For 300 years there have reportedly been over 200 cited cases of a mysterious, rare, phenomenon that kills people. One of these is where the body is said to “ignite” by itself and burn its victims alive, yet mostly leaves their surroundings alone.
In 1966 retired doctor, John Irving Bentley, was wished goodnight by friends one night in December as they left his home in Coudersport, Pennsylvania. The next morning a meter reader let himself into the house and discovered Dr. Bentleys cremated remains in an upstairs bathroom. All that remained was half of his right leg with the slipper still on, burnt off at the knee. The rest of his body had been reduced to ashes which were found in the basement below, a hole, about a foot square, had been burnt in the bathroom floor. His walking aid, a nearby bathtub and the floor underneath the ashes were all unmarked.
Fifteen years earlier, in Florida, a landlady went to deliver a telegram to an elderly tenant by the name of Mary Reeser. Finding Ms. Reeser’s metal doorknob to be hot to the touch, she called police. What they found inside were Ms. Reeser’s ashes, among the remains of a chair in which she had been sitting. Only part of her left foot wearing a slipper! and her backbone remained. Her skull had shrunken to “the size of a teacup”. The room in which she burned in, however, showed little evidence of the event.
These are two cases of believed Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC).
SHC is a phenomenon that has baffled forensic experts, scientists and paranormal investigators for years. It is said that the fire originates from within the human body. Such cases often have same strange occurrences, which are:
- Usually only the body and clothing are found burnt, with nearby furniture and items largely untouched and usually damage is found on the ceilings above the cremated remains.
- Victim is alone and appears to not have struggled.
- In many cases, only a limb is found intact and uncharred – most times a leg or foot. In some cases the skull has also shrunk.
Another victims ashes.
Many theories and hypotheses have been put forward to explain the cause, some natural and some of a paranormal or supernatural origin. A two year study in 1984, by two scientists showed that in most cases the victims were elderly and had mobility issues, were in most cases alcoholics and were at the time of their deaths near plausible external sources of ignition, such as candles, lamps, fireplaces etc. It is known that Bentley smoked a pipe, however it was found on a stand by a bed in the next room.
A proven phenomenon is the Wick Effect, which many believe to be behind the causes of these deaths. The theory holds that an external source ignites the body and the clothed human body acts like a candle, with human fat being the energy source inside and the wick (the clothing of the victim) outside. However, why does the fire stop with only the human body and not affect its nearby surroundings?
In nearly all of these cases a fire has not been seen, only remains found after the fact. A supernatural or paranormal idea of ball lightning, which in itself is a mysterious and often debated phenomenon, causing the deaths has also been provided, although little evidence supports this.
However, no external ignition source was present on January 8th, 1985, when Jacqueline Fitzsimons, a 17 year old student, suddenly burst into flames while talking to fellow classmates in a corridor in Cheshire, England. After complaining of feeling unwell and of a “burning sensation” in her back, she burst into flames and while many ripped her now burning clothes off of her, her hair and body ignited all over. She was rushed to hospital where it was found that 18% of her body had burnt away.
She died 15 days later in ICU. Several eyewitnesses interviewed said they were nowhere near anyone smoking.