

      Totally strange! This is a fascinating hub! Cool photos too. Wow.

    • jennzie profile image

      jennzie 5 years ago from Lower Bucks County, PA

      Becky, Bravewarrior, Mejohnson, and Nell- Thank you for the comments! This stuff is pretty freaky- it would definitely be scary if this could really happen to any of us at any given moment!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 5 years ago from England

      Hi, I have been interested in Human Combustion for a long time, and still am not sure exactly whats going on, as you mentioned, scientists insist its the Wick effect but I am still not sure, fascinating stuff though, and voted up! cheers nell

    • mejohnson profile image

      mejohnson 5 years ago

      Very interesting. Makes me think of an X-files episode.

    • bravewarrior profile image

      Shauna L Bowling 5 years ago from Central Florida

      Spooky. I'd heard of this but not with proposed causes offered. Very informative. It makes you wonder...... I hope it never happens to me or anyone I know. Can you imagine????

    • Becky Bruce profile image

      Becky Bruce 5 years ago from San Diego, CA

      I have heard about this before and never forgot it!! It freaks me out so much... my younger sister always gets really hot or "overheated" and we joke about this happening to her. But I guess it's no joke, scary stuff! Interesting to read and so well researched.