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Oct. 13, 2020

Ep. 5: Spontaneous Human Combustion

On episode 5, Carrie takes Sean through centuries of history to dissect one of the weirdest phenomena of all time—spontaneous human combustion, a.k.a when people burst into random flame, seemingly for no apparent reason. Through a few selected tales,...

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On episode 5, Carrie takes Sean through centuries of history to dissect one of the weirdest phenomena of all time—spontaneous human combustion, a.k.a when people burst into random flame, seemingly for no apparent reason.

Through a few selected tales, Carrie tries to figure out what could cause a person to burst into such white-hot flame that they’re completely incinerated aside from the odd foot, hand, or in one particularly bizarre case…a shrunken skull.

Is it ball lightning? A mysterious medical anomaly? Or is there something more sinister at play….like very, very complicated MURDER??
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Have you ever heard of spontaneous human combustion?
Yeah, that’s about it. Spontaneous human combustion- not to be confused with spontaneous combustion, which doesn’t involve people- is the concept of a living (or recently deceased) human body combusting into flame without an apparent external source of ignition.

You may be thinking--I’m already worried about COVID, global warming, and murder hornets...now I have to worry about suddenly bursting into flames? Maybe, maybe not. Some believe that it’s a genuine unexplainable phenomenon; others feel most, and perhaps all, cases of spontaneous human combustion (which I’ll be referring to from here on out as “SHC”) involve overlooked external sources of ignition. What are your knee-jerk thoughts on this?

Let’s dive into a few stories of purported “genuine” SHC and see if you don’t change your mind.

First off, let’s start with the history of the phenomena. The concept of spontaneous human combustion was first proposed in 1746 by Paul Rolli (from the original Italian study by the Veronese historian Giuseppe Bianchini) in an article published in the Philosophical Transactions concerning the mysterious death of Countess Cornelia Zangheri Bandi, notable in history as being the grandmother of future Pope Pius VI. I actually went and looked at the article thanks to Google Books, and man, I didn’t know the story of someone literally exploding into flame could be so boring. Or at least boringly written. But to sum it up so our audience doesn’t have to experience the visual Ambien of Rolli’s text, the mystery began when the Countess quote, “was all day as well as she used to be, but at night was observed, when at supper, dull and heavy.” I mean, yeah. I get dull and heavy after a long day, too. 

So she retired to bed, but her maid noticed in the morning that she hadn’t woken up at her usual hour, and went to check on her. The maid could not have possibly been paid enough to deal with what she discovered next, which was quote, “Four feet distance from the bed there was a heap of ashes, two legs untouched, from the foot to the knee with their stockings on, between them was the lady’s head, whole brains, half of the back part of the skull, and the whole chin were burnt to ashes, amongst which were found three fingers blackened. All the rest was ashes which had this particular quality that they left in the hand a greasy and stinking moisture.” Love a greasy stinking moisture first thing in the morning. Remember this weird moisture and the intact legs--that’ll come up again later. 

Rolli went on to say that the air in the room had soot in it, and there was a small oil lamp on the floor covered with ashes but which had no oil actually in it. There was some moisture at the bottom of two candlesticks which, it seems, weren’t burned down to the wick but were missing their tallow. The soot and moisture had penetrated all the surrounding furniture and walls, to the point where in the nearby pantry there was a piece of bread that was also found covered with the greasy soot. They did what old assholes used to do with poison and such back in the day, and tried to feed the sooty bread to some dogs- ew- but the dogs refused to eat it. Keep in mind, our dog has literally tried to eat his own barf multiple times, but these dogs were like “nope, that weird bread is beyond the pale”. 

They couldn’t quite figure out the cause of this tragedy, but interestingly Rolli himself said “there is no room to suppose any supernatural cause” and “the likeliest cause then is a flash of lightning [that penetrated] either through the chimney or through the cracks of the windows and did the operation.” This seems somehow more farfetched, but I guess weirder things have happened. Charles Dickens- old Charlie Dicks himself- actually referenced this case in his book Bleak House, where a character actually died of SHC. Dickens actually believed this could happen, but received some epic Victorian shade from literary critic George Henry Lewes, who accused Dickens of "giving currency to a vulgar error". Dicky boy clapped back though, citing many documented cases and his own memories of coroners' inquests that he had attended when he had been a reporter. Dickens wrote: "I shall not abandon the facts until there shall have been a considerable Spontaneous Combustion of the testimony on which human occurrences are usually received." So, whatever that means. 

