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Encyclopedia > Spontaneous human combustion controversy

The spontaneous human combustion controversy is over whether the alleged phenomenon referred to as spontaneous human combustion is real or not. Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is the alleged burning of a persons body without a readily apparent, identifiable external source of ignition. ...

Contents


Recorded history of the alleged phenomenon

SHC is often looked upon as an urban myth of distinctly modern origin. However, history is full of accounts concerning the mysterious combustion of humans. What follows is not intended to be taken as a complete list. Urban Legend is also the name of a 1998 movie. ...


One early documentation of a SHC like phenomenon appears in the Bible. Passages such as the book of Numbers 11:1 "And when the people complained, it displeased the LORD: and the LORD heard it and his anger was kindled; and the fire of the LORD burnt among them, and consumed them that were in the uttermost parts of the camp" may be read as an account of an unexplained fire corresponding in some ways with SHC. However, such ancient and unsupported accounts are not generally considered to be reliable evidence. The Gutenberg Bible owned by the United States Library of Congress The Bible (Hebrew: תנ״ך tanakh, Greek: η Βίβλος hÄ“ biblos) (sometimes The Holy Bible, The Book, Work of God, The Word, The Good Book or Scripture), from Greek (τα) βίβλια, (ta) biblia, (the) books, is the name used by Jews and Christians for their... Numbers can mean: Number The Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Bible NUMB3RS, a CBS television show This is a disambiguation page — a navigational aid which lists other pages that might otherwise share the same title. ...


There are many mentions of something like SHC in medieval literature. One such instance is the combustion of a knight named Polonus Vorstius sometime during the reign of Queen Bona Sforza in Milan (sometime between 1515 and 1557). Vorstius is alleged to have drunk too much wine, vomited flames, and burned up. Bona Sforza Bona Sforza (born February 2, 1494 - November 19, 1557) was a queen of Poland and a second wife of Sigismund I of Poland since 1518. ... Milan (Italian: Milano; Milanese: Milán) is the main city of northern Italy, and is located in the plains of Lombardy, the most populated and developed region in Italy. ... 1515 was a common year starting on Friday (see link for calendar) of the Gregorian calendar. ... Events Spain is effectively bankrupt. ...


At some time before 1654, the Academic Senate of Copenhagen was sent a deposition about a person who died after belching flames, and then being consumed from the inside. (Historiarum Anatomicarum Rariorum by Thomas Bartholin) Thomas Bartholin (October 20, 1616 - December 4, 1680) was a Danish doctor, mathematician and theologist. ...


In 1731, an account was published about the remains of the Countess Cornelia di Bandi of Cesena, Italy, which were found on the floor of her bedroom. Her body was allegedly ashes but her stockinged legs survived, as did a large portion of her head. Events 10 Downing Street becomes the official residence of the United Kingdoms Prime Minister when Robert Walpole moves in. ... Cesena (ancient Caesena) is a city in the Italy, south of Ravenna and west of Rimini, on the Savio River, population (july 2004) 93,110, co-chief of the Province of Forli-Cesena. ...


However, the first generally accepted reliable documentation of alleged SHC dates back to 1763 when Jonas Dupont compiled a casebook of SHC cases in a book called De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis, having been compelled by the Nicole Millet case. 1763 was a common year starting on Saturday (see link for calendar). ...


In approximately 1853, a German liquor-shop owner in Columbus, Ohio mysteriously burst into flames and was consumed. This is mentioned in Charles Dickens's preface to the second edition of Bleak House, which contains a fictional case of SHC. Dickens added his remarks to the second edition after a public row with George Henry Lewes. [1] Nickname: The Arch City The Discovery City Official website: http://www. ... Charles Dickens was a prolific writer who was almost always working on a new instalment for a story and rarely missed a deadline. ... Bleak House is the ninth novel by Charles Dickens, published in 20 monthly parts between March 1852 and September 1853. ... The term SHC can have many different meanings. ... George Henry Lewes (April 18, 1817 – November 28, 1878) was a British philosopher and literary critic. ...


