Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Heated discussion

BBC News reported yesterday that Ireland has documented its first case of Spontaneous Human Combustion.

Michael Faherty, 76, of Ballybane, Galway, was found burned to death on December 22, 2010.  Investigators noted that Faherty's body was completely incinerated, and while there was damage to the living room in which the body was found, the body itself was clearly the source of the flame.  No trace of accelerants was found, and there was nothing suggesting foul play.  After a nine-month inquiry into the case, the inquest was finally held last week, and Dr. Ciaran McLoughlin ruled that Faherty's death was caused by Spontaneous Human Combustion.

SHC has been the subject of a lot of speculation, and there are a few cases that seem to admit no other explanation -- most notably the famous case of Mary Reeser, who died in 1951 in St. Petersburg, Florida.  Reeser was found by her landlady to have been consumed to ashes, along with the armchair in which she was seated.  The only part of her body remaining was a few of her bones, and her left foot, still encased in a slipper.  Just as in Faherty's case, the room she was in showed little damage -- candles had melted into puddles of wax, and a mirror had warped and cracked from the heat -- but once again, the flames seemed to have arisen from her body.

Other instances of alleged SHC exist, some more believable than others.  One of the others is the case Maybelle Andrews, who supposedly suddenly spouted flame on the floor of a crowded dance hall in 1938 and was burned to ashes in five minutes in front of her horrified dance partner, leading to a new and macabre definition of the phrase "hot date."  However, investigators have tried to substantiate this claim and found that it seems to be spun from whole cloth, probably by writers for the questionable journal Fate in the 1950s.  Andrews herself seems to be entirely fictional, and the story apparently cobbled together from various other tales of uncertain pedigree.

And some of the attempted explanations I've seen don't help much, either.  More than one website I looked at attributed SHC to causes that were clearly pseudoscientific bunk, such as the one that said that one possibility was that "Electrical fields that exist within the human body might be capable of 'short circuiting' somehow, causing some sort of atomic chain reaction that could generate tremendous internal heat."  This is only marginally more plausible than the one that said that SHC was clearly the result of "visitation by malevolent spirits, and a resulting violent discharge of the victim's psychic life energy."

Sorry, I'm not buying either of those explanations, and not just because both of them are unscientific horse waste.  As with many of these sorts of claims, any kind of rational inquiry into SHC is clouded by the vast amount of nonsense, misinformation, and outright fabrications that have been tangled up with the whole subject.  Five minutes' worth of research showed me that one person whose name I saw on more than one list of "victims of SHC" - Phyllis Newcombe - is actually documented in records as having been the victim of burns sustained when her dress caught fire accidentally, and she died not because she was "consumed to ashes" in the usual fashion, but of sepsis from an infection some days later.  (Read about the case here.)  Other names on typical lists of victims are from hundreds of years ago, or are simply lacking in documentation.

So, just like with other Amazing Unexplained Mysteries, a lot of cases of SHC seem to be either (1) fiction, or (2) entirely explainable without recourse to any sort of woo-woo Violent Discharges of Psychic Energy.  But this does leave a handful of cases that are well enough documented that they aren't easily dismissed -- and this includes Reeser's case, and the more recent case of Faherty.  How can these be accounted for?

It turns out that, as odd as it might seem, there is in fact a plausible natural explanation for SHC.  Studies have shown that if a deep burn occurs from a natural trigger (a match, a dropped cigarette, or an upset candle), and the triggering flame is able to burn through the upper layers of skin, it can ignite the fat layer underneath -- and fat burns quite well, generating enough heat to burn the entire body.  (I don't even want to know how they studied this, and in fact I'm trying hard right now not to think too much about it.)  So, as weird and tragic as SHC is, there's a completely reasonable scientific explanation for it -- as, I believe, there is for damn near everything.


  1. clearly it is a result of the Aliens trying to come and contact my spirit ball, clearly.