In this episode, we dig into the history of Spontaneous Human Combustion and take a look at several historical cases dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, along with the theories of the times. We then jump forward and have a look at two modern cases, that of Mary Reeser in Florida, and Michael Faherty from Galway, Ireland.
Philosophical transactions – Rolli – Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society London. You can find Rollis extract if you scroll down. Also has tons of other amusing and quite bizarre intellectual musings from the 18th Century.
Spontaneous human combustion – Randles, Hough – An interesting read on Spontaneous human combustion.
Amazon – Eerie Florida: Chilling Tales from the Panhandle to the Keys – A fun and interesting book that has many different cases from Florida, has a short but well researched chapter on Mary Reeser.
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In 1951, Mary Reeser sat down in a chair, feeling a deep sleep weighing heavy on her eyes from the sleeping tablets she had taken, she begun to nod off, cosy and warm. She was found the next morning, her body a pile of ashes. Her left foot all that remained. She had been consumed by fire, though the room she was in showed little sign of fire damage, a stack of newspapers remained untouched by flame just feet away from the ashes on the ground.
This is dark histories, where the facts are worse than fiction.
During the reign of the monarch Queen Bona Sforza in the 15th Century, a Polish knight was enjoying an evening of frivolity. He poured himself a glass of fine brandy, promptly drained his glass, and took a seat, pouring himself a second. The brandy was strong, it burned as the alcohol slipped down his throat, Gosh did it burn. As smoothly as it had gone down, he felt the burn in his throat spread back up. A burst of fire erupted from his mouth and his body burst into flames.
The tale of the polish Knight is often retold and often misinterpreted. Despite these inaccuracies, however, it stands as one of the earliest known documents that speak of the phenomena known as Spontaneous Human Combustion. The original Latin text, written by Thomas Bartholin and published in 1654, is poorly written and is undoubtedly the source of the problems. The Knight, often said to have been Italian, was, in fact, Polish and was unnamed in the Original text, the often cited name of Aldolphus Vorstius refers to the man who told Bartholin of the events and was a well known Botanist and Scholar of the time. He himself heard the story from his father, Aelius Everardus Vorstius. So, this third-hand account, poorly written and poorly translated, has throughout the years stood as the shaky foundation of a phenomenon that has held much controversy for over 400 years and claimed the lives of over 200 people.
Spontaneous Human Combustion is still a murky and controversial subject, feared by some, casually explained away by others. The phenomena itself refers to a seemingly rare event whereby a human, without any apparent source of ignition, spontaneously ignites from within, in most cases killing the victim and often leaving behind nothing but a smouldering pile of ash. In early cases, there was a great deal of mystery upon the subject. Not least because the thought of a human body suddenly bursting into flames is a perplexing event in itself even by today’s standards, but because the average layperson in the earliest days of reported incidents had little idea of how combustion worked in the first place. Early theories put forward to explain the phenomena ranged from undiscovered elements, as was the theory of Johann Becher and his student, George Stahl in 1677 when they attempted to unshroud the mystery using a hypothetical element that would latterly be named Phlogiston. Needless to say, they were way off the mark, but the basic theory was that all combustible matter would build up this “phlogiston” and release it upon ignition, whereby plant matter would absorb it from the air, hence why wood, grass and hay etc. all burn so well. The logical step for them was that this spontaneous human combustion was simply a build-up of excess phlogiston causing an ignition. This concept of everyone walking around as ticking time-bombs is plainly viewed as incorrect now, but such was the times.
Another theory that gained traction in the 18th Century was the puritanical concept which can be likened, literally, with the modern proverbial phrase “you are what you eat”. This theory gained some ground and proposed that heavy drinkers were prone to bursting into flames due to the amount of highly flammable alcohol they were consuming. Worthy of note is that during the Victorian era, many were devoutly Christian and still held to the belief that alcohol represented a grave evil and therefore the theory was much easier to accept by the majority than it might be assumed.
When all else failed, the last common theory floated during the earliest cases of spontaneous human combustion were just people being simply unlucky, suffering at the hands of freak accidents, as was initially concluded in the case of Countess de Bandi Cesanate.
The case of Countess de Bandi Cesante is another historical case of Spontaneous Human Combustion which occurred in 1731. This time in Verona, Italy and this time documented to a far greater degree than that of the Polish Knight.
