Posted on: June 12, 2016

  • In: Uncategorized

Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) has to be one of the most terrifying of all Unexplained phenomena.  The idea that a human being can suddenly explode into flames with no warning is a pretty unsettling thought.   It has been recorded for hundreds of years now.  The first recorded incident of SHC was in Paris in 1673 when a woman burst into flames as she lay sleeping.  The straw mattress on which she reposed was reputedly left completely unscathed.

Victims since then have ranged from a 4-month-old baby to the elderly.   Witnesses have reported heat as strong as a crematorium, and yet the the victims seem entirely oblivious to the pain they must be in.  Sometimes all that is left of a person are their feet, or a skull, surrounded by piles of ashes.  Some people have also survived attacks.  A Canadian woman woke up after a short sleep to find burn marks on her thighs and abdomen.  I heard a tale many years ago of someone returning from a walk, and being shocked to find tiny blue flames shooting out of her legs.  Undertakers, when embalming corpses, have noticed that burn marks can appear on the flesh of well-nourished bodies.

There have been many attempts to scientifically study this phenomenon, and it has been theorised that many of the victims were heavy drinkers.  Some may simply have been smokers who fell asleep whilst having a cigarette.  In December 2010 a coroner reported that an elderly man, Michael Faherty, who had suffered from diabetes and hypertension, had died as a result of SHC at his home in Co Galway, Ireland.  Science writer, Benjamin Radford, pointed out that there was an open fire close to where Mr Faherty was found, which was the most likely cause.

There is one case that I have often seen referred to as a prime example of SHC, in which a young woman, Maybelle Andrews, burnt to death whilst at a dance here in England back in the 1930s.  On closer examination I found out that the poor girl actually died as a result of someone flicking a discarded cigarette onto her party frock, which ignited as a result.  She died a few days later in hospital from her burns.  A tragic accident for sure, but nothing Unexplained.  And yet it still occasionally gets cited as one of the most famous cases of SHC on record.

One of the most famous cases on record is that of 67-year-old Mary Reeser, who burnt to death in her apartment in 1951.  The most likely theory was that Mary had taken some sleeping pills, and then decided to have a cigarette.  She had fallen asleep whilst smoking, and had accidentally set light to her nightdress.

And yet SHC still has a grip on the public imagination.  Charles Dickens even included it in his masterpiece Bleak House, with the bizarre death of Krook the rag-and-bone man.  It resulted in him being lambasted by scientists and skeptics for including such a sensationalist scene.  Dickens riposted by recounting the death of an Italian countess in 1731.  The lady had bathed in a mixture of brandy and camphor.  When her maid found her afterwards, all that was left was a pair of legs standing near her bed!  It all sounds perfectly extraordinary, but Dickens – who was a curious mix of hard-headed journalist and Victorian romantic –  seemed to believe it because it was recounted by a priest.

Krook’s death in Bleak House only served to cement the idea of Spontaneous Human Combustion in the public consciousness.   Since then there have been reports of people spontaneously combusting whilst sitting in their living-rooms, in a class-room, walking along a street, even an Edwardian housemaid reputedly had flames shooting out of her back whilst she was sweeping a floor.   And then in November 2015 came the curious case of a lady who spontaneously combusted whilst sitting on a park bench in Germany.

The victim was said to be in her 40s. She was from Mauritius originally, but had lived in Flensburg, near Hamburg, for many years, and had family there.   The woman seemed strangely serene as she went up in flames, and didn’t say a word.  A passerby frantically beat out the flames with his jacket, and the victim was taken to hospital.  Initial reports that she had died were quickly dismissed, and the last I heard was that she had been taken to a specialist burns unit in Lubeck.  I have been unable to find any account of what has happened to her since.

One witness reported seeing two men fleeing the scene, but this was discounted by public prosecutor Otto Gosch, who said “we have no evidence that points to a third party fault”.   The lack of reaction on the part of the woman has raised the idea that she committed suicide.  Sighting fire to oneself does sound a pretty horrific way of ending it all, and yet there have been numerous cases of it around the world.  According to Wikipedia over 100 Tibetan monks have committed self-immolation (suicide as a form of sacrifice) since 2009. Self-immolation as a protest has also occurred in the Middle East and North Africa since the Arab Spring of 2011.   It also happened during the Vietnam War.

The lack of reaction from victims of SHC has been noted in the past, and the woman on the park-bench is just the latest example.  Was it suicide, self-immolation, a bizarre accident, or spontaneous human combustion?  Whichever it was, it’s a pretty extraordinary case.



© Sarah Hapgood and, 2011-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sarah Hapgood and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Sarah’s fiction on Kindle

Cover of Sarah Hapgood's 
Transylvanian Sky and other stories

A second collection of my short stories, Transylvanian Sky and other stories is now available for Amazon's Kindle, price £1.99. Also available on other Amazon sites.

Cover of Sarah Hapgood's 
B-Road Incident and other stories

A collection of 21 of my short stories, B-Road Incident and other stories is now available for Amazon's Kindle, price £1.15. Also available on other Amazon sites.

Sarah’s tweets

%d bloggers like this: