In this present-day know-it-all scientific age, a woman can erupt into flame in the full view of witnesses and her body be ravaged with flames while sitting on newspapers in a chair and neither the papers nor the chair suffer any fire damage, and the facts will be denied in a coroner's court because such things cannot be.That comment came from page 185 of The Entrancing Flame by John E. Heymer (Little, Brown and Company, 1996). I had finally got around to reading it, and it took me by surprise. For those unfamiliar with the concept, spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is a phenomenon assumed to have taken place because the victims are burned to ashes without any obvious source of fire, and with the damage limited to the body and the seat to which it was attached, and everything else in the room being untouched - including the victim's legs, which are presumed to have been out of the circle of combustion. But this was the first time I was aware that the phenomenon had been actually witnessed.
As a forensically trained police scene of crime officer in Wales, Mr Heymer had attended many grisly scenes of death. He became interested in SHC when, in 1980, he was called to the scene of one such event, and saw the refusal of the establishment to consider the evidence. As a result, he does not, like most authors, recount the "classic cases", but concentrates on those he himself had investigated, or those in which he had read the official police and coroner's reports.
Now, the official explanation of SHC is the "wick effect", whereby a fire started on a person's clothing burns his flesh, causing the fat to melt and act as a wick for the whole body. Although it is superficially plausible, Heymer shows that the scientist who originated the theory also pointed out how difficult it was to achieve in practice. Indeed, the few cases where it has been proven to have occurred all bear the following features:
- The victim was certainly dead when the burning commenced.
- There was a definite, identifiable source of ignition. In one case, the victim suffered a heart attack, and her hair fell into an open fire when she collapsed forward. In another, a murderer attempted to burn the body by using a pint of starter fluid.
- The bones were reduced to a grey ash, but were often incompletely consumed.
- Once the fire started, the clothes burned normally, independently of the body.
- The surroundings were well ventilated.
- The victim was alive when the fire started, as revealed by the carbon monoxide discolouration of the remaining flesh.
- No obvious source of fire could be found.
- The bones were reduced to a white ash, indicating a temperature higher than regular combustion, and higher than that of a crematorium.
- The extremities of the legs, outside the zone of combustion, were unconsumed, and there was a distinct line where the clothing was uncharred.
- Although this is probably not essential to the phenomenon, in the cases investigated by the author, the room was more or less hermetically sealed, such that a normal fire would soon splutter out once the original oxygen had been consumed.
Jack Angel. Strictly speaking, nobody actually saw this fire start either. What happened was that Jack Angel, a travelling salesman, parked his mobile home in the carpark of a motel, went to sleep, and didn't wake up for another four days. When he did, he found:
[h]is right hand was completely charred black. He had a hole in his chest which he described as 'this big explosion in my chest'. He was also burned between his groin, on both his legs and one ankle and up and down his back in spots.Incredibly, he felt no pain. Instead, staggering like a drunk and only half conscious of his injuries, he showered, dressed, and went into the cocktail lounge of the motel. He collapsed and was rushed to hospital. About midnight, he woke up in excruciating pain. A doctor told him he had been burned internally, but not externally. They had to amputate his right hand and part of his forearm.
Amazingly, the bed sheets in his mobile home revealed no sign of burning. And there was absolutely nothing which could have explained the fire.
Wilfred Gowthorpe. Aged 71 and described as "basically a lonely man", Mr Gowthorpe had been decorating the house of Mike and Sandra Stubbins. Mrs Stubbins left the kitchen for about half an hour, only to return and find the paste bucket and brush in the sink, the cold water tap running, and Mr Gowthorpe in a corner, apparently in a trance. Thinking he had suffered a stroke, she called a doctor, and her husband. The doctor immediately noticed that his left hand and arm were burned up to the elbow, and immediately had him rushed to hospital. Two fingers were charred so severely that they required amputation.
The surprising thing was that his thumb was all right. Also, his left sleeve was still buttoned up to the wrist. Also, although it was a cold day, Mr Gowthorpe was soaked in sweat, and his clothes were also wet, except for the left sleeve of both coat and shirt. There was not a single thing in the kitchen which could have been responsible. Not only that, but up to the time he died from a heart attack eighteen months later, the victim failed to remember a single thing about the accident.