In 1861, Lewes had published a sequence of letters between him and Dickens, in which Lewes chided Dickens thus for propagating the 'myth' of SHC: George Henry Lewes (April 18, 1817 – November 28, 1878) was a British philosopher and literary critic. ...


"In these accounts it is usually stated that the body entirely disappears down to a greasy stain on the floor and some remains of bones. Everyone knows this to be impossible."


In 1870[2], the Assistant Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at the University of Aberdeen published a paper entitled On Spontaneous Combustion. In it, he wrote that he had found 54 contemporary scientists who had written on the subject of SHC. Of these, 35 expressed definite opinions on the validity of the alleged phenomenon:

  • Five of these (including Liebig) were entirely sceptical.
  • Three (including Dupuytren) believed that SHC was best accounted for in terms of preternatural combustion (broadly speaking, misidentification theory, discussed below).
  • Twenty-seven (including Devergie and Orfila) stated their definite belief in the spontaneous ignitability of the human body.

Freiherr Justus von Liebig (May 12, 1803 in Darmstadt, Germany - April 18, 1873 in Munich, Germany) was a German chemist. ... Guillaume Dupuytren, Baron (October 6, 1777 - February 8, 1835) was a French anatomist and military surgeon. ... Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is the alleged burning of a persons body without a readily apparent, identifiable external source of ignition. ...

Some key points in the SHC controversy

Being a large proportion water, the human body does not burn very well. Water (from the Old English waeter; c. ... Human anatomy or anthropotomy is a special field within anatomy. ...


However, in many cases of alleged SHC, victims' bodies were reduced to ashes. To render the body to such a state requires temperatures of more than 1700 °C (3000 °F). A degree Celsius (°C) is a unit of temperature named after the Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius (1701-1744), who first proposed a similar system in 1742. ... Fahrenheit is a temperature scale named after the German physicist Gabriel Fahrenheit (1686–1736), who proposed it in 1724. ...


The temperatures reached in SHC are apparently high enough to reduce whole bones to a white calcined ash. Electron spin resonance could be used on bone ash to ascertain precise peak temperatures in supposed cases of SHC but this has never yet been attempted. Calcination a or fusing point, to bring about ) a part or the whole of the substance (commonly used to convert metal sulfide ores to oxides in the first step of recovering such metals as zinc, lead, and copper); the reduction (reductive calcination) of metals from their ores (smelting). ... Electron Paramagnetic Resonance (EPR) or Electron Spin Resonance (ESR) is a spectroscopic technique which detects species that have unpaired electrons, generally meaning that it must be a free radical, if it is an organic molecule, or that it has transition metal ions if it is an inorganic complex. ...


Even in modern crematoria, which have temperatures around 1100 °C (2000 °F), bones cannot be broken down completely and have to be ground into smaller pieces. The ash resulting from such pulverisation is a coarse grey, and resembles basalt sand. Cremation is the practice of disposing of a corpse by burning. ... Cremation is the practice of disposing of a corpse by burning. ... Basalt Basalt is a common gray to black volcanic rock. ...


Many murderers have tried to burn the bodies of their victims, often in an attempt to cover up their crimes (see the cases of Countess Gorlitz below, and the unnamed murder victim discussed at the wick effect). Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is the alleged burning of a persons body without a readily apparent, identifiable external source of ignition. ... Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is the burning of a persons body without the apparent presence of an external source of ignition. ...


However, once the accelerant (a chemical, typically a flammable liquid, used to speed ignition of a fire) is depleted, the victim will often stop burning. An accelerant is any substance or mixture that accelerates the development of fire. ... Flammability is the ease with which a substance will ignite, causing fire or combustion. ...


