Spontaneous Human Combustion

Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) is considered the most bizarre and frightening of all the phenomena in the world of the unexplained and the unknown. Proposed to be a phenomenon where a living person suddenly bursts into flames for no apparent reason, often burning away most of the body, yet leaving surrounding materials unburned. There is much speculation and controversy over SHC. It is not a proven natural occurrence, but many theories have attempted to explain SHC’s existence and how it may occur. Heard that one before? Seen any SHC lately?

There are about 200 cited cases have been reported over the course of the last 300 years, so there must be something to it. The hundreds of spontaneous human combustion accounts since that time have followed a similar pattern: the torso and head are charred beyond recognition, the hands, feet, and/or part of the legs unburned. There are many sources of information which deal with Spontaneous Human Combustion and various explanations for the phenomenon have been postulated; however, most of these are unscientific.

The first known account of spontaneous human combustion came from the Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholin in 1663, who described how a woman in Paris “went up in ashes and smoke” while she was sleeping. The straw mattress on which she slept was unmarred by the fire. In 1673, a Frenchman named Jonas Dupont published a collection of spontaneous combustion cases in his work “De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis.”

There are many theories about the cause of spontaneous human combustion but the wick effect is the most convenient explanation. The “wick effect” hypothesis suggests that a small external flame source can char the clothing of the victim at the point of contact, splitting the skin, which then leads to the releasing of subcutaneous fat, which is absorbed into the burning clothing, causing it to act as a wick. Experiments have been performed with animal tissue that have proven that such a phenomenon is possible.

Spontaneous human combustion seems to strike without warning and without leaving a clue. But not every person who has caught fire has died — a small percentage of people have actually survived what has been called their spontaneous combustion.

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