Credit: Corbis Images If you've seen the 1984 rockumentary film "This Is Spinal Tap," you know that one of the drummers in the infamous rock band Spinal Tap exploded into flames during a show at a blues festival. According to bassist Nigel Tufnel, there was only "a little green globule on his drum seat.... more of a stain than a globule, actually."
Tufnel's bandmate David St. Hubbins explained that their former drummer, Peter James Bond, was not the only person to suffer such a tragic (and dubious) fiery fate: "Dozens of people spontaneously combust each year. It's just not really widely reported."
All that has changed. The mysterious phenomenon, widely known as spontaneous human combustion (SHC), has apparently claimed another victim and has been widely reported, including in The Daily Mail:
A baffled coroner has ruled that a man who burned to death in his home died as a result of spontaneous human combustion. Dr Ciaran McLoughlin, the coroner for West Galway in Ireland, said that although Michael Faherty, 76, had been found lying on his back close to a fire in an open fireplace, that blaze had NOT caused his death. He said a detailed investigation into all other possibilities had offered no other explanation, so he was delivering such a verdict for the first time in his 25 years as a coroner. While his body was totally destroyed by fire, it had not spread and the only minor damage in the sitting room was to the ceiling above him and the floor beneath him.
The idea that people can suddenly burst into flames for no apparent reason has been around for over a century; it even happened to a character in the 1853 Dickens novel "Bleak House."
HowStuffWorks: Spontaneous Combustion
Some sources claim that hundreds, or even thousands, of spontaneous combustion cases have been reported throughout history, though only about a dozen cases have been investigated. Joe Nickell, a columnist for "Skeptical Inquirer" magazine, has examined the most famous cases, including that of a woman named Mary Reeser. She was found burned to death in her small Florida apartment in 1951. He wrote,
The case, a classic of SHC, has long been known as the "cinder woman" mystery. Except for a slippered foot, Mrs. Reeser's body was largely destroyed, along with the overstuffed chair in which she had been sitting and an adjacent end table and lamp (except for the latter's metal core). The rest of the apartment suffered little damage....In fact, the floors and walls of Mrs. Reeser's apartment were of concrete. When last seen by her physician son, Mrs. Reeser had been sitting in the big chair, wearing flammable nightclothes, and smoking a cigarette-after having taken two Seconal sleeping pills and stating her intention of taking two more. The official police report concluded, "Once the body became ignited, almost complete destruction occurred from the burning of its own fatty tissues."
So what seems at first to be a mysterious phenomenon actually turns out to have a plausible explanation: A woman last seen sitting alone in a flammable chair, wearing flammable clothes, smoking a cigarette after taking a dose (perhaps a double dose) of sleeping pills.
In fact, fire deaths caused by cigarettes igniting clothing, furniture and upholstery are very common. The victim's clothes can act as a wick, drawing the body's fat to fuel the fire. Scientific experiments using animal carcasses have proven this effect.
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There are other reasons to be skeptical that random people can spontaneously combust. Not only is there no plausible medical or physiological mechanism by which a person could generate enough heat to catch fire, but there exists no film or video evidence of it ever occurring.
If it's true, as many claim, that there are hundreds or thousands of SHC cases (the Daily Mail piece claims that "a number of unexplained cases are reported each year around the world"), why isn't there any surveillance camera or cell phone footage of a pedestrian in Times Square, at a football game, or anywhere else, suddenly bursting into flames?
The New York subway system alone carries nearly five million passengers each day; everything else has happened on New York subways, including births, deaths, heart attacks and terrorist attacks - but not a single person out of billions of passenger trips has ever exploded in flames. With few exceptions, SHC cases follow a familiar pattern upon close investigation: elderly or infirm people left alone in or near flammable materials and sources of ignition.
Michael Faherty's family said that while they accepted the coroner's ruling, it did not provide them with any real answers. Faherty's case is interesting because it's the first time in decades (perhaps ever) that spontaneous human combustion has officially been ruled a cause of death. However it seems that the coroner called it SHC because he couldn't figure out what else it was. It's not uncommon for the cause of death to be unknown or undetermined if there's not enough evidence pointing to one specific cause. It's not clear why he ruled out a normal fire as the cause of death.
So put away the asbestos underwear: the best protection against a fiery death is being careful around cigarettes and open flames.