Stories of SHC: Spontaneous Human Combustion

In the British Medical Journal in 1964, a doctor wrote a letter in response to an article titled entitled ‘Unusual Explosions During Electrosurgery’. The doctor wanted to report an unusual occurrence that he had treated years before which he felt was related to the unusual explosions.

The doctor wrote that he had been referred a patient from another doctor who was a parson at a church. This parson had been blowing out the altar candles one day when he realized to his alarm that his breath was "taking fire" each time he blew out a candle; hence the reason for seeking a doctor's help.

Doctors discovered the parson had a duodenal ulcer in the first section of his small intestine causing pyloric stenosis. Pyloric stenosis is a narrowing of the pylorus, or the lower part of the stomach, leading to the small intestine. This condition prevents food from moving smoothly out of the stomach into his intestines for further digestion. This in turn caused a buildup of gases in his stomach and throat. So, when he was softly blowing out the candles, he was projecting fumes which caused the flare ups.

Doctors performed a partial gastrectomy to remove the ulcer, which was successful and eliminated the pyloric stenosis. Soon after, the parson was cited as being "able to carry out his duties in a more decorous fashion." A very short account of this matter was released to news services and caught the attention of author Vincent Gaddis, who included it in his 1967 book ‘Mysterious Fires and Lights’. He suspected such a medical condition could be related to the strange fire deaths commonly attributed to spontaneous human combustion.

In October of 1980, Peter Jones was sitting on the side of his bed with his wife Barbara next to him when smoke started to billow from his arms. They searched around frantically, trying to find what was burning, but they could find nothing. There was no flame, no heat, and no odor: just smoke coming from Mr. Jones' arms. And then, it stopped just as suddenly as it began.

Later that same day, Mr. Jones was in his car and stopped at a railroad crossing when it happened again. With both hands on the steering wheel, and both sleeves rolled up, pale blue-gray smoke seemingly emerged from his arms, filling the car's interior. This time Mr. Jones noticed the smoke had a 'metallic' taste to it. And, once again, it just stopped suddenly. Mr. Jones didn't tell his wife about this second occurrence until months after.

It is believed by several researchers that Mr. Jones experienced a form of spontaneous human combustion in which the victim will exhibit a mysterious smoke from the body, with no associated fire and without catching flame or causing blisters. Many spontaneous human combustion victims have been alcoholics and Mrs. Jones did tell researchers that her husband had been a heavy drinker, though on that particular day he had not been drinking.

In September 1985, a young woman was walking home when she noticed an occasional flash of bright electric blue light. She quickly realized the flashes were coming from her body, and that she was lighting up the driveway with every couple of steps. As she walked into the garden, she began to laugh at the experience.

The woman continued walking around in circles, calling to her mother to come and see what was happening. The mother and brother screamed out to her, asking if she had ever heard of spontaneous combustion. The mother yelled at her to take her shoes off, and still worried about the possibility of harm rushed her daughter into a bath. The mother had figured that the water would ground the woman to the earth, preventing any additional issues. Actual fires never sparked and the young woman was unharmed. It was treated more as an amusing incident than a frightening one.

One theory is that the woman was overly intoxicated, as is rumored in certain versions of the story. Many victims of Spontaneous Human Combustion are alcoholic. There are some claims that alcoholics can achieve a level of alcohol in the blood which can make it on fire. But this theory is considered to be unfounded because ethanol can be burned only if the concentration is greater than 23%, and even a concentration of 1% in the blood is lethal.

Another theory is that the type of clothing the victim is wearing may have triggered the onset of static electricity. But this theory is also refuted, since although the electrical voltage generated is high, the stored energy is very low, typically less than 1 joule. It's not enough to create a fire, but in this incident, there is a possibility of static discharge being visible.

In the middle of an otherwise normal day of classes in January of 1835, Mr. H. returned to his home, took off his coat and kindled a fire. The mathematics professor reportedly spent 10 minutes or more afterwards conducting meteorological observations around the house. Then, Mr. H. was suddenly subjected to a sharp pain in his upper left leg. It began as a strong sensation as if produced by the pulling of a hair, growing more and more severe until a small flame burst on his leg.

He quickly pressed his hand to the spot, but the sensation suddenly increased, until it felt like the continued sting of a wasp or hornet. Mr. H. then began to slap his leg, and the pain continued to increase. He saw a light flame, only about the size of a dime in diameter, but the color of the flame was like that of mercury. He placed both hands firmly on the spot and held them there, thinking he could try to suffocate the flames. The flames did extinguish and the pain slowly lowered in intensity but he still felt a burning sensation for some time afterwards. He tried to pull his pants away from his leg to keep them from contacting the skin below.

Mr. H. inspected his injuries, finding a 3″ x 3/4″ burn wound on his leg. His trousers, which were composed of a mixture of silk and wool had a burn hole in them as well, the exact same size and shape of his wound. Strangely however they were not scorched beyond this limit in the slightest, as the combustion appearing to have stopped abruptly. His undergarments, which rested between his skin and the trousers, were completely burn and scotch free.

One theory is that the professor had merely gotten a large piece of burning coal on his leg, and that even once it had fallen off, the bringing sensation would have continued as his body reacted to the sub-dermal damage. However, Mr. H. was very meticulous with his meteorological observations, which took a good amount of time between when he was tending to the fire and when he had the incident. His undergarments were also left completely undamaged, where as they should have been singed, burned, or completely melted away from his leg to create the resulting injuries. The characterization of the flames also does not align with burning fabric or hot coals.

Another theory for the spontaneous combustion was that of his overall acidity. He reported to have felt a common discomfort for overactive acidity in his stomach, a situation that he had resolved to take medicine for when he returned home but had not done so. Some researchers try to point the possible cause to significant chemical fluctuations in the body, internally creating acetone which is highly flammable, and could therefore lead to a spontaneous combustion.