On December 22, 2010, 76-year-old Michael Faherty was found dead in his home in Galway, Ireland. His body had been badly burned.
Investigators found no accelerants near the body or signs of foul play, and ruled out a nearby fireplace at the scene. Thus, forensic experts had only Faherty’s scorched body and the fire damage done to the ceiling above and floor beneath it in attempting to explain what happened to the elderly man.
After much consideration, a coroner ruled the cause of Faherty’s death to be spontaneous human combustion, a decision which generated its fair share of controversy. Many accept spontaneous human combustion an event as fascinating as it is fearful, but still wonder: Is it actually possible?
What Is Spontaneous Human Combustion?
Spontaneous human combustion has its roots, medically speaking, in the 18th century. Paul Rolli, a fellow of London’s Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy in continuous existence, coined the term in a 1744 article entitled Philosophical Transactions, and described it as “a process in which a human body allegedly catches fire as a result of heat generated by internal chemical activity, but without evidence of an external source of ignition.”
Although 200 cases have been reported worldwide, most within the scientific community regard it as more of a phenomenon than a medically recognized cause of death.
The first case was reported in late 1400s Milan, after a knight named Polonus Vorstius allegedly burst into flames in front of his own parents. Like many cases, alcohol was at play, as Vorstius was said to have belched fire after consuming a few glasses of particularly strong wine.
The Countess Cornelia Zangari de Bandi of Cesena suffered a similar fate in the summer of 1745. De Bandi went to bed early, and the next morning the countess’ chambermaid found her in a pile of ashes. Only her partially-burned head and stocking-adorned legs remained. Although de Bandi had two candles in the room, the wicks were untouched and intact.
Additional combustion events would transpire over the next few hundred years, all the way from Pakistan to Florida. Experts couldn’t explain the deaths any other way, and several similarities stuck out among them.
First, the fire generally contained itself to the person and their immediate surroundings. Furthermore, it was not uncommon to find burns and smoke damage just above and below the victim’s body. Finally, the torso was typically reduced to ash, leaving only the extremities in tact.
Even if nothing else can explain these deaths beyond spontaneous combustion, believing it happens leaves scientists with even more questions, many of which can be answered by looking at the trends noticed in nearly all of these cases.
A Few Possible Explanations
Despite investigators’ failure to successfully locate a different possible cause of death, the scientific community is not convinced that spontaneous human combustion is anything more than an accident, and for a few specific reasons.
First, the limitation of damage to the areas surrounding the victim is not actually as uncommon as it seems. Many fires are self-limiting, and die out naturally upon running out of fuel. And because fires tend to burn upward as opposed to outward, the sight of a badly burned body amid an otherwise untouched room may seem strange to say the least, but certainly wouldn’t be considered abnormal.
Another theory is known as the wick effect, which is based on the fact that a candle relies on the flammable wax material to keep its wick burning. If applied to humans, the wick effect essentially says that humans can be an inside-out candle-type object. Clothing or hair is the wick and body fat is the flammable substance, and the candle — the human — eventually burns itself out.
Finally, that many of those who have succumbed to such a macabre ending were elderly, alone, and seated or sleeping near an ignition source makes it hard to say definitively that their deaths were not the result of an accident.
Many victims have been discovered near an open fireplace or with a lit cigarette nearby, and a good number were last seen drinking alcohol, a highly flammable substance. Under regular circumstances, the human body, which is made up of 60-70 percent water, simply does not possess the elements needed to combust — high heat and flammable material. But the combination of alcohol and an ignition source creates a scenario that includes both necessary agents to create and sustain a fire.
However, because nearly every reported case of spontaneous human combustion occurred without witnesses, it’s hard to conclude whether these deaths were simply the result of a drunken or sleepy accident. In fact, of the 200 reported cases, only a dozen or so have been throughly investigated, which could possibly provide some room for further speculation.
For now, the truth of spontaneous human combustion remains up in smoke.