The Mystery Of Spontaneous Human Combustion That Eludes The Best Scientific Minds

Disclaimer: Some images might be graphic

Imagine one fine day you burst into flames, like a phoenix! However, only the less romanticized version of it where you don’t rise from the ashes, you are dead. This condition is called Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC).

While the debate still goes on whether this is actually a thing or are the forensics doing a horrible job of finding evidence of how a human was charred to death, randomly.


There is no certain proof of the phenomenon, however, the signs are bizarre.

The earliest appearance of SHC

Earliest theory of SHC first appeared in Historiarum Anatomicarum Rariorum – a medical journal that documented strange phenomena. It was conceived by  Thomas Bartholin. The story revolves around a knight who caught aflame and died.

The Italian knight was visiting his home and had one too many glasses of strong wine. When he burped, he burped fire and lit up in flames and died.

No source of fire in any of the cases

The deaths have occurred without any other source, there has been no electrical malfunction or fire source at the time of the death. The cases show that only the foot was discovered and the rest of the body was charred to ashes.

Of all the cases under SHC, the common signs were:

  • Body charred with minimal damage to the surrounding
  • The torso was more heavily affected than other parts of the body
  • As mentioned earlier, the source of the fire was not found externally
  • The body of the victim was found alone and as per forensics, there were no signs of a struggle


Urban legend or a fact?

Wrapping your mind around something like this is tough and hence people came up with ridiculous explanations to make sense of it. Some say it was the work of the devil.

In the 17th century, it was discovered that human bones contain phosphorous. They were soon to blame that engaging in activities like drinking alcohol, triggered the reaction and caused death through SHC. Towards the 19th century, scientists found that body fat is combustible. And SHC became an urban legend.

Maybe alcohol was the culprit?

A 50-year old woman in 1771 was found dead, burned to death in her London flat after a heavy night of drinking. SHC was the diagnosis. In 1847, there were 50 more cases. Soon it became a legend where heavy drinking kills you. It soon became a haunting story that prevented people from drinking, altogether.


Pierre Lair’s deduction of pattern in SHC cases

The condition, however, had a groundbreaking clarity when in 1799, a physician named Pierre Lair found some pattern in all these SHC deaths. He deducted them as –

  • The victims were alcoholics
  • Most of them were 60+ years of age
  • The combustion was rapid
  • The spirits that could have led to this were rum, whiskey, brandy, and gin.

Possible reasonable explanations

A research biologist professor Brian J Ford aimed to prove that human body did not act as a wick for alcohol and hence inflammable. For the experiment, he doused the abdominal tissues of a pig with acetone. Acetone is the byproduct that human body produces after consumption of alcohol.  It is also highly- inflammable.


After, the mock of the human body made from these tissues were then set on fire. The body burned to ashes in half hour. This was probably the first time that the theory was demonstrated.

Many still argue if SHC even exists and provide a counter-argument that the source of ignition is too horribly damaged to pinpoint if the source was external.

Guess the mystery continues until the next case of SHC comes to light.

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