SHC (Spontaneous Human Combustion)

SHC (Spontaneous Human Combustion : is a strange phenomena, whereby someone has apparently burst into flames, without an obvious source of ignition or fire accelerant. A unique trait of this phenomenon, is that when a victim is discovered there will normally be little of their body left. Most of the body will have been reduced to a pile of ash with either a seemingly untouched limb or limbs protruding from the rest of the victim's charred remains. Over the years there have been many quite shocking images released showing maybe a leg or two lying in situ among a pile of smouldering ash. One notable image which appeared in the 'Unexplained One' in the 1980's showed a single foot left in its slipper next to a walking frame. It appeared that the victim had apparently just spontaneously combusted, with surrounding objects hardly touched. In order to reduce a human body to a pile of ash, crematoriums use enormous sustained, temperatures of around 2500 degrees Fahrenheit for hours to incinerate a corpse. With temperatures as high as this, it is hard to conceive that, rarely, surrounding objects also get badly burned. Indeed due to the composition of the body and its large circulatory system, comprising mainly of blood and water it would seem an unlikely object to suddenly and inexplicably ignite.

Spontaneous Human Combustion, although a highly irregular phenomenon, is by far new or unheard of. There are many references to it throughout history by both eighteenth and nineteenth century writers, such as: "de Quincey, Dickens, Melville and Zola"

'The Unexplained Phenomena - A Rough Guide' quotes an early example which was mentioned in the 'Enzyklop "disches W" rterbuch (Berlin 1843), which mentioned ashes that were the remains of the wife of a Frenchman called Millet, of Rheims in 1725. Millet was accused of an affair and of murdering his wife and burning the body to conceal his crime. However at the enquiry, the event was acknowledged as a "genuine" case of spontaneous human combustion and Millet was subsequently acquitted.

A more recent and well known case was that of 67 year old Mary Reeser of St. Petersburg, Florida who died on 1 July 1951. She was found the following morning by her landlady, who, whilst taking her a telegram found the door knob to Mrs Reeser's appartment "too hot to touch". Eventually two painters working in the area opened the door and were confronted by a blast of hot air. There was no sign of Mrs Reeser, just a little smoke and a "feeble flame", on the beam of a partition that divided the single room from a kitchenette. According to the account detailed in 'The Unexplained Phenomena - A Rough Guide':

"Firemen easily put out the flame and tore away the burnt partition. Behind it, instead of Mrs Reeser and her armchair, they found a circle on the floor, a few coiled springs, a charred liver, a fragment of backbone, a skull shrunk to the size of a fist, and just in front of the scorched patch, a black satin slipper enclosing a left foot burnt off at the ankle."

Even a crematorium would have had to employ the use grinders to get a body into the same state as that in which they found Mrs Reeser.

A subsequent FBI report released on 8 August suggested that after having taken some sleeping pills, Mrs Reeser had fallen asleep while smoking. However experts testified that this type of ignition would have only caused superficial burning and even smouldering armchair stuffing could not have produced the kind of temperatures required to ignite a human body.

Explanations for this strange but intriguing phenomena are varied and wide ranging. Some experts suggest that bacteria production in the gut of either internally combustible or external combustible gases may be to blame. Gases produced in the gut which might be externally ignited include: methane (Ch4), hydrogen (H2) and phosphane (Ph3), a.k.a. "phosphoretted hydrogen." A gas which in theory might be produced in the gut and combust internally on contact with oxygen is diphosphane (P2H4). Many victims of SHC are found with their stomachs as the seat of the fire which does add some weight to this theory.

Other theories include the "candle effect" whereby the victim's clothing serves as the wick and the victim's body fat the candle. The candle effect was eloquently demonstrated in August 1998 on the BBC science programme 'QED'. Dr. John de Haan, a forensic expert at the California Criminalistics Institute constructed a replica living room. In this room he placed a dead pig, wrapped in a blanket. He wanted to demonstrate that once the pig was set on fire using an accelerant, a prolonged, but low intensity blaze might indeed cause similar effects to those observed in cases of SHC. For example he managed to replicate a localised fire where the pigs extremities remained intact yet the bones crumbled when poked. Even though enough localised heat was produced to make the pigs bones "friable", surrounding objects in the replica room remained surprisingly untouched; except a lightly scorched table and partially melted plastic radio.

While the documentary produced a convincing explanation for SHC, it was still necessary to use an accelerant to ignite the pig. This is in conflict with many SHC cases where there is no such evidence of an ignition source. It also failed to explain the accounts of SHC survivors who claim that the fire originates from within the body and burns outwards. There is still some room for further investigation.


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