Moving past the Countess’ case in 1731, we’ll take a quick dip into the 1800s with the case of Matilda Rooney, a Seneca Illinois woman who burst into flames late Christmas Eve night 1885 while alone in her kitchen. The fire incinerated her entire body except her feet (hmm, similarly to the Countess, huh?) and tragically also claimed the life of her husband, Patrick, who suffocated from the fumes in another room of the house. 

Investigators were baffled. That evening the Rooneys were just chilling, drinking whiskey...which sounds like a perfectly caszh Christmas Eve to me. A farmhand of theirs’ who had spent a few hours with them that day didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, and no source of ignition could be found for the fire--though, there was also no foul play suspected. Weirdly, the flames were intense enough to reduce Matilda to ashes and bone (aside from her feet) but did NOT spread to the rest of the room or house. Like I said, Patrick died from the fumes, not the fire. 

Quick scientific fact- it takes between 1100 to 1500 degrees Celsius, or 2012 to 2732 degrees Fahrenheit, of heat to reduce a human body to ash. Yeah, add that one to the “Reasons the FBI are gonna come after me because my Google searches are suspicious” pile. So let’s say in your average crematorium bodies are burned around 2500 degrees Fahrenheit, and not even completely to ash- even THEN bones are not usually fully decomposed and large fragments have to be ground up in final preparation. Comparatively, a wood fire burns between 800 to 900 degrees Celsius, or 1472 to 1652 degrees Fahrenheit. 

2500 degrees Fahrenheit is an IMMENSE amount of heat. According to the Livesafe Foundation, the average house fire burns around 1200 degrees Fahrenheit. That is half the heat it would take to reduce a body to only mostly ash. How does that kind of heat get activated? And beyond that, how does that kind of insane heat stay confined to one small place in a room? Literal JET FUEL burns at around 1500 degrees Fahrenheit. What made Matilda Rooney catch on fire that wasn’t even apparent to investigators? 

Well investigation wasn’t that great in the 1800s, you may argue. To paraphrase John Mulaney, a criminal could leave DNA all over the place but detectives would be like “let’s get back to my hunch”. But I’d argue something that burned so incredibly intensely would’ve had to have been obvious, even to old-timey investigators.

Ok, ok, let’s move forward in time to July 2nd 1951, when men were men and girls were servants. Mary Reeser, a 67-year-old woman, was found burned to death in her Florida home after her landlady realised that the house's doorknob was unusually warm. I imagine that looking like Joe Pesci in Home Alone...like, how do you even realize a doorknob is weirdly warm? It’s July! Coulda been the sun!

But nay, it was not the sun. The police came to the home and sadly found Reeser's remains completely burned into ash, with one leg remaining- Countess vibes. The chair she was sitting in was also destroyed. The picture investigators took of the scene is pretty famous- look it up if you have a strong stomach. It’s so bizarre. Just ashes and a leg, still wearing its shoe. Detectives found that Reeser's temperature was around 3500 degrees Fahrenheit or 1930 degrees Celsius, which puzzled the investigators, as almost everything else in the room in which Reeser was found remained intact. AGAIN!

I checked with multiple sources on her temperature, and it seems that it was indeed somewhere around 3500 degrees Fahrenheit. That is bonkers. In an article in the St. Petersburg Times a few days later, Jerry Blizin wrote that Mary was a “robust woman of 170 pounds” which is just so unnecessarily shady to a dead woman. Don’t publish her weight, are you kidding me?? But I love a robust woman. Mary knew how to party too- she took sleeping pills and was also a smoker. A common theory was that she was smoking a cigarette after taking sleeping pills, and then fell asleep while still holding the burning cigarette, which could have ignited her nightgown, ultimately leading to her death. Still others told the coroner in the case that a “kapok cushion in the overstuffed chair did the deed”, while others blamed “ether, kerosene, napalm, thermite bombs, magnesium, and phosphorus”. Not sure what Mary was doing that would warrant a goddamn napalm bomb, but there you go. 

So, aside from her sad untouched leg, investigators at the scene found Mary’s skull. But- and truly this is one of the craziest facts in a case I’ve ever heard- Reeser's skull had shrunk. Sometimes, those writing on the case add the descriptive flourish that it’d shrunk 'to the size of a teacup'.
The extent of the shrinkage was enough to be remarked on by official investigators and  as stated by them was not an illusion caused by the removal via burning of all facial features (ears, nose, lips, etc.). There are disputes about just how shrunken Mary’s skull was, but it genuinely was noted in the report on the case. I mean, who doesn’t love a little head?

