Spontaneous Human Combustion


On July 2nd 1951 remains were found of a 67 year old widower named Mary Reeser. Her burnt smouldering remains were found by her Neighbor and some house painters. She had been sitting in an easy chair when the incident happened. Her left foot still wearing a slipper remained intact and only the corner of the room and the chair she was sitting in had been burnt. Firemen, police and pathologists examined Mrs. Reeser's remains and also found her liver which was fused to a lump of vertebrae and her skull which had been shrunk to the size of a baseball by the unusually intense heat. Firemen mop up Mrs Reeser's Remains
LEFT: Firemen mop up Mrs. Reeser's remains

The the walls of the apartment were covered with a greasy substance, plastic switches had melted along with two candles which the wicks had been left unburnt. There was only a small circular burn area which encompassed the remains of Mrs. Reeser and her chair. For such a cremation experts say that a temperature of 2500 degrees is necessary. A cigarette accidently dropped whilst asleep would never of caused such heat. The true cause of the burning death of Mrs. Reeser is still unknown. She is the most famous case of Spontaneous Human Combustion.

Spontaneous Human Combustion is a phenomenon where a living person suddenly bursts into flames for no apparent reason. The first reported case was thought to have been in 1763. A Frenchman named Jonas Dupont published a collection of Spontaneous Human Combustion cases. The belief in SHC continued on well into the 1800's, Charles Dickens used SHC in his novel "Bleak House" to kill off a character. It was generally believed in the 1800's that SHC was caused by alcoholism. They believed that the accumulation of alcohol in the body tissues would dramatically increase the combustibility of the body. It was also thought that the body metabolized alcohol to produce hydrogen and other inflammable gases which were then stored in the body tissues. A spark produced by the body's own electricity would then ignite the body. However as more knowledge of the metabolism of the body was discovered this theory was soon dismissed as they discovered that you would die of alcoholic poisoning before you would get to the stage of being saturated with alcohol.The public interest in SHC lost all it's appeal until 1951 when the Reeser case became public knowledge.


The following facts are common to all SHC cases

  1. Eighty percent of the victims are female

  2. Most of the victims were overweight and/or alcoholics

  3. The body is very badly burned, but the room the body was found in is pretty much intact except for a fine layer of soot

  4. A yellow, foul smelling oil is usually surrounding the body

  5. The torso, including the chest, abdomen and hips tend to be totally consumed, sparing portions of the extremities and the head - the clothing can also be intact

  6. The victim was always on their own - no shouts or screams could ever be heard

  7. The victim had usually been drinking heavily prior to the death.


a victim of Human Combustion

There are quite a few reported cases of SHC, I've included the more interesting ones here - if you'd like more information on the other cases I suggest you go to the Anomalies site.

October 1938
Maybelle Andrews was with her boyfriend dancing at a nightclub. Suddenly flames erupted from her back, chest and shoulders. Her boyfriend was severely burned trying to put the flames out. He said that at the time there were no other flames in the room anywhere and that they had come from Maybelle herself. Maybelle died of her injuries on the way to hospital

January 31st, 1959
Jack Larber who was a 72 year old patient at the Laguna Honda Home in San Francisco had his clothing catch fire a few minutes after being fed. His attendant was out of the room at the time it happened but attempted to put out the fire when returning back into the room. Mr. Larber died of 3rd degree burns on February 2nd 1959. No explanation was found for the fire - Mr Larber was a non-smoker.

December, 1959
An autoworker by the name of Billy Peterson was found dead in the front seat of his car in Pontiac, Michigan. At first it appeared that Peterson had attempted suicide for the exhaust pipe had been bent to lead into the car's front seat. However Peterson's body had third-degree burns on his back, legs and arms, his flesh was severely burnt but neither his clothing or the front seat were damaged. It was also noted that hairs on the charred portions of the body were not even singed. On the death certificate the cause was noted as carbon monoxide poisoning but the burns were ignored

