Life is, in part, terrifying because you cannot control it. Sometimes it feels like a war between monotony and fear – the odd person might be excited to go to work, but more likely they’re mildly dreading the day out of profound disinterest, or equally as like with a sense of equally profound anxiety: what if today’s the day you get laid off or fired? Perhaps you’re anxious about doing the wrong thing, or the million other little things that could go wrong in the course of a day.
What better to represent this macrocosm in the micro, really, than old the Fortean favorite, spontaneous human combustion? The idea that any of us could simply go up in flames at any moment, however rare the phenomenon might be, is terrifying and yet fascinating. The fear response is to deny its existence, of course; it was because the victim smoking, or drunk, or obese, or elderly, and simply sat too close to the fire, surely. The source of ignition must have been burned up in the fire. It’s not a legitimate phenomenon, it’s simply poor judgment or a result of the sin of lifestyle choices or it’s too rare to be true, as if rare things don’t occur, well, rarely.
But what if that’s not true? What if there was something to this phenomenon, not supernatural or demonic or otherworldly? Don’t we owe it to these people who have died terribly, reduced to virtual ashes as they sat or slept or stood, to explore this phenomenon with an open mind? To legitimize their deaths and to possibly prevent more deaths in future? We would submit that we, in fact, do.
There have been hundreds of reports of spontaneous human combustion, stretching back over centuries. The earliest of which was recorded by Thomas Bartholin in 1663, that of a woman in Paris who had burned to death on a straw bed, yet the bed itself did not ignite. One can assume there have been more cases, gone unreported because, as with UAP sightings and ghostly encounters and all manner of surprising and unusual things, no one wants to sound like they’re fabricating events for attention or money or any of the other motivations subscribed
It’s perhaps useful to start with the spontaneous combustion of things non-human. Spontaneous combustion is a widely accepted occurrence. It’s thought to occur because heat builds up in a flammable material through either the processes of oxidation (in the case of oil-soaked rags left in a can, for example; linseed oil is said to be exceptionally bad for this) or fermentation (as in damp hay bales and compost piles), and that heat that’s generated becomes a source of ignition. It was first identified in the third century of the Common Era in China, and is still “around” in the sense of there being a definite set of safety precautions taken for disposal of certain chemicals, the storage of cleaning rags.
Things change a bit when you introduce humans into the equation. Fermentation does happen within our bodies, and we do generate heat in various ways, but we’re also largely made of water and tissue. It doesn’t intuitively make sense that we might simply burst into flame once in a while. There might be more things about the human body that do not intuitively make sense than there are stars in the sky.
It was Christmas eve in 1885, and Matilda and Patrick Rooney had been enjoying a relaxing evening with good company, that of their farmhand, who left the couple in the early evening. With no living witnesses to the events we don’t know the precise details of what happened after that, but we know what was found in the house on Christmas morning: in the kitchen most of Matilda was discovered, reduced to bone and ash except, oddly, her feet. The rest of the kitchen was untouched, and there was no source of ignition found by the authorities. Certainly there was smoke, though, or perhaps fumes – Patrick was found dead elsewhere in the house, clearly dead of asphyxiation. Nothing here intuitively made sense. And there are hundreds more cases just like this one.
Not all cases are so old, lest one think that this is simply a matter of old and outdated investigation techniques. In 2010, Michael Faherty was found dead and very badly burned at the age of 76. There was a fireplace in the room he was found in, but experts found no evidence of an accelerant and no signs that the fire had spread. Nothing else was burned aside from some mild charring on the floor below and the ceiling above where the man had died. After investigation, the coroner Dr Ciaran McLoughlin concluded that the cause was spontaneous combustion.
We don’t know how this works, though there are a few things victims tend to have in common: they’re frequently elderly and infirm, obese, or have consumed alcohol. They’re usually though not always alone when it occurs. There have been a number of proposed mechanisms for this phenomenon, some more likely than others. The build up of methane gas in our bodies through digestion and ignited by static electricity has been suggested, though largely discredited by the paucity of cases in bovines, the largest living producer of methane by means of digestion. Larry E. Arnold, an engineer by trade, has hypothesized the existence of the “pyrotron,” a subatomic particle he suggests is responsible for this phenomenon, but such a particle has never been discovered and the evidence for such is scarce. Other explanations include imbalanced humors, too much alcohol in the blood, and of course the old standbys of liars and incompetent authorities.
How the surrounding environment remains undamaged isn’t so much of a mystery as the source of ignition. There exists something called “the wick effect” – where the victim’s clothes become saturated with melted body fat, which serves as a wick and fuel, much like an oil lamp or a candle, and keeps the flame upright and bright and contained, and fire burns up rather than out. In some cases the victim’s lower legs and feet remain largely unburned. This has been replicated repeatedly in experimentation, and its reality is not a question. There have been highly flammable objects in the victim’s environment in some cases that have not caught fire, but the “wick effect” accounts for that. The mystery, then, is in the cause of the fires.