This is true in the case of a corpse identified as that of dictator Adolf Hitler. The body was still easily identifiable, even though Hitler's aides had used more than 20 litres of fuel to accelerate destruction. It has been suggested that this article or section be merged into Dictatorship. ... The front cover of Time magazine, May 7, 1945. ... The litre or liter (see spelling differences) is a unit of volume. ...


Forensic investigation have so far revealed no use of accelerants in alleged SHC cases. Forensics or forensic science is the application of science to questions which are of interest to the legal system. ... An accelerant is any substance or mixture that accelerates the development of fire. ...


So on the one hand, a normal fire would have had to be extraordinarily intense to have the observed effect on the victim, but on the other, the very limited damage to the surroundings contradicts this.


Against this, there is the fact that few alleged cases of SHC have occurred in front of reliable eyewitnesses.


There is an additional social dimension to the SHC controversy, expressed succinctly by Senior Divisional Officer Douglas Leitch of Strathclyde Fire Brigade. Strathclyde (Srath Chluaidh in Gaelic) was one of the regional council areas of Scotland from 1975 to 1996. ... Firefighter with an axe A firefighter, sometimes still called a fireman though women have increasingly joined firefighting units, is a person who is trained and equipped to put out fires, rescue people and in some areas provide emergency medical services. ...


In an article about SHC in the UK fire service's internal publication Fire Magazine (edition dated August 1986), SDO Leitch wrote:


"I would suggest that there is more need for fire scene investigation specifically relating to body destruction than spending valuable research money on what would, if proven, only cause alarm and distress to members of the public." (emphasis supplied)


That there might be a tacit agreement among scientists and fire specialists to play down talk of SHC is a recurring allegation in the SHC controversy.


One apparent exception to any supposed "agreement" is retired scene of crime officer John E Heymer, who is a trained investigator and has published a book on Spontaneous Human Combustion. Heymer and his work are discussed elsewhere. John E Heymer is a former policeman and author, who has written extensively on the field of spontaneous human combustion (also known as SHC, Heymer was born in Bow, East London, in 1934 and went to South Wales at the age of 16 to become a coal miner. ... Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is the alleged burning of a persons body without a readily apparent, identifiable external source of ignition. ...


Myths

It may seem strange to discuss myths in relation to a phenomenon supposed by many to be itself mythological.


However, perhaps due to the 'folkloric' status of SHC as it currently stands (the concept is unrecognised by mainstream science), a number of pseudo-characteristics have been ascribed to SHC which are not borne out by eyewitness or forensic testimony concerning alleged SHC cases. Such myths naturally cloud any debate on SHC.


A selection of these SHC myths follows.

  • "The victim is usually obese" - This is demonstrably untrue but often stated as fact by proponents of the wick effect (see remarks on this theme by DJX Halliday). Victims of alleged SHC cover the usual range of human physiques.
  • "The victim is always an alcoholic" - Alcoholism seems to have been the moralistic Victorian explanation for instances of alleged SHC, perhaps due to the religious influence of the temperance movement. Alcohol being flammable was supposed to permeate the body, making it prone to sudden ignition. Thus, drunkenness was not only a disgrace, but liable to result in terrifying retribution along semi-Biblical lines. It is now known that this cannot possibly happen. Body tissues cannot become so saturated in alcohol that they will catch fire. Nor can the explanation that victims' clothing had become soaked in alcohol be supported. This will be discussed below. However, a number of apparent SHC fatalities have involved alcoholics. This may or may not be significant.
  • "The skulls of SHC victims are shrunken by the heat" - The skull, stripped of eyeballs, ears, nose, hair, jaw musculature, lips, etc, can appear to be smaller than expected to observers unfamiliar with bones. However, despite heat, bones do not shrink by any appreciable amount when dry. This remains true even in cases of alleged SHC (where the skull survives at all). There is one known exception to this, in the case of Mary Hardy Reeser in which several trained investigators attested to the shrunken skull. This is the only known instance of a skull shrinking during alleged SHC and it remains unexplained. The 'shrunken skull' detail (apparently originating with the Reeser case, although instances may predate this) has attached itself to many anecdotal retellings of other alleged SHC cases and has become a folkloric motif.
  • "SHC victims have set themselves alight with carelessly dropped cigarettes" - Many victims of alleged SHC are non-smokers, therefore (regardless of whether SHC ever actually happens) this explanation cannot be generally true. Moreover, cigarette burns rarely result in major conflagrations seated in inanimate objects (clothing, furniture, buildings, etc) unless an accelerant is present (see the King's Cross fire of 1987, for example). Flesh cannot itself be set alight by a cigarette, and although skin can be melted the cigarette is itself extinguished in the process. Nor can clothing soaked in fuel be ignited so easily: the glowing tip of a cigarette burns at 450 degrees Celsius (550 when puffed), which is sufficient to ignite most spirits (eg, paraffin). However, capillary action means that the cigarette is doused by the spirit, unless the spirit is already warmed or diffused. Even a lit cigarette dropped into a bucket of paraffin will not normally cause a fire, for the same reasons. This is contrary to the normal expectations of most people.

