Spontaneous human combustion has been implied as a cause if death in a number of documented cases where police have found corpses burned almost to ashes – but without an apparent external source of ignition.
An estimated 200 cases have been found throughout history and victims are often elderly, sick, or under the influence of alcohol, which could explain why they have not been able to escape the flames.
The first known account of spontaneous human combustion came from the Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholin in 1663. He described how a woman in Paris ‘went up in ashes and smoke’ while she was sleeping, yet the straw mattress she slept on was unharmed.
In 1673, a Frenchman named Jonas Dupont published a collection of spontaneous combustion cases in his work De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis.
Hundreds of accounts since that time have followed a similar pattern. The victim is almost completely consumed, usually inside his or her home.
Coroners at the scene have sometimes noted a sweet, smoky smell in the room where the incident occurred.
Puzzled scientists have come up with the ‘wick theory’ to explain such events. The theory is that the human body can become an ‘inside out’ candle.
The person’s clothes are the wick, while their body fat is the wax or flammable substance, that keeps the blaze going.
Limbs may be left intact because of the temperature gradient, with the bottom half of the body being cooler than the top.
The combustion would not be ‘spontaneous’ however, because it would need an external source to start it off, such as a cigarette.
There are several theories about other causes of a spark, where evidence of a source of ignition is missing.
One of the most popular proposes that the fire is sparked when methane builds up in the intestines and is ignited by enzymes in the body.
However, most victims of spontaneous human combustion suffer greater damage to the outside of their body than to their internal organs, which seems to go against this theory.
Other theories speculate that the fire begins as a result of a buildup of static electricity inside the body. Another proposes that a disturbance in the Earth’s magnetic field may be responsible.
Larry Arnold, a self-proclaimed expert on spontaneous human combustion, believes that the phenomenon is the work of a new subatomic particle called a pyroton. He says that this interacts with cells to create a mini-explosion, but there is no scientific evidence available to back up his claims.