Charles Fort, collector of reports of anomalous phenomena and namesake for the term “Forteana” for the strange things that occur in this world, has many examples in his works of what he terms “called fires.” He records that in the winter of 1905, a young woman named Emma Piggott was employed as a housemaid in the family home of John Henry Sanders. On the evening of March 4, a fire broke out in her bedroom while she was away from the house. Her bedroom did not have a fireplace, and the firefighters called to the scene found no source of ignition and no evidence to indicate arson. The firefighters left, and were called back virtually immediately. There was another fire in a different bedroom, which again seemed to have no clear cause and no evidence of arson. A number of items from the house were noticed missing after the fire and were subsequently found in the maid’s home. Emma Piggott was promptly accused of both the theft and having set the fires to cover up her crimes. She had, in fact, stolen from the family, but insisted that she had not set the fire. Her legal representation in two different courts established that she had not been in the area at the time of the fires, and Miss Piggott was eventually convicted of the thefts, but not the arson. No cause for the fires was ever found.
In October of 1889, again reported by Mr. Fort, a bed on a farmstead in Findlay, Ohio, spontaneously caught fire, reportedly being reduced to mere ashes. Nothing else in the room had been touched by the fire, and the floor beneath the bed wasn’t even warm. The next day at roughly the same time in a different part of the farmhouse, a wooden clothing chest caught fire, harming nothing else including some highly flammable materials nearby. The day after that? Another bed, again with no obvious cause and nothing else harmed.
As a final example, in March of 1926 a bunch of fires broke out in different parts of Closes Hall. Fires started from the inaccessible area directly beneath the roof, where the firefighters were obliged to hack up the woodwork to get at the fire. Official explanation involved sparks from the kitchen, but the fires erupted in various areas of the hall, some of which were not near the kitchens.
Fort classes these incidents as wild talents. A wild talent is a primal ability buried deep in the brain and unable to be controlled or developed. The idea that perhaps sometimes the “thing” that catches fire under these uncontrolled vehement thoughts lashing out in the world is… well, people.
Setting aside some form of subconscious pyrokinesis, which is certainly not an established scientific fact, Brian J Ford, science communicator and respected academic, believes he has discovered the entirely natural mechanism behind spontaneous human combustion: ketosis. It is his belief that the levels of acetone that build up in the body while in a ketogenic state could lead to spontaneous combustion. Causes for this include adhering to a strict ketogenic diet, or diabetes or alcoholism. Acetone is a type of Ketone, which is produced by the body in a state called ketosis. Ford points out that acetone is both highly inflammable and “an excellent fat solvent,” and he believes that, with the addition of oxygen, which is rich in a person’s blood, and under the correct circumstances this could make for an explosive mix. Unfortunately for the victim, that is a literal statement, and perhaps this is why the majority of cases of Spontaneous human combustion occur when the subject is alone; there are no other sources to take up precious oxygen.
There can be no doubt that these unfortunate people burned to death. The fact of the thing is established, whether or not we believe the fire that caused the deaths to be truly spontaneous. Something happened to them, and until we take this problem seriously, there will always be charred corpses in pristine sitting rooms and kitchens, gone without explanation and with no way of knowing how to prevent it. Surely, it’s worth another look at this strange and frankly terrifying phenomenon.
Bicevskis, Rob. “Spontaneous Combustion.” Wildwood Survival. Retrieved 6 April 2022.
Ford, Brian J. “New Theory: Spontaneous Human Combustion.” Brian J Ford. Retrieved 4 April 2022.
Fort, Charles. The Complete Books of Charles Fort. Dover Publications, 1974.
“Is Spontaneous Human Combustion Real?” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved 1 April 2022.
“Is Spontaneous Human Combustion Real?” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 6 February 2013. Retrieved 2 April 2022.
Reville, William. “Explanation Overdue for Combustion of Humans.” The Irish Times, The Irish Times, 20 October 2011. Retrieved 3 April 2022.
Schneider, Ashton. “Spontaneous Human Combustion.” The Psychology of Extraordinary Beliefs, 18 April 2018. Retrieved 11 April 2022.
ABOUT EM HILKER
Obsessed with all things dark and weird from a young age, E. Madelyne Hilker has used every opportunity to steep herself in mysterious lore, and is working on her first novel Hallow Earth. She works as a new media producer by day and crochets like a madwoman by night. Maddy lives in small town Ontario, Canada with her family and a large collection of houseplants.