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Spontaneous Human Combustion: A Brief History

Mysterious Fires

On July 2, 1951, the remains of 67-year-old Mary Reeser were discovered in his St. Petersburg, Florida apartment... and a strange sight it was. She had apparently died due to an extemely localized fire; only Mrs. Reeser and the chair she was last seen sitting in had been consumed, though the heat from the fire had caused other damage in the one-room apartment. Of the chair, only charred coil springs remained. Of Mrs. Reeser, there was little more; her 170 pounds had been reduced to less than ten pounds of charred material. Only her left foot remained completely intact, still wearing a slipper and burnt off neatly at the ankle, otherwise undamaged. A lump of vertebrae was also found and, stranger still, a small object... which was later declared by the coroner to be her shrunken skull.

Mary Reeser's remains         What could have burned Mrs. Reeser so fiercely without causing more damage to her surroundings? Experts interviewed by newspapers pointed out that a temperature of 2500 degrees is necessary for such a thorough cremation, and that a cigarette igniting her clothing would never have produced that temperature. The materials of the chair she sat in were only capable of a slow smolder, not an intense blaze. The electrical outlet had melted only after the fire had begun, so couldn’t be the source. An FBI pathologist tested for gasoline and other accelerants; there were none. Even lightning had been considered, but there had been none in St. Petersburg that night.

        Months after the occurrence, the Chief of Police and the Chief of Detectives signed a statement attributing the fiery death of Mary Reeser to falling asleep with a cigarette in her hand, although this had already been shown to be an impossibility. The declaration was meant to publicly close the investigation... but some spoke of another possible cause; a very strange possible cause. Some believed that Mrs. Reeser was a fine example of Spontaneous Human Combustion.

Fire From Within

        Spontaneous Human Combustion... three simple words that convey a very bizarre possibility which many have argued to be absolutely true, and just as many have argued to be simply impossible. In the most basic sense, Spontaneous Human Combustion [“SHC“ from here on] describes a situation in which a person’s body is believed to catch fire and burn rapidly, being reduced to ashes in a matter of moments... with a point of ignition inside the person’s body. Strange though this idea may sound at first, a few hundred years ago – when the idea was first proposed – there were good reasons people would be inclined to believe such an event could happen.

        First off, death by fire was hardly unusual: but it was well known that a tremendous amount of wood was required to reduce a human frame to mere ashes. On average, two cart-loads of wood were required to burn a criminal or martyr at the stake, and the same amount was needed to cremate a corpse. So the fact that people were being found burned down to ashes – including their bones -- on relatively undamaged floors, with no other obvious signs of fire damage within the area and often with undamaged limbs left behind, all implied a form of burning that had to be quite different from the fires used for purposeful cremation... a form of burning that might be supernatural. Hence when a man was found by his wife burned to death in bed in 1613, a pamphlet written about the event was entitled “Fire from Heaven burning the Body of one John Hitchell“.

        As a second point, the very idea of combustion was not fully understood. For example, farmers knew that when hay was left in a pile under the right circumstances, it would catch fire on its own... but no one knew why. Some interesting ideas were put forward on the matter. In 1667, a man named Johann Joachim Becher proposed the idea that there existed a basic element that caused combustion; this element, later named Phlogiston, was released when an object burned; and the more Phlogiston in the object, the faster and more fierce the final combustion. It was also believed that the purpose of respiration in living beings was to exhale out Phlogiston that built up within their bodies... so, logically, there could be medical conditions that allowed Phlogiston to remain and build up within a living body, leading to a combustion.

        Another early thought on the matter was that people became combustible by consuming combustible substances. In 1717, John Henry Cohausen repeated a case of a woman found reduced to ashes, a bit of skull, and a few digits, a story he claimed to have found in a book published in 1673. The proposed cause of this combustion was that the woman had been a heavy drinker, to the extent that, for three years, she had not consumed much else other than liquor... and this, presumably, made her body just as burnable as the alcohol she drank..

        Another early thought was not that the person was more prone to burning – as suggested by the theories of Phlogiston and over-consumption of alcohol – but that they were just remarkably unlucky. When the Countess de Bandi Cesanate was found reduced to ashes in her room one morning in 1731, the Reverend Joseph Bianchini, who was one of the first people to examine the scene, expressed his opinion that her death was caused by a lightning strike that either traveled down the chimney, or snuck through the cracks in the window. Bianchini dismissed the fact that no one had heard thunder easily by stating that either everyone was in too deep a sleep, or because “there have been seen Lightnings and Fulmina without Noise; as one may very often observe” [“Fulmina” is an old term for multiple lightning bolts. -- Garth].