Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 22, 2014
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A fire within

Is spontaneous human combustion a myth or a supernatural medical mystery?

In September of 2011, an Irish coroner listed an extremely unusual — and controversial — cause of death in the case of an elderly pensioner named Michael Faherty. The remains of the 76-year-old man were found in his home by firefighters responding to his smoke alarm on the night of December 22, 2010. The man’s body was burned beyond recognition, though nothing else in the room suffered any damage except the floor beneath him and the ceiling above him. After nine months of investigation, West Galway coroner Dr Ciaran McLoughlin, a 25-year veteran in the field, reluctantly put forth the following statement: “This fire was thoroughly investigated and I'm left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation.”

Spontaneous human combustion? Surely this was a joke. SHC, commonly defined as a living person’s body suddenly bursting into flames without any source of external ignition, is the stuff of horror movies, urban legends and gothic novels not what one might find on a 21st-century death certificate. And yet, Dr McLoughlin and the team of well-respected pathologists, scientists and fire officials whom he consulted felt that this was the only legitimate explanation for Mr. Faherty’s gruesome demise.

Centuries of cinders

It was far from the first time that this mysterious phenomenon — or alleged phenomenon, for the many who have yet to acknowledge it as legitimate — had been recorded in the literature. Of the 200 reported cases of spontaneous human combustion, some seem to hold more validity than others. Interesting to note is that from the very beginning (and in deference to all those skeptics out there), the vast majority of cases involved alcohol, the presence somewhere in the room of an external flame source like cigarettes or a fireplace, and people of advanced age or limited mobility. That said, compelling arguments do exist in favour of SHC.

A knight called Polonus Vorstius had the unfortunate distinction of being the first known case back in the 15th century. Apparently, the hapless (and soon headless) horseman enjoyed a few glasses of strong wine at his home in Milan in 1470, and then began to belch fire. Then, the story goes, he proceeded to burst into flames and die, in front of his horrified parents.

The event was described in 1641 by Danish physician Thomas Bartholin (1616-1680) in his Historiarum Anatomicarum Rariorum, a compendium of strange medical phenomena. Bartholin cited as his source a discussion with one of the Vorstius family’s direct descendants. Similar versions of the knight’s tale can be found in other sources, though it’s obviously impossible to verify the accuracy of any claim to flame in poor Polonus’ case.

Another well-known example of SHC is the 18th-century mystery of innkeeper Nicole Millet as recorded by Frenchman Jonas Dupont in his aptly titled tome, De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis (1763). All that remained of Madame Millet, a serious drinker, was her skull, a few bones from her back and her lower legs. A straw bed near her corpse and various wooden things somehow survived the blaze that consumed her on February 20, 1725. Her husband was tried for murder and found guilty, but he was eventually acquitted thanks to the testimony of a surgeon named Dr Claude-Nicolas Le Cat, a guest at the inn who was there when the smell of smoke awoke the house and Nicole’s body was discovered. He convinced the court that it was an act of God.

Recipe for disaster?

When the Italian Countess Cornelia di Bandi succumbed to fire in a similar way in 1731, people took notice. The royal was put to bed early by her maid after one of her beloved wine-and- camphor baths, and found in the morning in the form of a pair of unburned legs and a skull sitting atop a pile of ashes. The room was covered in soot though nothing suggested a fire had taken place, save for the corpse and an empty oil lantern lying next to her. Her body succumbed to the conflagration so fast, it was later surmised, that her torso disintegrated as she stood and her skull simply dropped into the pile of ashes below. Lightning through the chimney was deemed the far-fetched cause.

Another similar story occurred in England in 1744 when the body of gin-soaked, pipe-smoking Grace Pett was likened to “a log of wood consumed by a fire.” Clearly, a pattern was beginning to appear in these random and rare events: alcohol was almost always present, and the victim’s surroundings were left strangely undamaged by flame. Pett’s case seemed to have inspired some serious scientific interest in the subject and the following year Paul Rolli put out a seminal study on the subject in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. He examined three similar cases, including those of Pett and the Countess, to put forth a theory that persists to this day — at least in Ireland. He claimed that gases and intestinal waste combined with alcohol had caused these people to spontaneously ignite from within.

