A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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reader comments: spontaneous human combustion

18 Dec 2000 
I've been reading your article and the readers remarks on Spontaneous Human Combustion. While I don't believe any of this "fire from within" stuff, I do believe human bodies should burn well and quickly in an atmosphere of pure (or highly enriched) oxygen. Extra oxygen reduces the ignition point of materials, and lets them burn at a much higher temperature and speed. In a chemistry lecture, a cigarette was dropped into a glass of liquid oxygen. It burnt within about 2 seconds, brightly illuminating the room. If human fat burns in a normal atmosphere, it should be easily combustible in pure oxygen, maybe the little heat generated by friction with clothes might do to ignite it. (The Apollo 1 mission failed due to a fire in the Command Module, which contained a 100% oxygen atmosphere. The inside of the Module burnt to a crisp (and so did the astronauts), see here).

reply: There may have been one or two poor souls whose last cigarette was enjoyed while they were hooked up to an oxygen tank, but as far as I know most of the alleged cases of SHC have occurred in places with an ordinary amount of oxygen.

Now why does the fire suddenly stop and leave i.e. the feet or furniture untouched? The most likely answer is that the oxygen runs out. A room of 40 m^3 (5x4x2 m) contains about 40 kg of oxygen (in a pure oxygen atmosphere, in normal atmosphere about 1/5th), which burns less than 1/2 the amount of organic material (the resultant gases are H2O and C02, in both the oxygen makes up for >2/3 of the mass) so after burning about 20 kg of organic material the oxygen should be spent. 2/3 of a human body are water, I don't know how much of the rest are combustible organic material but I think about 20 kg is not too far from plausible - in which case the oxygen in our example room would do to just burn the body, if doors and windows are closed so that no extra oxygen can get inside. The question here is: are there signs of a higher than normal oxygen concentration in the rooms where supposed SHC has occurred?

Ciao, Alex

reply: Lack of oxygen is as good an explanation as any other I've heard as to why these fires don't consume everything in sight.

07 Jan 2000 
I am writing in regards to your article on spontaneous human combustion (SHC).You say "While no one has ever witnessed SHC, several deaths involving fire have been attributed to SHC by investigators and storytellers." You really should investigate your stories just a bit more before you go putting this trash on here. That's what a professional would do anyways. Here are only a few quotes from other articles from a book I read written by someone who had done about 10 years of research into this matter and ALL of them include people who witnessed the whole thing.

reply: You really should be a bit more skeptical of what you read. It does sound impressive when someone says that they have been "researching" a book or topic for 10, 20 or 30 years. However, such claims should be taken with a grain of salt. It is not how long one spends doing something that matters so much as what one does. Eric von Däniken (just to mention one such creature) has studied alien landings in ancient times for many years but that does not mean he has done anything worthwhile.

One should be especially skeptical when reading books on the marvelous and the mysterious. Authors know what sells and know that there is little chance their work will be scrutinized because most serious scholars and investigators consider such stuff unworthy of their time and attention. The editors of such stuff don't care whether it is true or false; what matters is, will it sell. As long as there is a large section of the public who are gullible and desirous of such stuff, it will continue to be popular.

THE SUDDEN COMBUSTION- of Mrs Mary Carpenter who perished while vacationing on a cabin off Norfolk England on July 29,1938 took place in full view of her husband and children. She "was engulfed in in flames and reduced to a charred corpse" in minutes. No one else was burned and the boat was undamaged.

A FORMER ACTRESS- Mrs Olga Worth Stephens age 75 of Dalls, Texas was sitting in a parked car in October 1964 when witness saw her burst into flames. She was fatally burned before anyone could come to her rescue. Firemen said that the automobile was not damaged and contained nothing that could have started the fire.

ON AN OCTOBER EVENING- in the 1950, 19 year old Maybelle Andrew's was dancing with her boyfriend Bill Clifford, in a London discotheque suddenly she burst into flames .The fire blazed from her back and chest, enveloping her head and igniting her hair, her boyfriend and some of the bystanders tried to beat out the flames but they could not save her, she died on the way to the hospital. According to Clifford's testimony: I saw no one smoking on the dance floor, there were no candles on the tables and I did not see her dress catch fire from anything. I know it sounds incredible, but it appeared to me that the flames burst outwards, as if they originated within her body.

Really, you should be embarrassed of your ignorance.


reply: Perhaps. But I think you should be more embarrassed by your gullibility.

