In December 1966, the body of 92-year-old Dr. J. Irving Bentley was discovered in his Pennsylvania home by a meter reader. Actually, only part of Dr. Bentley's leg and slippered foot were found. The rest of his body had been burned to ashes. A hole in the bathroom floor was the only evidence of the fire that had killed him; the rest of the house remained perfectly intact.
How could a man catch fire — with no apparent source of a spark or flame — and then burn so completely without igniting anything around him? Dr. Bentley's case and several hundred others like it have been labeled "spontaneous human combustion" (SHC). Although he and other victims of the phenomenon burned almost completely, their surroundings, and even sometimes their clothes, remained virtually untouched.
To combust, a human body needs two things: intensely high heat and a flammable substance. Under normal circumstances, our bodies contain neither, but some scientists over the last several centuries have speculated on a few possible explanations for the occurrence.
In the 1800s, Charles Dickens ignited great interest in spontaneous human combustion by using it to kill off a character in his novel "Bleak House." The character, named Krook, was an alcoholic, following the belief at the time that spontaneous human combustion was caused by excessive amounts of alcohol in the body.
Today, there are several theories. One of the most popular proposes that the fire is sparked when methane (a flammable gas produced when plants decompose) builds up in the intestines and is ignited by enzymes (proteins in the body that act as catalysts to induce and speed up chemical reactions). Yet most victims of spontaneous human combustion suffer greater damage to the outside of their body than to their internal organs, which seems to go against this theory.
Other theories speculate that the fire begins as a result of a buildup of static electricity inside the body or from an external geomagnetic force exerted on the body. A self-proclaimed expert on spontaneous human combustion, Larry Arnold, has suggested that the phenomenon is the work of a new subatomic particle called a pyroton, which he says interacts with cells to create a mini-explosion. But no scientific evidence proves the existence of this particle.
As of March 2005, no one has offered scientific proof of a theory explaining spontaneous human combustion. If humans can't spontaneously combust, then what is the explanation for the stories and pictures of people who have seemingly burned from within?
These are just a few of the many hundred reported cases of "spontaneous human combustion":
In 1938, a 22-year-old woman named Phyllis Newcombe was leaving a dance at the Shire Hall in Chelmsford, England. As she descended the staircase of the hall, her dress suddenly caught fire with no apparent cause. She ran back into the ballroom, where she collapsed. Several people rushed to her aid, but she later died in the hospital. Although the theory was that Newcombe's dress had been ignited by a cigarette or a lit match thrown from the stairwell, no evidence of either was ever found. Coroner L.F. Beccles commented on the incident, "From all my experience I have never come across a case so very mysterious as this."
In 1951, a 67-year-old widow named Mary Reeser was at home in St. Petersburg, Florida. On the morning of July 2, a neighbor discovered that Mary's front door was hot. When she broke into the apartment with the help of two workmen, they found Mary in an easy chair with a black circle around her. Her head had been burned down to the size of a teacup. The only other parts of her that remained were part of her backbone and part of her left foot. Other than Mary's charred remains, there was very little evidence of fire in her apartment. A forensic pathologist, Dr. Wilton Krogman, said of the incident, "[It’s] the most amazing thing I have ever seen. As I review it, the short hairs on my neck bristle with vague fear. Were I living in the Middle Ages I'd mutter something about black magic." But the police report cited a far less supernatural explanation for the cause of death: a dropped cigarette, which ignited Mrs. Reeser's highly flammable rayon-acetate nightgown.
In 1982, a mentally handicapped woman named Jean Lucille "Jeannie" Saffin was sitting with her 82-year-old father at their home in Edmonton, in northern London. According to her father, a flash of light caught his eye. When he turned to his daughter, he saw that her upper body was enveloped in flames. Mr. Saffin and his son-in-law, Donald Carroll, managed to put out the blaze, but Jeannie died of her third-degree burns about a week after entering the hospital. According to Carroll, "the flames were coming from her mouth like a dragon and they were making a roaring noise." There was no smoke or fire damage in the room. Some have wondered if an ember from her father's pipe ignited Jeannie's clothing.