On the evening of April 3rd, the Countess was observed by her maid as being of “normal good health”, however after suppertime, she had retired to her bed, complaining of feeling ‘dull and heavy’. After talking with the maid for several hours until she fell asleep, she was left alone in her room and nothing unremarkable happened for the rest of the night. In the morning, however, her mistress had not risen at her usual hour and so she took it upon herself to rouse her, fearing that perhaps she might be ill. Instead of any sickness, however, she found upon opening the curtains of the bedchamber, that the Countess had suffered a much worse fate. The scene she found was described in reports as such:
“Four feet distance from the bed there was a heap of ashes, two legs untouched, from the foot to the knee with their stockings on: between them was the ladys head: whose brains, half of the back part of the skull, and the whole chin, were burnt to ashes; among which was found three fingers, blackened. All the rest was ashes, which had this peculiar quality, that they left in the hand when taken up, a stinking moisture.”
“The air in the room was also observed cumbered with soot floating in it; a small oil lamp on the floor was covered with ashes, but no oil in it. Two candlesticks on the table stood upright; the cotton was left in both, but the tallow was gone and vanished. Somewhat of moisture was about the feet of the candlesticks. The bed received no damage; the blankets and sheets were only raised on one side, as when a person rises up from it, or goes in;”
Not known as a drinker, it was concluded that she had got up from the bed during the night and been struck by “silent lightening” that had crept through a crack in the window or down the fireplace, though this was later amended and her copious amounts of perfume was finally fingered as the culprit.
Perhaps more interestingly, was not the conclusion of what caused the fire, but what had not caused the fire. In “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London,” published in 1745, Mr Paul Rolli wrote of the case:
“Such an effect was not produced by the light of the oil-lamp, or of any candles; because common fire, even in a pile, does not consume a body to such a degree and would have besides spread itself to the goods of the chamber, more combustible than a human body.”
Rolli then goes on to theorise that flammable gases within the human body, along with alcohol could combine to become a potent fuel that could either, with the aid of an outside source, as in the case of the silent lightning, or even without, could spontaneously combust and quickly incinerate the body in a flash. This theory tidily answered many of the questions, such as why the limbs of such cases were often left unburnt and also why nearby flammable objects were left untouched; The fuel had simply burnt out with an intense and sharp burst of flame.
In 1800, Pierre Aimi Lair published what would become the definitive criteria for Spontaneous human combustion to take place. The study was titled”On the combustion of the Human Body, produced by the long and immoderate use of Spirituous Liquors”. His eight Criteria were that:
All victims had made “immoderate use of spirituous liquors.”
All were elderly or advanced in age.
All were ignited by an outside source of fire.
The extremities were left behind un-burned.
Strangely, that water sometimes had the effect of fanning the fire rather than extinguishing it.
The fires confined their damage to their victims.
The fires reduced bodies to ashes and a stinking, penetrating soot.
and finally, that all victims were women.
Needless to say, there were many inconsistencies with Lairs study and he admitted as much himself. Nevertheless, alcohol again remained forefront and confirmed what most people already believed, and so it remained as an accepted truth.
Public interest in Spontaneous human combustion was greatly expanded in 1853, when, needing to kill off a character in his book “Bleak House”, Charles Dickens modelled the victim’s death on none other than the earlier case of Countess di Bandi Cesante.
As scientific theory advanced and the discussion of spontaneous human combustion fell out of the spotlight of medical discussion, public interest waned. It wouldn’t be until 1951 when a now infamous case burst into the headlines, baffling officials and the public alike. That of the case of Mary Reeser.
In 1951, Mary Reeser was a plump, 67-year-old widow who lived alone in her apartment in the sleepy city of St. Petersburg, Florida. On the night of July 1st, 1951, her son, Dr Richard Reeser was paying her a visit. She apparently suffered from mild depression and had difficulty sleeping and as was becoming usual, she told him of how she had taken two sleeping pills and would later take two more if she still couldn’t sleep. At 9:00 pm, Dr Reeser said goodbye to his mother, along with the landlady, Mrs Pansy Carpenter. They later confirmed that Mary had been wearing slippers, a nightgown and robe and had left her sitting in the chair, quite well.