December 1966
92 year old Dr. Joh Irving Bentley was last seen alive on the evening of December 4th, 1966 by friends visiting to say goodnight at about 9.00pm. The following morning Mr. Gosnell, a meter reader let himself into Mr Bentley's house to go to the basement to check the meter. Mr Gosnell had permission to enter Mr. Bentley's house because Mr Bentley had limited mobility and could only move about with the help of a walker. Once in the basement Mr Gosnell could smell a strange smell and then could see a light blue smoke. Worried, he went upstairs to investigate. Mr. Bentley's bedroom was filled with smoke and in the bathroom there lay the charred remains of Mr. Bentley. All that was left of the old man was the lower half of his right leg with his slipper still on it. The rubber stoppers on his walker which lay beside his remains were still intact and the bathtub was hardly scorched. Gosnell ran for help. It was first thought that Mr. Bentley set himself on fire with his pipe, but it was soon discovered that his pipe was still on it's stand by the bed in his bedroom. The coroner noted his death was caused by asphyxiation and 90% burning of the body.

Remains of Dr. Bentley
remains of Dr. Bentley

January 6th, 1980
Blackwood, Ebbw Vales, Wales - the police and forensic officers discovered a mans body burnt beyond recognition in his living room. The armchair that he was sitting in had hardly been damaged along with some nearby plastic objects. The fire that had killed the man had been so intense that it left a coating of vaporized flesh on the ceiling

October 1980
An airwoman by the name of Jenna Winchester burst into flames whilst sitting in a car next to a friend in Florida. Her friend saw yellow flames coming from Jenna and heard her scream "Get me out of here!" and saw her trying to beat out the flames with her bare hands. The car crashed into a telephone pole. Jenna survived the experience with 20% of her body covered in burns

24th March, 1997
Co Kerry, Irish Republic. 76 year old John O'Connor was found dead in his living room at Gortaleen by the community nurse who regularly visited him. Mr O'Connors charred remains were in a chair positioned some distance from his hearth. Only his head and upper torso along with his feet remained unburnt. There was little smoke damage to the room or furniture. The Local priest who attended the scene described it as "if somebody had poured petrol into his lap".


Excerpt from Santa Monica News

Obtained from IllusionWorks

Article by Al Seckel

Spontaneous Human Combustion:
No Longer a Burning Issue A recent two-year investigation by Dr. Joe Nickell, a private detective and Dr. John Fisher, a forensic analyst with the crime laboratory of the Orange County Sheriff's Office in Orland, Florida revealed even more significant correlations behind the thirty most significant spontaneous human combustion cases.

Nickell and Fisher found that in those instances where the destruction of the body was relatively minimal, the only significant fuel source seems to have been the individual's clothes, but where the destruction was considerable, additional fuel source i.e. chair stuffing, wooden flooring, floor covering, and so on augmented the combustion. Such materials under the body appear also to have helped retain melted fat that flowed from the body and then volatilized and burned, destroying more of the body and yielding still more liquefied fat to continue the burning process.

In the cases that Nickell and Fisher researched they always found plausible sources of ignition - proximate candles, cigarettes, lamps, fireplaces, etc. This sort of evidence would seem to demonstrate an external rather than an internal source of ignition.

The 92-year-old pipe-smoking Dr. Bentley frequently dropped burning ashes. This was evident from the many burns found on his bedroom rug. Evidently he tried to make his way into the bathroom with his walker in a futile attempt to extinguish his burning robe. His robe was found smoldering in the bathtub.

In the case of Mrs. Reeser: She was last seen sitting in an overstuffed chair wearing a nightgown and housecoat and was smoking a cigarette. In addition, she had told her son that she had taken two sleeping pills.

The poor woman probably fell asleep in her chair and the burning ashes fell on her chair and ignited, but they only smoldered, which is not unusual. Smoldering heat can consume entire pieces of furniture without any flames breaking out.

Nickell and Fisher also found that the fire did spread in Mrs Reeser's apartment. An adjacent end table and lamp were destroyed and a ceiling beam had to be extinguished when firemen arrived. The floor was untouched because it was made of concrete.

Nickell and Fisher found that the proponents of spontaneous human combustion often omitted such important details in their published accounts. After all, you can make a mystery out of anything by leaving out half the facts."

remains of an english woman
Burnt remains of a woman in London

bone border

New Edition, Unexplained! - Jerome Clarke

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