Well, in 1984 the Journal of the International Association of Arson Investigators published a lengthy two-part report that found possible prosaic explanations for the best known cases of that bizarre, gruesome, and seemingly inexplicable phenomenon known as spontaneous human combustion. In other words, the best evidence now suggests that you can't spontaneously ignite.
Through the years many medical experts and forensic pathologists have dismissed spontaneous human combustion as an impossibility, but there has always remained enough documented cases and evidence for a smouldering controversy.
There exist about two dozen modern cases where a claim involving spontaneous human combustion has been made.
The best-documented modern case is that of Mrs. Mary Reeser, a 67-year-old widow who died in 1951. Her remains were discovered in her bedroom within a blackened circle on the floor about four feet in diameter. This case was unusual because the fire had no apparent cause and a pile of newspapers less than a foot away bore no signs of scorching.
There are several peculiarities to the alleged cases of spontaneous human combustion. First, the torso, even including the bones, were often reduced to a greasy ash, while the extremities, particularly the legs, were often spared. Secondly, the victims were elderly, obese, and alcoholic.
The fact that almost all of the victims were alcoholic led some early theorists, including members of the temperance movement, to suggest that alcohol-impregnated tissues were rendered highly combustible.
This theory, however, was disputed by scientists who pointed out that a person would die of alcohol poisoning long before imbibing enough alcohol to have any effect on the body's flammability.
A more plausible explanation, however, suggests that the victims were so impaired by alcohol that they were unable or very slow to react when they started to burn.
A recent two-year investigation by Dr. Joe Nickell, a private detective and Dr. John Fisher, a forensic analyst with the crime laboratory of the Orange County Sheriff's Office in Orlando, Florida revealed even more significant correlations behind the thirty most significant spontaneous human combustion cases.
Nickell and Fisher found that in those instances where the destruction of the body was relatively minimal, the only significant fuel source seems to have been the individual's clothes, but where the destruction was considerable, additional fuel sources - chair stuffing, wooden flooring, floor covering, and so on augmented the combustion. Such materials under the body appear also to have helped retain melted fat that flowed from the body and then volatilized and burned, destroying more of the body and yielding still more liquefied fat to continue the burning process.
In the cases that Nickell and Fisher researched they always found plausible sources of ignition - proximate candles, cigarettes, lamps, fireplaces, etc. This sort of evidence would seem to demonstrate an external rather than an internal source of ignition.
The 92-year-old pipe-smoking Dr. Bentley frequently dropped burning ashes. This was evident from the many burns found on his bedroom rug. Evidently he tried to make his way into the bathroom with his walker in a futile attempt to extinguish his burning robe. His robe was found smoldering in the bathtub.
Or in the case of the aforementioned Mrs Reeser: She was last seen sitting in an overstuffed chair wearing a nightgown and housecoat and was smoking a cigarette. In addition, she had told her son that she had taken two sleeping pills.
The poor woman probably fell asleep in her chair and the burning ashes fell on her chair and ignited, but they only smoldered, which is not unusual. Smoldering heat can consume entire pieces of furniture without any flames breaking out.
Nickell and Fisher also found that the fire did spread in Mrs Reeser's apartment. An adjacent end table and lamp were destroyed and a ceiling beam had to be extinguished when firemen arrived. The floor was untouched because it was made of concrete.
Nickell and Fisher found that the proponents of spontaneous human combustion often omitted such important details in their published accounts. After all, you can make a mystery out of anything by leaving out half the facts.
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