From these two cases, as well as the fact that, in cases where the victims had died, they had not moved from their seats, Mr Heymer deduces that the victims were all in some sort of "trance" or altered state of consciousness, and feeling no pain. Furthermore, in all the cases he was able to investigate, the victims were lonely, or at least socially isolated, so he believes their psychological state is somehow implicated.
Not only that, but Heymer himself had attended a scene where a pilot had been burned in a crash, and he knows that cooking human flesh smells like succulent roast pork. But Mrs Stubbins reported an indescribably foul odour at the time. More of this later.
By now, a sceptic will say that, although the phenomena are difficult to explain, so far no-one has actually witnessed a person burst into flame. That brings us to the final case, which inspired the quote at the top of this post: Jeannie Saffin. Her relatives asked Heymer to look into it, because they got no joy from the coroner. He read all the official reports, and interviewed all the witnesses.
Due to a bungled forceps delivery, she never progressed beyond a mental age of five or six. Now aged 61, and unable to even understand the concept of death, she had spent the previous year moping and pining over the loss of her mother, to whom she had been almost pathologically attached. On that fateful day in 1982, as usual, she was seated sadly in the kitchen, some sheets of newspaper between her and the chair, her hands clasped despondently on her lap. The day was hot and humid, and the only flame present was the pilot light on the grill. Her aged father was writing something at the kitchen table, while her brother-in-law, Donald Carroll, was upstairs decorating.
Suddenly, she burst into flames. Calling to Donald for assistance, her father got her to the sink and started throwing cups of water at her, suffering burns to his own hands in the process. She was apparently in some sort of trance, and impervious to pain, but was sufficiently alert to come with him to the sink. Donald rushed down, and saw flames issuing from her abdomen and mouth, "like a dragon". Although partially deaf from military service, he could hear the roaring sound of the flames issuing from her mouth. Quickly, he grabbed a large saucepan full of water and threw it over her, extinguishing the flames. He estimated that the whole process had lasted just a minute. Also, there was in indescribably foul odour, the same as with Wilf Gowthorpe.
The newspaper on which she had been sitting was untouched. There was no clothing ash on the floor. Her red nylon cardigan was melting, but not in flames.
She was rushed to hospital, where she died eight days later, suffering from burns over 30 to 40 percent of her body. There were full thickness burns over her face and both surfaces of the hands, meaning that the skin had been destroyed to expose the underlying fat. Further burns, both full thickness and deep dermal were present on the neck, shoulders, chest, left arm, thighs and left buttock, with superficial patches on the abdomen. And what sort of external fire could burn the face down to the fat without touching the hair?
In Heymer's opinion, this is all consistent with the centres of the combustion being the two parts of the body which were uncovered: her face and hands. The burns on the midriff resulted from her hands being held clasped on her lap. He also thought that she had been hyperventilating, thus alternately sucking in and breathing out, "like a dragon", the flames from her face.
The coroner ruled that death was by misadventure ie accident, but didn't say what the accident was. He told the relatives that it couldn't be spontaneous human combustion, because such a thing doesn't happen.
There is one other point to note. I have quoted only those cases in which witnesses were involved. Mr Heymer himself managed to track down quite a few others in his own bailiwick. This therefore raises the question: just how common is the phenomenon? He quotes Ron Westrum's finding that many quite common events can go unnoticed if people fail to recognize and publicise them. His example is the battered child syndrome. Originally, just a few doctors recorded individual cases, but because people initially refused to believe that significantly large numbers of parents were going so far as to break their children's bones, no-one took any notice. Now authorities see it all the time - perhaps more often than its presence actually warrants. I could add another example. As I pointed out before, one in ten people claim to have encountered a ghost. It is unlikely that all their experiences are genuine but, in any case, you won't find them reported in the newspapers. However, ghosts are part of our cultural heritage, so you will hear them discussed among friends. But spontaneous human combustion never gets reported by the press, nor do friends sit down and chat about it. So how common is it?
Mr Heymer discovered that the Home Office Pathologist, Dr G. S. Andrews, dealt with six cases per year in his own area, in which the abdominal area was totally destroyed. From this he deduced an average of 200 cases per year in the UK alone.
It makes you think.
P.S. Astute readers may have noticed I have now completed a new blog, Riverina Girl. You may wish to check it out.