At 5:00 am, Mrs Carpenter awoke to the smell of smoke and thought it to be coming from an overheating water pump, went out to the garage and turned it off, before heading back to bed.
She awoke again at 8:00 am when there was knocking at her door. A courier from the Western Union was delivering a telegram addressed to Mrs Reeser that needed signing for, so after doing so and straightening herself up, Mrs Carpenter went to Mary’s room to deliver the correspondence. When there was no answer, she begun to feel as if something might be wrong and tried to open the door, upon grabbing the door handle, however, she found the metal to be hot. Slightly panicking at this point, she rushed back to her own apartment and called the police. Upon their arrival, Mrs Carpenter took the police to Mary’s door, where they promptly forced it open, only to be met with a gust of heat, as if opening an oven. Inside they found a pile of ashes in the corner, thought at the time to be the burnt remains of Mary’s chair and a lamp. The table clock had stopped at 4:20 and the plastic power socket it was plugged into had melted, as had all other sockets that were placed higher up the walls. The mirror had cracked and there were candles on the fireplace that had melted, leaving only their unburnt wicks in a lump of wax. There was a thin ring of soot around the upper parts of the walls, but the rest of the apartment was left relatively untouched by the apparent fire, including a stack of newspapers, piled up just feet from the ashes. It wasn’t until the fire service showed up that the horrible fate of Mary Reeser was discovered. Among the pile of ashes, they found Marys left leg, still wearing the slipper, part of her skull and some vertebrae nestled amongst the metal springs of the chair. Bill Bennet, one of the firefighters said of the scene:
“I’ll never forget it, the sheets on the studio bed were still white.”
Mary Reeser had weighed 170 pounds at the time of her death, her remains had been reduced to just 10 pounds of ash.
On July 7th, the police chief for St. Petersburg enlisted the help of the FBI on the case. He sent a box of evidence which included glass fragments found in the ashes, six small objects “thought to be teeth”, a section of the carpet and the slipper from Marys left foot. He also included a note which read:
“We request any information or theories that could explain how a human body could be so destroyed and the fire confined to such a small area and so little damage done to the structure of the building and the furniture in the room not even scorched or damaged by smoke. This fire is too puzzling for the small-town force to handle.”
At first, the FBI were puzzled by the case, upon consulting with local funeral homes, they were told that a body would take upwards of 4-5 hours to burn to ash in temperatures upward of 2500-3500 degrees Fahrenheit. After several months, the FBI concluded their report on the case, stating that it was their belief that Mary Reeser had fallen asleep in her chair whilst smoking a cigarette, which had dropped onto her clothing, catching her alight and burning her to death. It read:
“Once the body became ignited almost complete destruction occurred from its own fatty tissues,” the FBI reported, adding that the absence of any scorching or adjacent damage was due to the fact that “heat liberated by the burning body has a tendency to rise and form a layer of hot air which never came in contact with the furnishings on the lower level.”
“Once the body starts to burn, there is enough fat and other inflammable substances to permit varying amounts of destruction to take place. Sometimes this destruction by burning will proceed to a degree which results in almost complete combustion of the body.”
Professor of Physical Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr Wilton Krogman happened to be visiting the area of St’ Petersburg at the time of the case. Krogman had investigated over 30 cases of fire death as a consultant to the FBI and so it was he became involved with the case of Mary Reeser. Although he never stated his opinions publicly at the time, he wrote in 1961:
“Never have I seen a body so completely consumed by heat. This is contrary to normal experience, and I regard it as the most amazing thing I have ever seen. As I review it, the short hairs on my neck bristle with vague fear. Were I living in the Middle Ages, I’d mutter something about black magic.”
Another modern case of Spontaneous human combustion can be found in the reports on the death of Michael Faherty, a 76-year-old man living in Clearview Park, Ballybane, Galway in Ireland.
On the night of December 22nd, 2010, at 3:00 am, Tom Mannion was awoken abruptly by his neighbour’s fire alarm screaming into the night. He looked out of his window and noticed thick acrid smoke billowing out from the house of Michael Faherty next door. He rushed over and begun to bang on the door, shouting out to Tom, but received no response. He called the fire service who sped to the scene and extinguished the flames.