By the 19th century, the idea of spontaneous human combustion had truly captured the public imagination. In the Victorian comic books popular at the time, many unseemly characters met their end in a ball of fire. Most famously, Charles Dickens used SHC to kill Krook, a lush of a shopkeeper, in Bleak House. It was a dramatic way of disposing of a bad guy, but critics were not convinced, claiming SHC was ludicrous and that Dickens was a sucker for believing in it.

Picture this

The 20th century was a boon for believers in SHC because photographic evidence came into play and gruesome black-and-white shots of random limbs and ash heaps made headlines. A few famous cases became well-known. In a Chelmsford, England, ballroom in 1938, Maybelle Andrews was engulfed in flames at the top of the stairs in front of her horrified fiancé and a room of partygoers with no apparent source of fire in the room. In 1951, Floridian Mary Reeser’s lower legs were found propped up against her armchair, the rest of her burned to oblivion, though a pile of loose newspaper beside the chair remained unburned.

Dr John Irving Bentley — a 92-year-old retired physician living in Pennsylvania — appeared to have been a victim of SHC in 1966. All that was left of his charred remains, found next to the toilet, was a slipper-shod foot and lower leg. A metal walker lay on top of the ash heap, its rubber tips miraculously unscorched. The grisly death-scene photo appeared in newspapers everywhere.

As experts from fire departments and crematoriums can attest, fires burning so hot as to turn human bone to ash don’t generally leave surrounding areas untouched; widespread damage should be the rule, not the exception. What could cause such a strange phenomenon then? Skeptical scientists and physicians have put forth a few alternatives to the human body simply bursting into flames. Theories range from simple cigarette-induced accidents and suicide attempts to irregularities in the earth’s magnetic field and alien intervention. Perfect-storm scenarios of gammas rays or static electricity interacting with high blood-alcohol content have also been suggested.

Fat as fuel

The most plausible alternate theory, however, and the one put forth by most skeptics, seems to be the so-called wick theory, which maintains that the body’s high fat content explains most cases of SHC. The theory is that an external ignition source burns through the victim’s clothes and skin very quickly, releasing fat which is then reabsorbed into the surrounding clothing creating a source of continual combustion that continues until the fuel is burned up, similar to the way in which the string down the centre of a candle absorbs wax and keeps the flame alive. Since there’s never been a case of a naked SHC victim, it’s an attractive theory. And, since most supposed SHC victims are seated when the fire begins and flames travel upward, it explains why the lower limbs are usually left intact.

In a well-intentioned attempt to replicate the wick effect in 1998, scientists at the California Criminalistics Institute graciously used a pig as a stand-in for a person since porcine flesh is similar to human flesh in many ways. They wrapped a dead pig in a blanket, lit it on fire and left it to burn. The end result was a corpse similar to SHC remains, but that was only after several hours of smouldering. Other attempts to replicate the wick effect in pigs, however, have failed. Plus, some alleged SHC victims have burned in far less time than the hours of smouldering required to the turn pig to powder.

Convincing though these all theories may be, they can’t always account for the more compelling arguments in favour of SHC’s existence, namely that these fires so often start in the victims’ torsos and not limbs; that victims seem to not struggle or move after their bodies begin to burn; and that the surrounding areas somehow sustain no damage. It’s hard to imagine one’s shirt catching fire then sitting placidly as you’re being consumed by flames. And even the wick theory doesn’t explain a fire than can turn bone to ash and then burn out before causing widespread damage. After all, cremating a human body takes about two hours at 1000 degrees Celsius.

So did Michael Faherty really die of SHC? Skeptics doubt it. There was, after all, a roaring fire in the hearth near where he found, as there so often is in reports of SHC. Surely, a spark simply leapt out and ignited his clothes though, for some reason, the Irish coroner and his team of experts ruled out the possibility. And what of the millions of people who don’t mysteriously end up an isolated heap of ashes while enjoying a brandy and cigar? Then again, you could just use the threat of SHC as another way to convince your patients not to smoke.…

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