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Spontaneous Human Combustion|
A Brief History
Mysterious Fires - The Study of Spontaneous Combustion Begins - Not So Spontaneous Combustion - SHC in Popular Fiction - The Scientific Approach - Modern Weirdness - Strange Associations and Interpretations - Science Marches On - Pig in a Blanket - Some Explanations... and Continuing Controversies - Afterthoughts - Sources
See Also: Known Reports of SHC in Chronological Order
By the 20th century popular interest in spontaneous combustion was waning, and professional scholars and medical men avoided the topic as, at best, a disproven idea and, at worst, a topic that could get them ridiculed and shunned among their peers.
This didnít mean that the strange fire deaths werenít discussed in medical journals; they most certainly were. But explanations for the deaths very studiously avoided suggestions of either an internal combustion or a preternatural combustibility, instead suggesting variations on either the 'candle effect' theory, or that the gases and wastes produced in decomposition were being accidentally set aflame by external sources. In short, it was assumed there was a mundane explanation, even if no one knew what it was; and any form of fantastic theory was flat out rejected by professional science and medical journals.
Under these circumstances, the idea of an internal combustion of the human body as both unexplained by and rejected by science appealed to authors and audiences who had a taste for strange stories. With the rise of interest in Spiritualism in the end of the 19th century, a wide range of magazines and publications had made a living presenting stories of ghosts and hauntings; and as the 20th century started, and interest in the Spiritualist movement was dying out, these same publications were looking for other unusual ideas and stories to sell... and in many of these publications, the old idea of spontaneous human combustion started to appear again.
Two important changes seem to have appeared in the reports of spontaneous human combustion around this time. First, the reluctance of the medical profession to discuss or investigate the matter of these strange fire deaths was not seen as the natural outcome of two-hundred years of study and frustration... it was instead re-interpreted as an actual conspiracy to hide the phenomena, presumably because medical professionals could not explain it and were afraid this fact would lead the public at large to question their authority. This added a sense of excitement to the reports of spontaneous human combustion, for now there was the feeling of thwarting a powerful authority by exposing the facts of a buried phenomena.
The second big change came from the idea that spontaneous human combustion, like the earlier reports of hauntings in these magazines and publications, could very well have a supernatural explanation; this would also explain why the medical professionals could not understand it, and another reason they would try to hide the phenomena. Given this thought, reports that seemed to include scientifically impossible details were favored for publication... these reports were far more interesting to the audience these publications were targeting.
All of these ideas came together best in 1932 with the publication of American author Charles Fortís book, Wild Talents. This was the fourth book by Fort that featured a variety of strange stories mostly clipped from local and international newspapers; the different stories had been selected by Fort specifically because each seemed to present a situation that was scientifically either hard to explain or just plain impossible. In this volume, Fort presented several cases of strange fire deaths with very puzzling details, some from the early 1800ís, and some from more recent sources: cases such as that of Wilhelmina Dewar, found burned to death in 1908 on an unburned bed... or Nora Lake, who was found burned to death in unburned clothes in 1930... or Lillian Green, found in 1916 on a scorched floor with burned body and clothing, but no source of fire; she died in the hospital, never able to explain what happened. These details were presented with tongue-in-cheek commentary on how they were examined and dismissed by the authorities that investigated, and hoped that the cases would quietly go away.
The audience for these publications was relatively small and, with the advent of the extremely popular UFO reports that started during World War II, the reports of spontaneous human combustion lived a near forgotten existence in the back pages of these magazines. But a small audience also means few critical observers; so the nature of the reports of spontaneous human combustion became even more mysterious. Author Erik Frank Russell bears the dubious honor of reporting the first case of a supposedly witnessed combustion. In the May 1942 issue of Tomorrow magazine, his article on mysterious deaths for the years 1938 and 1939 included the simple report of ĎChelmsford woman burned to death in a dance hall.í
This one line report was a legendary time-bomb. Soon, other authors embellished the report to describe the woman bursting into flames and being reduced to ashes in the middle of the dance floor. But Russellís simple report was based on the death of a woman named Phyllis Newcombe, whose dress had caught fire as she was leaving a dance hall in 1938; she died weeks later due to sepsis of her burns... but Russell apparently didnít know this. Supporters of spontaneous human combustion were delighted with this apparent proof of the existence of the supposed supernatural phenomena, so no one at the time was interested in disproving the account.
Still, even with exciting developments like witnessed combustions, the whole topic of spontaneous human combustion was generally unheard of by the populace at large... until one occurrence caught the attention of national newspapers in 1951.
Mary Reeserís death, described at the start of this article, was a picture perfect case of the new idea of spontaneous human combustion. Mrs. Reeser obliged earlier criteria for the phenomena by being an elderly woman found reduced to a pile of ashes and an unburned lower leg, and added a scientifically unexplainable detail -- her shrunken skull -- which matched the modern taste for a supernatural mystery. Even with these criteria, there seems to be two other reasons the report of her death became national news. First, she had moved to Florida from Pennsylvania only four years earlier... so the reports of her death were automatically reported in two major cities in two states, St. Petersburg in Florida and Columbia in Pennsylvania, because people both knew and remembered her well in both places; this meant the news was transmitted by the Associated Press, and was available for newspapers nation-wide to pick up.
Secondly, many figures of authority -- fire chiefs, detectives, coroners, and an athropologist who worked with the FBI in cases of fire deaths -- were quoted as stating the case baffled them and defied their sense of what was scientifically plausible for such a death, which is an exciting thing to hear an authority figure say... since the Reeser incident, investigators of strange events have become far more tight-lipped until an official opinion has been agreed on. In the case of Mary Reeserís death, however, the seeming admission of the suthorities to the existence of a mystery they couldnít solve was printed in newspapers across the United States (and quite a bit of Europe, too!), and instantly refreshed the publicís interest in the strange fire deaths. Magazines that had carried such stories marginally in the past trotted out their old accounts, some even giving the topic of spontaneous human combustion more room on the cover than the UFO stories that usually sold well.
Next: Strange Associations and Interpretations