The FBI ruled that she was a victim of the wick effect, which we’ll go into later when we discuss overall SHC theories. Essentially, they posited Mary’s cigarette fell onto her acetate-made clothing and engulfed her completely, melting down the fat just under her skin, which leaked out into her clothing and acted as fuel, allowing her to burn to completion. Interestingly, the chair she was sitting on had been treated with flame retardant but was also destroyed--however, the pile of newspapers stacked by the chair was completely unscorched. 

The FBI also brought in physical anthropologist Dr. Wilton M. Krogman to investigate the scene. Professor Krogman, of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine, ended up strongly disputing the FBI’s findings, writing in a 1961 article for The General Magazine and History Chronicle of the University of Pennsylvania, that quote, “I find it hard to believe that a human body, once ignited, will literally consume itself -- burn itself out, as does a candle wick, guttering in the last residual pool of melted wax,” adding, “The head is not left complete in ordinary burning cases. Certainly it does not shrivel or symmetrically reduce to a smaller size. In presence of heat sufficient to destroy soft tissues, the skull would literally explode in many pieces. I have never known any exception to this rule.” Krogman concluded: “I cannot conceive of such complete cremation without more burning of the apartment itself. In fact the apartment and everything in it should have been consumed. I regard it as the most amazing thing I have ever seen. As I review it, the short hairs on my neck bristle with vague fear. Were I living in the Middle Ages, I'd mutter something about black magic.” Dramatic! Chillingly, he also finished, “This case still haunts me.”

Now, Krogman later walked back this very intense assertion, instead presenting the bizarre theory that Mary had been murdered at another location. According to Krogman’s theory, her murderer had access to crematorium-type equipment and had incinerated her body. This hypothetical murderer had supposedly then transported the results of this partial cremation back to the apartment and used portable heat-generating equipment to add the finishing touches, such as heat-buckled plastic objects near the body and the warm doorknob. So, literally bringing it back to Macaulay Culkin hanging a charcoal starter on the McCallister doorknob to torture Joe Pesci in Home Alone. 

I dunno, man. That somehow sounds MORE implausible than Mary just bursting into flame of her own accord. Though I GUESS this would explain why the doorknob was hot to the touch even though nothing around Mary aside from the chair and carpet underneath had burned. That is certainly one weird fact on top of a thousand other weird facts. 

To conclude my coverage of this case, I found a 2009 article by Jerry Blizin- the very same reporter who had written the original 1951 article on Mary’s death I cited before- wherein he AGAIN shades Mary by bringing up her weight to emphasize his partial belief in the FBI’s theory of how Mary died. He states that according to Dr. LeMoyne Snyder, a medico-legal expert, human fatty tissue is indeed highly combustible, particularly in heavy people, and in Blizin’s opinion this likely contributed to Mary’s death. Blizin does concede, however, that “there were all sorts of anomalies”, citing the untouched stack of newspapers and lack of widespread smoke or smell. In the end, none of these theories really satisfy me; none really answer the essential question of how did her body burn so hot? And without burning down the room or home around her? “The Cinder Lady”, as she was dubbed by the media, was buried in Chestnut Hill Cemetery in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. If you’re ever driving through, pour one out for our friend Mary.

So you may think- well, maybe spontaneous human combustion was kind of an old-timey thing. We’ve discussed cases from the 1700s, 1800s, and mid 1900s. Surely this isn’t a thing that still happens? WRONG! The most recent case of supposed SHC occurred, shockingly, in December 2010, in the land of your forefathers, Sean- Ireland.

Michael Faherty was a 76 year old man living in Galway. In the early hours of the 22nd, Faherty's neighbour, a Mr. Mannion, was awakened by the sound of his smoke alarm. Mannion went outside, where he saw heavy smoke emanating from Faherty's home. Police investigators and the fire brigade were called. Faherty's body was found lying on his back with his head closest to an open fireplace. Now, I know what you’re gonna say. “Carrie, the guy caught on fire from his fireplace. Case closed.” BUT, there are very interesting aspects of this case that stand out. First, the fire had been entirely confined to the sitting room where Faherty was found, and the only damage was to his completely cremated body, as well as the ceiling directly above and floor directly below him. There was no trace of any accelerants found and nothing to suggest foul play had taken place. There’s also the fact that Faherty’s body was totally incinerated, but as I mentioned before, wood fires like that in Faherty’s fireplace only burn around 800-900 degrees Fahrenheit- far from the required 2000+ degrees Fahrenheit required to reduce a human body to ash. The assistant chief fire officer even told the inquest into the death that, after a thorough investigation, fire officers were satisfied that the open fire was NOT the cause of the blaze which led to Faherty's death. So, HA, Sean. 