The wick effect is the name given to the partial destruction of a human body by fire, when the clothing of the victim soaks up melted human fat and acts like the wick of a candle. ... Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is the alleged burning of a persons body without a readily apparent, identifiable external source of ignition. ... This article needs cleanup. ... Alcoholism is a powerful craving for alcohol which often results in the compulsive consumption of alcohol. ... This article or section does not cite its references or sources. ... A cartoon from Australia ca. ... In chemistry, an alcohol is any organic compound in which a hydroxyl group (-OH) is bound to a carbon atom of an alkyl or substituted alkyl group. ... Flammable or Flammability refers to the ease at which a substance will ignite, causing fire or combustion. ... Ignition occurs when the heat produced by a reaction becomes sufficient to sustain the reaction, whether it be a fire, an explosion, or nuclear fusion. ... Drunkenness, in its most common usage, is the state of being intoxicated with ethyl alcohol to a sufficient degree to impair mental and motor functioning. ... The Gutenberg Bible owned by the United States Library of Congress The Bible (Hebrew: תנ״ך tanakh, Greek: η Βίβλος hē biblos) (sometimes The Holy Bible, The Book, Work of God, The Word, The Good Book or Scripture), from Greek (τα) βίβλια, (ta) biblia, (the) books, is the name used by Jews and Christians for their... In chemistry, an alcohol is any organic compound in which a hydroxyl group (-OH) is bound to a carbon atom of an alkyl or substituted alkyl group. ... A hippopotamus skull A skull, or cranium, is a bony structure of Craniates which serves as the general framework for a head. ... A hippopotamus skull A skull, or cranium, is a bony structure of Craniates which serves as the general framework for a head. ... To meet Wikipedias quality standards, this article or section may require cleanup. ... For an alternative meaning, see ear (botany). ... Human nose in profile You may be looking for Nose, a town in Japan, or The Nose, a story by Nikolai Gogol and an opera by Dmitri Shostakovich. ... Young Girl Fixing her Hair, by Sophie Gengembre Anderson Hair is a filamentous outgrowth skin found only in mammals. ... The mouth, also known as the buccal cavity or the oral cavity, is the opening through which an animal or human takes in food. ... A miserable stubborn cantankerous old mans, whos actually quite good humoured & an enjoyable compadre to play online alongside if you catch him on a good day. ... On the night of July 1-July 2, 1951, Mary Hardy Reeser, age 67, burned to death in her apartment in St. ... On the night of July 1-July 2, 1951, Mary Hardy Reeser, age 67, burned to death in her apartment in St. ... Folklore is the ethnographic concept of the tales, legends, or superstitions current among a particular ethnic population, a part of the oral history of a particular culture. ... In literature, a motif is any recurring element that has symbolic significance. ... A cigarette will burn to ash on one end. ... This word has other meanings: see smoker. ... The Kings Cross fire was a devastating underground fire in London on November 18, 1987, which killed 31 people. ... 1987 (MCMLXXXVII) was a common year starting on Thursday of the Gregorian calendar. ... Men and women wearing suits, an example of one of the many modern forms of clothing (from the 1937 Chicago Woolen Mills catalog) Clothing is defined, in its broadest sense, as coverings for the torso and limbs as well as coverings for the hands (gloves), feet (socks, shoes, sandals, boots... Fuel is a material with one type of energy which can be transformed into another usable energy. ... This article describes degree as a unit of temperature. ... A degree Celsius (°C) is a unit of temperature named after the Swedish astronomer Anders Celsius (1701-1744), who first proposed a similar system in 1742. ... Spirits redirects here. ... Paraffin is a common name for a group of high molecular weight alkane hydrocarbons with the general formula CnH2n+2, where n is greater than about 20, discovered by Carl Reichenbach. ... Capillary action or capillarity (also known as capillary motion) is the ability of a narrow tube to draw a liquid upwards against the force of gravity. ...

