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Spontaneous Human Combustion|
A Brief History
Mysterious Fires - The Study of SHC 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
Strange Associations and Interpretations
It wasn’t long before spontaneous human combustion became a prominent subject in books on bizarre phenomena. One of the earliest and most influential was Vincent Gaddis’ Mysterious Fires and Lights, published in 1967. Only one third of this volume is devoted to the topic of the strange fire deaths. Gaddis’ book is about a large variety of reported supernatural phenomena that involves unexplainable fires and lights, and spontaneous human combustion was included in an attempt to show a relationship between its unexplained fires and the other strange occurrences.
In previous centuries, beliefs about the causes of the strange fire deaths led to other fiery events being considered related to them. In the 18th century the strange fire deaths were associated with stories of people vomiting flames after drinking too much alcohol, because alcohol was believed to be the cause of the strange fire deaths. In the 19th century the strange fire deaths were associated with stories of people with burning limbs that could not be extinguished and stories of doctors igniting the gases produced by decaying corpses, because ideas of preternatural combustibility made these stories sound like they were related to the strange fire deaths. Gaddis’ book took the 20th century’s idea of the strange fire deaths as being of a supernatural origin, and associated the phenomena with other purported supernatural phenomena, cementing the public idea of the deaths as both unexplainable and paranormal.
The first full length book devoted only to the subject of spontaneous human combustion was released in 1976. Michael Harrison’s Fire From Heaven soon became the standard reference work on the phenomena as it was now interpreted, and not only added dozens of new anomalous cases, it also added a new spin on some of the original cases. For example, the case of the Countess of Goerlitz, mentioned above... whereas all the original evidence makes it clear the countess was murdered by a servant and then burned in a clumsy attempt to disguise the murder, Harrison asserted the case was an actual supernatural combustion. His argument is that the authorities of the time, faced with the unexplainable death of a prominent person, chose to frame an innocent servant rather than admit the Countess’ death was a case of spontaneous human combustion. Using logic like this, Harrison reintroduced many cases of the past to a new audience who didn’t know he was presenting his idea of these events... and these events then became accepted by new authors as genuine, time-tested and proven cases of supernatural combustion, to be repeated without being re-checked for decades afterwards.
Harrison had many theories about the causes of the strange fire deaths. Among other things, he attempted to show a connection between spontaneous human combustion and telepathy, auras, people with unusually strong magnetic fields, geography, and ‘ritual dancing’ all to try to prove his theory of a connection between extreme emotional states and spontaneous combustion.
Though somewhat rambling and unclear, Harrison’s ideas do seem to have had one major impact: after his book, there was no limit on how bizarre the theories explaining the strange fire deaths could become. For example, theories that came after Harrison’s book included the idea that the electrical fields that exist within the human body might be capable of ‘short circuiting’ somehow, that some sort of atomic chain reaction could generate tremendous internal heat, that “geomagnetic fluctuations” cause the phenomena, or that an explosive combination of chemicals can form in the digestive system, fueled by a poor diet. This last theory was used by one author to attempt to explain why no reports of spontaneous human combustion have come from Asia... obviously, the author pointed out, the difference must be due to an Asian diet of rice and fish not promoting internal combustion.
Many investigators made the mistake of trying to ‘explain’ spontaneous human combustion with other scientifically unproven phenomena, such as trying to relate the strange fire deaths to the locations of so-called ‘ley lines,’ theoretical lines of ‘earth force’ that run across the globe. The existence of these lines was first suggested by an amateur archaeologist named Alfred Watkins in 1921, who felt that the large number of towns and archaeological sites of interest that could be found aligned in a straight line in the English countryside must be from a time when the countryside was more heavily forested, and straight line paths with obvious landmarks would have allowed navigation through the dense trees. By 1970, however, Watkins’ ley lines were being associated with a variety of supernatural forces and assumptions of some form of ancient power flowing along them. With this in mind, Larry Arnold, in his 1995 book, Ablaze! The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion, claimed that Watkins had discovered a ley line pattern in the location of a number of places called “Brent” (old English for ‘burnt’); Arnold then states that he himself drew a dozen or so ley lines on a map of England and compared the results to the locations of mystery fires. Through this comparative method, he claimed to have identified what he called ‘fire-leynes’ ? one of which is 400 miles long, and runs through five towns where (at the time) ten mysterious blazes had occurred. This same ‘fire-leyne’ was said by Arnold to have had several spontaneous human combustions along it; he cited four cases which occurred on it between 1852 and 1908.
Not surprisingly, even the mysterious and ever-popular UFOs were blamed for causing the strange fire deaths... but perhaps the oddest idea to sprout from this new sense of weirdness associated with spontaneous human combustion was the theory put forward in 1983 that the sacred image on the Shroud of Turin was probably created when the body of Jesus Christ spontaneously combusted!
Next: Science Marches On