Pathologist Grace Callagy noted in her postmortem that Faherty had suffered from Type 2 diabetes and hypertension but had not died from heart failure. Callagy concluded that "The extensive nature of the burns sustained precludes determining the precise cause of death." West Galway coroner, Dr. Ciaran McLoughlin, informed the inquiry in 2011 that he had scoured medical literature to determine the cause of death. McLoughlin referred to a Professor Bernard Knight's book on forensic pathology, which states that a high number of alleged incidents of spontaneous human combustion had taken place near an open fireplace or chimney. McLoughlin subsequently stated to the inquiry that quote, "This fire was thoroughly investigated and I'm left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation." The coroner! A doctor! He’s like “Yeah I don’t fucking know, he spontaneously combusted I guess.”

A couple additional theories have since popped up. Benjamin Radford, deputy editor of the magazine Skeptical Enquirer and perhaps your new hero, Sean, referred to researcher Joe Nickell’s investigation of SHC in his book Real-Life X Files, many cases of SHC are in his opinion far less mysterious than often suggested. Like Faherty, many cited victims were elderly, alone, and near flames- cigarettes, candles, fires, etc.- when they died. He also mentions that several were last seen drinking alcohol and smoking, which seems like victim blaming to me. Just kidding. Radford stated, “It seems likely that a spark or ember might have popped from the fire onto his clothing, and caught his clothing on fire. It's not clear why the coroner conclusively ruled this explanation out." He also argues, “If SHC is a real phenomenon (and not the result of an elderly or infirm person being too close to a flame source), why doesn't it happen more often?” A couple of thoughts here. I would tend to trust a medical professional, who’s made their bones in investigating deaths and determining cause, in their opinion, as well as fire officers who concluded that the fireplace did not lead to Faherty’s death. That’s what really lends weight to the SHC theory in this case, to me. Also...I would imagine that, if this is a real phenomena, it probably does happen “more often”, and isn’t investigated as such or is officially given a more open-ended cause of death rather than actually being called Spontaneous Human Combustion and risking the ridicule of...well, of skeptics like Radford. I imagine it could be a career-risking, credibility-risking diagnosis.

Speaking of professional opinions- we do have an additional one from a retired professor of pathology, Mike Green. Green said he had examined one suspected case of SHC previously in his career. Green stated he would not use the term spontaneous combustion, as there had to be some source of ignition, possibly a lit match or cigarette. In his opinion, quote, “There is a source of ignition somewhere, but because the body is so badly destroyed the source can't be found.” 

So. Let’s go into a few of the most popular theories to explain SHC in general. 

First, we have the Wick Effect, which I touched on earlier in Mary Reeser’s case. 

The wick effect theory says that, once the skin is ignited and burns via an external source, a person is kept aflame through their own melting body fats. The clothed human body acts like an "inside-out" candle, with the fuel source- human fat- on the inside and the wick- the victim’s clothing- on the outside. I’m telling you, Inside-Out Candle sounds like the worst possible Bath & Body Works home fragrance I can think of. In the Wick Effect theory, melting fat seeping into the victim's clothing provides a continuous supply of fuel, as fat contains a large amount of energy due to the presence of long hydrocarbon chains and a lot of scientific blah-de-blah. Now, remember the weirdly greasy, moist ash in the Countess’ case? A case report in Forensic Science International may explain this through another case from 2006 in Geneva, Switzerland. The authors mention that though the other objects in the room aside from the body were mostly undamaged, they were “covered with a brown oily or greasy coating”. Could the weird greasy ash in this case and the Countess’ be due to melting fat from the Wick Effect? I would like our audience to keep in mind though that while melting fat can act as an efficient fuel, human fat has a very high water content which requires any flame to be held to the fuel for an extended period of time, proceeding very slowly when it comes to consumption. So it seems most likely that whoever perishes from SHC would have to be a) either incredibly inebriated via alcohol, drugs, or medication, or b) had already passed away due to medical reasons and thus, in both cases, would not be able to react to the slow burn of their bodies. I will say that while Mary Reeser’s body could hardly be tested for any drugs in her system, she had mentioned to her son that she was going to take some Seconal to sleep that evening. While we don’t know if she did, could this have knocked her out so deeply that she wouldn’t wake up from her body bursting into flame? The wick effect also tentatively explains why much of the time feet or legs are left while the rest of the body is ash- according to some, this is because these are usually the least fatty parts of the body, and have less fuel to burn. Though, as a lady with thicc calves, that’s hard to buy in every case. 