SHC and modern scientists

Despite widespread popular belief in the reality of SHC and numerous attested instances, the orthodox scientific belief is that SHC does not exist. This is because there is no known mechanism by which it could occur in the way in which it is alleged to occur.


On the other hand, The most usual explanation for the destruction of human bodies in cases of death by fire is the wick effect. The wick effect is the name given to the partial destruction of a human body by fire, when the clothing of the victim soaks up melted human fat and acts like the wick of a candle. ...


A modern example is the unnamed woman discussed in a 1965 paper entitled "A Case of Spontaneous Combustion" [3] by Professor David Gee, Head of the Department of Forensic Medicine at Leeds University. 1965 (MCMLXV) was a common year starting on Friday (the link is to a full 1965 calendar). ... Forensics or forensic science is the application of science to questions which are of interest to the legal system. ... University Tower, University of Leeds The University of Leeds (United Kingdom) is amongst the largest of British universities and the most popular by applicants, with 52,444 applicants in 2003 for 7,228 places (UCAS). ...


Professor Gee states:


"Belief in the occurrence of spontaneous combustion is of respectable antiquity. More recently opinion has swung away from the quasi-supernatural views of earlier years, to regard such cases as due to unusual degrees of flammability of the human body in certain circumstances, distinguishing the condition with the name preternatural combustion."


Professor Gee's article concerns an 85-year-old woman who fell dead in her home of a cardiovascular event. Her head landed in the hearth of her open coal fire and her body was "[...] grossly incinerated, apart from the right foot which lay beyond the damaged floorboards. Both arms and the left leg had been almost completely destroyed."


That the victim was dead before the combustion began was learned from an examination of the remaining parts of her body, which also shows how incompletely the victim's body had been destroyed:


"The coronary and internal carotid arteries showed atheromatous disease. No soot particles were present in the trachea. Blood from the right foot contained no carboxyhaemoglobin." Carbon monoxide, chemical formula CO, is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, flammable and highly toxic gas. ...


Thus, the standard explanation offered by scientists is as follows (with minor variations):

  • The victim dies suddenly (e.g., from a heart attack), or loses consciousness or mobility from excessive drinking.
  • A cigarette or some other source of flame ignites the victim's clothing, which starts to burn, possibly fuelled by the spill of distilled beverages, and kills the victim if he or she is not already dead.
  • The wick effect occurs.

However, there are problems with this attempted explanation. A myocardial infarction occurs when an atherosclerotic plaque slowly builds up in the inner lining of a coronary artery and then suddenly ruptures, totally occluding the artery and preventing blood flow downstream. ... A lit cigarette A full ashtray. ... Various distilled beverages in a Spanish bar A distilled beverage is a liquid preparation meant for consumption containing ethyl alcohol purified by distillation from a fermented substance such as fruit, vegetables, or grain. ...

