In this article:
- The earliest mention of spontaneous human combustion dates back to a 15th-century knight who is said to have gotten so drunk, he burped fire which then consumed him in flames.
- But it wasn’t until 1852, when a character in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House died as a result of the phenomenon, that the idea spread like wildfire.
- Since then, more and more alleged cases have been reported, many linked to excessive alcohol consumption.
- A few scientific explanations have been proposed, but none have yet to be substantiated.
Sometimes, when someone is doing something particularly well, we might say that they’re “on fire.” Perhaps you’ve heard someone who’s caught the flu say that they’re “burning up.” If you’ve ever been sexually attracted to someone else, you might even say that you’re “hot for them.”
While all of these expressions imply a certain rise in temperature, as far as we know, no one who’s had repetitive success, caught the flu, or experienced sexual attraction has ever literally burst into flames.
As far as we know, that is. But, of course, there are things outside the realm of human knowledge that have yet to be discovered.
Yes, allegedly, there have been instances of people bursting into a blistering inferno for no apparent reason whatsoever. People have debated the validity of these claims for centuries with some claiming that they’ve witnessed their friends and family randomly turn into balls of fire and others saying that these claims go against every tenet of modern science.
While the first suggested instance of spontaneous human combustion dates back to the 15th century, the phenomenon really came into the public eye when Charles Dickens used it to kill off one of his characters in his 1852 novel Bleak House.
Since then, people have been vehemently taking sides on whether or not spontaneous human combustion is real.
What Is the First Known Case of Spontaneous Human Combustion?
There is an old tale that has been passed down for centuries through verbal tradition about a knight named Polonus Vorstius who lived in Milan in 1470.
As the story goes, the knight consumed a few too many glasses of strong wine in his home one night and proceeded to burp fire. After a while, his entire body was consumed in a fiery blaze and he died as his parents watched, terrified.
But the first recorded instance of spontaneous human combustion was in 1641 and was detailed by Danish physician Thomas Bartholin in his Historiarum Anatomicarum Rariorum, a collection of stories about strange medical anomalies.
The victim of this strange happening was, according to Bartholin, a direct descendant of the knight Vorstius. Of course, neither of the aforementioned cases can be verified in any meaningful way.
Other Alleged Cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion
Spontaneous human combustion has appeared in literature quite extensively. Herman Melville once used spontaneous combustion to get rid of one of his characters in the novel Redburn and Nikolay also dispatched one of his characters in Dead Souls in the same way.
The most famous literary example comes from Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. In the story, an untrustworthy alcoholic junk seller named Mr. Krook randomly becomes a pile of ashes and “a dark, greasy coating on the walls and ceiling.”
When questioned about the validity of spontaneous human combustion, Dickens apparently cited 30 different real-world cases to support the truthfulness of the phenomenon.
While the specific cases referenced by Dickens are unknown, there have been some other cases of this strange occurrence recorded throughout history. One of the things that many of these instances have in common is the fact that, while the victims’ bodies were burned to a crisp, the furniture and walls in the surrounding rooms appeared pretty much unscathed.
One such example comes from Jonas Dupont’s De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis and details the mystery of French innkeeper Nicole Millet. Madame Millet, a heavy drinker, allegedly burst into flames in her home one night.
Afterward, all that remained of her was her skull and a few bones from her back and lower legs. Her bed, which was made of straw, and several wooden pieces of furniture that were found near her corpse were all apparently completely untouched by the flames.
Similarly, on Christmas Eve of 1885, in the small Illinois town of Seneca, a woman by the name of Matilda Rooney apparently burst into flames out of nowhere when she was standing alone in her kitchen. The fumes from the resultant fire also ended up suffocating her husband Patrick who was in another room of the house.
A farmhand who had been with them just a few hours earlier claimed that he had not noticed anything out of the ordinary and that the Rooneys had simply been relaxing and drinking whiskey.
Similar to the other cases, the other things in the room that surrounded Matilda Rooney’s corpse all appeared completely untouched.
A much more recent example of spontaneous human combustion occurred in 2010 in Ballybane, Galway, Ireland. A man named Michael Faherty was found completely burnt with no other damage to the room other than the ceiling and floor directly above and beneath him.
His head was very close to an open fireplace, but the fire officers who investigated the scene were convinced that this had nothing to do with the cause of the fire. Some speculated that the cause of Flaherty’s death was something known as the “wick effect.”
Scientific Theories of Spontaneous Human Combustion
One of the most common theories to explain spontaneous human combustion is known as the “wick effect.” This theory states that a small external flame, such as a burning cigarette or a fireplace, lights someone’s clothing on fire.
The flames split the skin and release the fat from beneath it. Since this is the most flammable part of the body, as this subcutaneous fat soaks into the clothing, it causes the fire to grow and causes the clothing to ignite even more as well.
This effect is similar to how candle wax will soak into a candlewick once the candle has been lit. In fact, this theory has been tested with positive results on pig tissue.
Another more pseudoscientific theory was proposed by author Larry E. Arnold in his book Ablaze! in which he identifies a subatomic particle that he calls “pyrotron” that is capable of igniting the human body.
He also claimed that certain factors could increase the flammability of the human body, such as alcohol consumption and extreme stress.
Other proposed explanations of spontaneous human combustion include lightning, supernatural possession, and bacterial buildup. Of course, no one can substantiate any of these theories or even say for sure if spontaneous human combustion has ever happened.
Should You Believe In Spontaneous Human Combustion?
Obviously, you should believe whatever you believe and make your own decisions for yourself. However, as a statement of fact, it takes about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit of heat for the human body to be reduced to ashes.
It’s hard to imagine a fire caused by a cigarette ever reaching such temperatures. So, it seems highly unlikely that spontaneous human combustion is a real phenomenon.
However, it is curious that so many cases of spontaneous human combustion have been reported over the years. Because of this, it seems hard to believe that so many people would simply be making up stories. Perhaps spontaneous human combustion is real. But, for now, it’s still one of those strange things that science cannot yet explain.