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Spontaneous Human Combustion - S.H.C.

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Sometime in 1951, an elderly woman by the name of Mary Reeser sat down on an overstuffed chair, and mysteriously burst into flames. All that was left was one slippered foot, a pile of ashes, and a burnt chair and adjacent end table. Strangely enough, the rest of the room was unmolested.

A familiar story, maybe?

The Spontaneous Human Combustion Phenomenon.
Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is defined as the process of a human body bursting into flames without outside interference, as a result of incredible heat supposedly generated by an internal chemical reaction. If this phenomenon is not already in itself strange, its mysterious nature is enhanced by the fact that it is only the victim that seems to combust; nearby furnishings are usually untouched, or the damage is contained within a very small radius.

The History of Spontaneous Human Combustion.
There have been many stories written in the course of literary history concerning the mysterious - and even horrifying - combustion of corpses. There are those who assert that the first documentation of this phenomena appeared in the Bible1; however, their accuracy may be disputed as these accounts are much too old and based on second-hand knowledge to be considered reliable evidence.

As far back as medieval literature there have been numerous stories concerning the spontaneous combustion of corpses, including the combustion of a knight named Polonus Vorstius2 sometime during the reign of Queen Bona Sforza in Milan, but it was not until the 17th Century that a story was written about a German man who'd drunk far too much brandy for his own good and burst into flames. However, the first reliable documentation of SHC dates back to 1763 when Frenchman Jonas Dupont compiled a casebook of SHC cases in a book called De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis, having been compelled by the Nicole Millet case, which involved a man who was acquitted of the murder of his wife when the court ruled that the unfortunate woman's death had been due to spontaneous combustion.

Nicole Millet was the wife of the landlord of the Lion d'Or in Rheims, who was supposedly found burnt to death in an unburnt chair in February, 1725 (on Whit Monday). Her husband was accused of her murder and arrested; however, a young surgeon named Nicholas le Cat managed to convince the court that her death was caused by SHC. The court ultimately ruled her death as 'by a visitation of God.' However, the investigative author Joe Nickell stated in his book, Secrets of the Supernatural, that Millet's body was not actually found in the chair, but that a portion of her head, several vertebrae and portions of her lower extremities were found on the kitchen floor, the surrounding ground of which had also been burnt. Three accounts were cited: Theodric and John Becks's Elements of Medical Jurisprudence (1835), George Henry Lewes's Spontaneous Combustion from Blackwoods Edinburgh Magazine No. 89 (April 1861) and Thomas Stevenson's Principals and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence (1883). Strangely, there was no mention of Nicholas le Cat.

Many hacks continued in this vein in the 1800s, dramatising these mysterious deaths in 'penny dreadfuls', the 19th Century equivalent of comic books. Of course these were mass works of gruesome fiction intended to deliciously terrify the reader; however, two well-known writers incorporated the SHC phenomenon into their works, which caused the audience to sit up. The first of these was the novel Jacob Faithful by Captain Marryat, in which the main character's mother is reduced to 'a sort of unctuous pitchey cinder' – the details of which Marryat had apparently nicked from an article in an 1832 edition of the Times of London.

The other author was – surprise surprise – Charles Dickens, who in 1852 used SHC as a device to eliminate the character Krook in his novel Bleak House. Because Krook was a heavy alcoholic, and the belief of the time was that SHC was attributed to excessive drinking, Bleak House caused quite a stir in the literary world. The philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes debunked Dickens's novel as impossible and being mired (propagating, even!) in uneducated superstition. Dickens countered this unflattering review in the preface of the novel's second edition, stating that the story was not written without prior research, that he knew of about 30 cases. He reckoned that Krook's death was modelled after the death of the Countess Cornelia de Bandi Cesenate3. Interestingly, the only other case that was cited in detail was the Nicole Millet account.

Types of Spontaneous Human Combustion.
Spontaneous Human Combustion cases may be divided into two categories: fatal and non-fatal, the former category being more common.

Fatal SHC.
Most of these so-called SHC cases are fatal. The victim is usually found reduced to a pile of ashes except for the odd limb or portion of the head/body. Only objects associated with the body are burnt; the fire apparently does not spread to the surroundings. A greasy soot deposit is found on the walls and ceiling, usually stopping within four feet from the floor; and only objects above this line are damaged by the heat. Most of the time the victim is alone, and nobody realises that something has gone wrong until they stumble upon the victim's charred corpse or ashes; however, in a small fraction of fatal SHC cases, there are testimonies by witnesses that they had indeed seen the victim go up in flames, and that there were no possible sources of ignition; the flames had mysteriously broken out on the victim's skin. These cases, however, are poorly documented, and there is little to substantiate the claims of these witnesses.

Occasionally, 'selective burning' takes place, whereby objects associated with the victim that should have by rights combusted as well (eg, the victim's clothing) mysteriously remain undamaged. Again, poor documentation makes these cases hard to investigate.

Non-fatal SHC.
A small percentage of SHC cases involve a victim who survives the mysterious phenomenon. They most commonly involve the sudden eruption of mysterious flames or smoke on the victim's skin when there is supposedly no identifiable external source of fire. A small proportion of these fall into the category of 'mysterious burns' - the victim develops unexplained burn marks on their skin (which commonly begin with small discomforts that grow into large painful burn marks), for which there is no known external cause.

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