  • In many cases it has been proven by pathologists that the victim was alive at the time they burned. For example: In the case of Robert Francis Bailey (discussed below), it was found at autopsy that he had died due to suffocating on the fumes of his own combustion.
  • Victims are often non-smokers.
  • It is actually more difficult to start a fire on a person's body using a cigarette than is popularly imagined (this is discussed below).
  • The presence of accelerants such as alcohol is seldom if ever found in cases of SHC; if alcohol is burned (as on a Christmas pudding), it is only the alcohol that burns and when the alcohol is gone the fire goes out (which may leave charring, but no fire). This is also the case with a candle: the wick itself does not burn, until the flame (which is burning wax) is extinguished, at which point a red glow appears while the wick briefly smoulders. Also, alcohol is notoriously volatile and evaporates easily at room temperature.

Christmas puddings are often dried out on hooks for weeks prior to serving in order to enhance the flavour. ... A collection of lit candles on ornate candlesticks A close-up image of a candle showing the wick and the various regions of the flame. ... Wax has traditionally referred to a substance that is secreted by bees (beeswax) and used by them in constructing their honeycombs. ...

A televised experiment

In August 1989, using a dead pig wrapped in a blanket and placed in a mocked-up room, the BBC set out to prove the wick effect theory in its science television show QED, episode entitled "The Burning Question". Species Sus barbatus Sus bucculentus Sus cebifrons Sus celebensis Sus domesticus Sus heureni Sus philippensis Sus salvanius Sus scrofa Sus timoriensis Sus verrucosus Pigs are ungulates native to Eurasia collectively grouped under the genus Sus within the Suidae family. ... The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is the largest publicly-funded radio and television broadcasting corporation of the United Kingdom (see British television) and the world. ... QED can mean several different things: Q.E.D. Latin Quod erat demonstrandum, used at the end of mathematical proofs The QED project intended to construct a formalized database of all mathematical knowledge The QED text editor program Quantum electrodynamics, a field of physics Quantum Effect Devices, a maker of...


A small amount of petrol was poured on the blanket as an accelerant. After igniting the petrol, the researchers left it to burn by itself. The temperature of the fire was regularly recorded at only around 800 °C (1472 °F). Gasoline, as it is known in North America, or petrol, in many Commonwealth countries (sometimes also called motor spirit) is a petroleum-derived liquid mixture consisting primarily of hydrocarbons, used as fuel in internal combustion engines. ...


As the fire burned through the pig's skin, the fire melted the pig's subcutaneous fats, which flowed onto the blanket. Bone marrow, which also contains a high amount of fats, contributed to the burning. The subcutis is the layer of tissue directly underlying the cutis. ... Grays Anatomy illustration of cells in bone marrow. ...


The surrounding furniture was not burned, although a television placed above a cupboard had its plastic cover melted. The fire had to be manually extinguished after seven hours. Most of the pig's body had been burned to ashes. Plastic covers a range of synthetic or semisynthetic polymerization products. ...


From the experiment, the BBC researchers claimed to have explained the following characteristics of SHC:

  • The fires were highly localized. The flames of the fire were less than 500 millimetres (20 inches) high; therefore, the fire usually did not spread to furniture in the vicinity.
  • The body was severely burned. The fire, although not very hot comparatively, can burn for a long period of time, as shown by the experiment. It is further fuelled by the body fat of the victim, which explains why the body can burn for such a long time.
  • The furniture located above the cupboards burned. The fire continuously heated the air and produced a convection current. Hot air rose and caused the plastics in the television set to melt.

There are many problems with the QED programme, which were raised by Heymer (who was unhappy with his own appearance on the show): A millimetre (American spelling: millimeter, symbol mm) is an SI unit of length that is equal to one thousandth of a metre. ... Convection is the transfer of heat by currents within a fluid. ... John E Heymer is a former policeman and author, who has written extensively on the field of spontaneous human combustion (also known as SHC, Heymer was born in Bow, East London, in 1934 and went to South Wales at the age of 16 to become a coal miner. ...