7 Jan 2000

I read about spontaneous human combustion many years ago from a book entitled: FIRE FROM HEAVEN. I have often theorized one possible source, that is: MICROWAVES. perhaps directed on a target by a radar antenna or other method, and maybe, for the sake of government defense. That or some high voltage or high power radio waves. It's just a thought. Thanks for the time to let me add this comment.

reply: The house as a microwave oven with the smoldering body as the meat is a very unlikely scenario. Many of these alleged cases of SHC go back centuries and are not likely due to government experiments or high power lines. 

Maybe aliens are taking pot shots at people with new weapons.

02 Jan 2000 
I read your article on spontaneous human combustion and I was just e-mailing you not to criticize you but to make a point. In the case of Beatrice Ocki of Bolingbrook Illinois the woman's feet were not burnt and it appeared to me that she was wearing nylons (it looked [like it, but] I don't know). Anyway, how come her feet were not burnt and how come the rest of the room was not burnt or the rest of the house for that matter? I just think it is pretty bizarre that something like that could happen and from the looks of things, but I will created [sic] you this that the body fat could burn and if it was a cigarette but I mean the rest of the room would have caught on fire and her legs would have burnt to a crisp. Well like I said I am not here to criticize you but I am just e-mailing you just to make a point. Thank you for your time and understanding.

Timothy O'Reilly

reply: I don't know why her feet were not burned or even if they were not burned. Maybe there was not enough oxygen left in the room to keep the fire going; maybe there was not enough combustible material in her body to keep the fire going. 

I don't know why the rest of the house did not burn. Maybe the fire was not hot enough to spread, or the room was too cold.

What I do know is that the probability is greater that people whose bodies are partially burned in house fires are more likely to have been ignited by their own carelessness or by foul play than by spontaneously bursting into flames.

Why is it assumed by believers in SHC that fire would burn differently if caused by SHC than by accident or foul play? Whether fire begins inside a body or outside it, once it reaches the outside shouldn't it burn like any other fire? In other words, partially burned bodies and houses that are not burned are not signs whether a fire started inside or outside the body.

11 Jan 2000 
A couple of quick answers to your "I don't knows" in response to Tim Reilly 1/2/00.

1. I've seen those pictures of the unburned feet in a couple of different places. Real easy answer: Fire burns up, not out. Light a long wooden match and hold it parallel to the ground. It will burn out before it reaches your fingers almost every time.

2. The rest of the house rarely burns in "SHC" incidents. The reason is that the wick effect causes very high temperature smoldering with short flames. This was shown with a simple demonstration done on a skeptical (gasp!) documentary on, I believe, The Discovery Channel (Could've been TLC, but I doubt it). They wrapped a pig carcass in a blanket (haha) and lit it with a lighter (if i remember correctly; could've been a match or something similar). The carcass burned slowly and surely with short flames. The articles in the test room used to simulate a normal dwelling (TV, some furniture) were damaged only by the heat of the fire. That is to say that the wood furniture was unharmed but the plastic parts of the television were melted. It was such a simple test I'm (not) surprised that the proponents of SHC didn't think of it earlier.
Steve Young

4 Jan 1997
Good Day, and a Hot New Year to you. Found you thru INFOSEEK, and read your amusing citation on spon-comb.

Regrettably it needs to be updated. Significantly, we humbly suggest. Yes, "the physical possibilities of spontaneous human combustion are remote." Doesn't mean it doesn't happen tho. We've spent 22 years arriving at that conclusion, the results of which appear in our book, ABLAZE! The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion (Evans, 1995). 500+ pages of truly bizarre fires, emphasizing SHC. As in reported by and attested to by fire officials, medical personnel, etc.; eyewitnesses; survivors of partial self-ignition; and good ol' common sense and best evidence.

We'd urge you to get a copy .... Forgive the merciless self-plug, but if you want to know much more about SHC than your dictionary offers, this was the way to inform you.
Larry E Arnold

reply: Twenty-two years of research on spontaneous human combustion! Now that's what I call dedication. And I thought the topic was worth maybe 22 hours of devotion. Let's hope your book is ten times more interesting than either my entry on the subject or the subject itself. In the meantime, what's your next project? human spontaneous involuntary invisibility?

27 May 1997
Your conclusions are generally quite true; however, your arguments against SHC could be a good bit stronger if you consulted with an expert on combustion. For example, to say that fire burns at a temperature above 200ºF is an understatement. I guess you are thinking about the boiling point of water. The temperature of a flame depends on many variables, including the rate of combustion and the kind of fuel, and combustion temperatures often exceed 2000ºF. Conditions for ignition vary considerably also. Paper in air will burst into flame at about 452ºF, and some volatile fluids will flash at even lower temperatures, but you are quite right that human flesh is not readily combustible.
Duane Pontius

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