With the fire out, Gerard O’Callaghan of the divisional crime scene investigation unit inspected the scene inside. He found that there had been a fire in a small sitting room which had centred on Michael Faherty, whose body was almost entirely destroyed by the fire. His remains were lying on his back, with his head close to an open fireplace. There were black soot patches both underneath the remains and on the ceiling above. Aside from this, however, there were no other signs of damage and a mobile phone, razor and a box of matches on the mantelpiece were completely untouched.
The police found no evidence of forced entry, robbery or violence at the scene and promptly ruled out a murder investigation. Speaking at the inquest, Gerard O’Callaghan stated:
“I took samples of the fire debris and forwarded them to the forensic science laboratory at Garda headquarters in Dublin to establish the presence of accelerants (eg. petrol, diesel, paraffin oil) – there were none found – and I found no evidence to suggest any foul play had occurred.”
The state pathologist, Professor Grace Callagy, noted in her post-mortem findings that Faherty had Type 2 diabetes and hypertension, but concluded he had not died from heart failure. She also stated that many of his internal organs and some bones were missing, apparently burnt away in the fire, meaning that the fire had to be at least 1000 degrees, and that cause of death was therefore incredibly difficult to determine.
Although a strange case, the news of Michael Faherty’s death became a national talking point when, at the inquest, Keiran McLoughlin, the west Galway coroner stated:
“This fire was thoroughly investigated by the most experienced fire experts in the country, and I’m left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation.”
Time has moved on and with it so has our understanding of biology, combustion and chemistry. The earlier theories put forward by Paul Rolli et al. are now largely baulked at. In their place, however, sit no shortage of strange and bizarre suppositions. One early theory which is still often repeated is that of static electricity building up within the body. As is ball lightning, whilst moved on slightly from the crafty “silent lightening” considered in the case of The Countess, it is still a fringe theory concerning its involvement in spontaneous human combustion. There are many other theories ranging from paranormal phenomena such as connections with poltergeist activity to UFOs, as well as many that feel it’s simply unexplained. On the sceptical side, it is often noted that victims are old, infirm or suffer from a difficulty with mobility and are often found near a source of ignition, suggesting common accidental death. There is one theory, however, which remains as the commonly offered explanation for many, namely, the Wick Effect.
In 1999, a paper titled “Combustion of animal fat and its implications for the consumption of human bodies in fires.” was published in the forensic science journal “Science and Justice”. It detailed the experiments carried out by John DeHaan and S J Campell. The experiments burnt pigs wrapped in cotton and polyester shirts to simulate that of a human body. It laid the groundwork for what would become known widely as The Wick Effect and a theory which has been used to officially explain all of the previous cases of spontaneous human combustion in this episode.
The wick Effect states that a human body, when met with a low flame is kept alight by the melting of its own fats melting into the surrounding clothes, essentially turning a body into an “inside-out” candle. The fat acts as a source of fuel and this prolonged burning state is what both destroys the body and contains the damage to either the body alone or its nearby surrounding area. In their experiments, DeHaan and Campell were able to witness pigs bodies burning up to a period of four hours before they extinguished them. There are discrepancies in the experiments however to the results seen in cases of purported Spontaneous human combustion. The pig in the experiments had had their internal organs removed, making it far easier to burn through than a body which would have the organs intact. The pig’s body was also burnt with the aid of gasoline, a far more potent source of ignition than a candle, ember, oil lamp or cigarette, all of which are the usual culprits in cases of spontaneous human combustion. Furthermore, after such prolonged burning, the pig’s carcass burnt through the floor entirely, a significantly more pronounced amount of damage than that witnessed at the scenes previously stated.
Dr Wilton Krogman himself stated in his 1961 piece on Mary Reeser:
“I find it hard to believe that a human body, once ignited, will literally consume itself – burn itself out, as does a candle wick.”
Spontaneous human combustion remains a controversial topic. On one end of the spectrum, we have people adamant that all mystery is solved and there is nothing unexplained about such deaths. On the other end, we see just the opposite, but equally as adamant, that there are too many questions left unanswered and too much speculation passed off as evidence. In the middle, we can say that of true certainty is that these deaths have happened and at very best can only be placed aside as unusual. Despite their grim details, fascination and speculation remain. Brian Dunning, author of many books related to scientific scepticism suggests a new title for spontaneous human combustion, that of simply “Unsolved deaths by fire”.
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