  • The wick effect, while a real phenomenon, is a slow "smouldering" process with gentle lapping flames and thus totally at odds with the reported rapidity and ferocity of SHC.
  • The use of accelerants was not appropriate, since they are not a known factor in apparent SHC.
  • The programme made use of time-lapse photography in demonstrating the wick effect, without labelling it as such. This undoubtedly led many viewers to erroneous conclusions about the rapidity of the wick effect, which (as discussed above) is a slow process.
  • One section of the programme attempted to demonstrate the wick effect" on a wooden-framed stuffed armchair, presumably because of difficulties in procuring a human body and various ethical matters arising therefrom. The armchair resolutely refused to behave in the manner predicted. When the armchair remained 80 per cent unburned, this was announced as a partial demonstration of an effect that could happen under other conditions, that could (if the chair were a corpse) happen to a corpse.
  • Fire Research Station Officer Stan Ames was shown inspecting the damaged chair and declaring: "So! Really this is broadly what we expected to find. It can all be explained in terms of ordinary physics and chemistry."
  • Other fire investigators disagreed with the programme's conclusions, writing to the magazine Radio Times (issue dated 20-26 May, 1989) to express dissent after transmission of the QED programme:

"It [the programme] was, however, marred by the conclusions drawn, which were not justified by the content of the programme. This is: it cannot be said at the present time, that 'science' has explained beyond reasonable doubt what is happening in these unusual cases." Current Radio Times logo Radio Times is the BBCs weekly television and radio programme listings magazine. ...


The writer was Dr Alan Beard, Unit of Fire Safety , University of Edinburgh and close colleague of Dr Dougal Drysdale (see [4]).

  • Dr Drysdale had appeared in the QED programme, demonstrating the wick effect by burning animal fat wrapped in cotton. Hymer records [5]:

Once the fat had been completely obscured by the cloth roll, which overlapped the fat by an inch on either side, the camera zoomed in for a close-up of the fat roll.


"Suddenly, we were looking at a completely different piece of fat.


"Whereas the first piece of fat had been overlapped by the piece of cloth by an inch on either side, the second piece of fat was now protruding about one and a half inches on the one side.[...] It was clear on the film that the fat was the sort that comes cooked a rich golden colour from an oven - a process, I might add, that just happens to drive off the water."


The fat was then shown burning away very rapidly, through (uncaptioned) timelapse photography.


On 16 May 1989, Heymer[6] spoke by telephone to Drysdale at Edinburgh University.


Drysdale told Heymer that the fat was beef and said that it took: "A long time [to burn away], probably about two hours.


"I'll tell you one thing, I did that experiment in Edinburgh with some animal fat from the butchers. It worked extremely well. I tried it twice. Very easy to ignite and it burned for a long time. They produced this piece of stinking animal fat down at the Fire Research Station and we couldn't light the bloody thing."


Heymer asked if this was the reason for the unremarked-upon substitution of one piece of fat for another. John E Heymer is a former policeman and author, who has written extensively on the field of spontaneous human combustion (also known as SHC, Heymer was born in Bow, East London, in 1934 and went to South Wales at the age of 16 to become a coal miner. ...


Drysdale replied: "That's right, that's right, yes."

  • The programme's narrator (Anna Massey) summed up as follows:

"So it seems that every aspect of these mysterious fire deaths can now be explained. Some form of ignition causes the body to burn. The heat dried out the body so that condensation forms on the windows. Once the body is dry, the fat melts and orange fatty deposits build up on surfaces like the lightbulbs. It would seem the mystery is finally over." Anna Massey, CBE (born August 11, 1937) is a British actress. ...