Not necessarily separate from the Wick Effect theory is that these bodies may have been ignited by open flames like cigarettes or fireplaces. ConsumerAffairs reported in 2004 that at that time, the improper disposal of smoking materials caused one in every four fire deaths in the United States. While this doesn’t preclude the Wick Effect theory, it does give an answer to how the wick could be ignited. However, not all victims were noted smokers or had obvious sources of ignition nearby like candles or fireplaces.

Brian J. Ford in his article “Solving the mystery of spontaneous human combustion” wrote “When reviewing the victims of SHC, I discern a single factor that they might
all have in common. Some (but not all) were alcoholics, some (but not all) were overweight, some (but not all) were old and enfeebled, some (but not all) smoked
cigarettes — but they all seem to have been unwell.” He hypothesized further that “In
many conditions, including alcoholism, blood glycogen levels become depleted. Cells can no longer rely upon conventional energy resources, and fat molecules are used instead as an energy source.” I’ll attempt to sum up some very complicated science by saying that, in Ford’s opinion, though this complex conversion, acetyl-CoA in the liver is translated into acetoacetate, which can decarboxylate into acetone. Acetone, which you may recognize as the extremely flammable main ingredient in most nail polish removers, may then become an essential energy supply for the body’s cells starved by illness. It’s a version of ketosis, where the fat of the body produces ketones out of fat and uses them for energy instead of carbs. You may recognize THIS process from the popular Keto fad diet- but hold up, because Keto followers may be at risk along with the elderly and infirm. Ford argues that since acetone can ignite at a concentration below 14%, and burns with a clear blue flame, the fact that noted wick effect experiments have yielded results featuring combustion with a yellow, sometimes smoky, flame, means that SHC-involved blue flames are NOT the result of the wick effect. Ford mentions, “In 1938, a 22-year-old woman, Phyllis Newcombe, burst into flames on a dance floor in Romford, England. The flames were described by numerous witnesses as blue.” 

Are you following? Ford goes on to say that in his experiment using a segment of pig abdominal wall- which mimics human flesh- soaked in acetone, the flesh burst into blue flames upon the application of a small butane lighter. The flesh burned hot for a few minutes and died down, revealing a mound of blackened ash. Interestingly as well, the little chair the flesh was resting on was left standing in a liquid pool of melted body fat. While this seems to point back to the wick effect using fat as its fuel, Ford maintains that since acetone is produced by our metabolism, when we’re unwell, tired, dieting rigorously or exhausted, acetone levels can increase, and these experiments suggest that acetone is stored in the tissues. Yet another acetone-soaked experimental model showed remarkable similarities to what has been seen in real-life cases of SHC: The torso was completely burned, BUT the legs remained unscathed, with oily smoke rising from the heated remains, and no other damage to nearby objects aside from charred flooring beneath. SO, to again try and give the gist of a hypothesis that is incredibly complex, Ford here offers in his opinion a natural metabolic explanation for SHC--that illness, alcoholism, or intense dieting could produce an extremely high amount of acetone in the body due to ketosis, acetone which is incredibly flammable and could be ignited even perhaps by a single static spark. He even gives this advice to readers: “If you are suffering ketosis, it might be wise to avoid wearing synthetic fibers with the likelihood of static sparks. [...] If you’re susceptible to ketosis, now might be the perfect time to give up smoking.” 

So, my Keto-convert friends, maybe give the diet some more consideration...you could end up like the Countess, Matilda, Mary, or Michael. 

Those are the theories that I’m detailing this episode, but they are far from the only ones. Others include an overproduction of diphosphane in the gut; a rare condition called mast cell activation syndrome, scalding, misdiagnosed self-immolation, a pseudoscientific new subatomic particle called pyrotron, ball lightning, and even fucking poltergeist activity. And there are countless more. 

What do you think, Sean? Can someone really burst into flame without instigation? Or is there a definitive answer to this phenomena?


That’s it for this episode of Ain’t It Scary with Sean and Carrie! Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter and Instagram @aintitscary, and check out our website at aintitscary.com. And please, subscribe to the show and throw us a 5-star review on iTunes...we’ll be forever grateful.

See you next Tuesday! 


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