This statement, says Heymer appears to suggest that a waterlogged body can catch fire for long enough (and at a sufficient temperature) to dry out (requiring the evaporation of an average of 10 gallons of body water), before it can become a suitable human candle. Evaporation is one of the two forms of vaporization. ... In mathematics, there are numerous methods for calculating the average or central tendency of a list of n numbers. ... The gallon (abbreviation: gal) is an English unit of volume. ... Water (from the Old English waeter; c. ... A collection of lit candles on ornate candlesticks A close-up image of a candle showing the wick and the various regions of the flame. ...


The QED programme itself represents a significant chapter in the SHC controversy.


Return to the entry spontaneous human combustion at the section Theories Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is the alleged burning of a persons body without a readily apparent, identifiable external source of ignition. ...


Quotes

  • "There's one mystery I'm asked about more than any other: spontaneous human combustion. Some cases seem to defy explanation, and leave me with a creepy and very unscientific feeling. If there's anything more to SHC, I simply don't want to know." - 'Arthur C Clarke (1994)
  • "The opinion that a man can burn of himself is not founded on a knowledge of the circumstances of the death, but on the reverse of knowledge - on complete ignorance of all the causes or conditions which preceded the accident and caused it." - Justus von Liebig (1855)

Arthur C. Clarke, considered by many to be a grand master of science fiction and communication satellites Sir Arthur Charles Clarke (born December 16, 1917) is a British author and inventor, probably most famous for his science fiction novel 2001: A Space Odyssey. ... Freiherr Justus von Liebig (May 12, 1803 in Darmstadt, Germany - April 18, 1873 in Munich, Germany) was a German chemist. ...

Notes

  •   Beard, Alan and Drysdale, Dougal, Unit of Fire Safety Engineering, University of Edinburgh (1986): Spontaneous Human Combustion: More Open- Minded Research Is the Answer. In Fire magazine, May 1986
  •   Gee, Professor David (1965): A Case of Spontaneous Human Combustion. In Medicine, Science and the Law (vol 5, 1965)
  •   Heymer, John E (1996): The Entrancing Flame, pp133-4, London, Little, Brown, ISBN 0-316-87694-1
  •   Heymer, op cit, pp143-4
  •   Lewes, George Henry (1861): Spontaneous Human Combustion. In Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, issue dated April 1861
  •   Ogston, Alexander (1870) On Spontaneous Combustion. In 'Original Communications', the British and Foreign Medical-Chichurgical Review, vol 95, January 1870.

1965 (MCMLXV) was a common year starting on Friday (the link is to a full 1965 calendar). ... John E Heymer is a former policeman and author, who has written extensively on the field of spontaneous human combustion (also known as SHC, Heymer was born in Bow, East London, in 1934 and went to South Wales at the age of 16 to become a coal miner. ... 1996 (MCMXCVI) was a leap year starting on Monday of the Gregorian calendar, and was designated the International Year for the Eradication of Poverty. ... John E Heymer is a former policeman and author, who has written extensively on the field of spontaneous human combustion (also known as SHC, Heymer was born in Bow, East London, in 1934 and went to South Wales at the age of 16 to become a coal miner. ... George Henry Lewes (April 18, 1817 – November 28, 1878) was a British philosopher and literary critic. ... 1861 is a common year starting on Tuesday. ... 1870 (MDCCCLXX) was a common year starting on Saturday (see link for calendar) of the Gregorian calendar or a common year starting on Monday of the 12-day-slower Julian calendar. ...

See also

Anomalous phenomena are phenomena which are observed and for which there are no suitable explanations in the context of a specific body of scientific knowledge, e. ... Combustion or burning is a chemical process, an exothermic reaction between a substance (the fuel) and a gas (the oxidizer), usually O2, to release heat. ... The Human Torch of Marvel Comics Fantastic Four can harmlessly envelop himself in flame at will (Flame on!), which allows him to fly, shoot flame offensively, and absorb heat energy. ...

External links

  • CSICOP article on spontaneous human combustion
  • Spontaneous Human Combustion at the Skeptic's Dictionary
  • A BBC article describing the experiment
  • Article on causes of spontaneous human combustion including history

 
 

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