Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC)

In the realm of mysterious and baffling phenomena, few cases captivate the human imagination as intensely as spontaneous human combustion (SHC). This perplexing occurrence, characterized by the sudden ignition and burning of an individual without any apparent external source of ignition, has both fascinated and puzzled scientists, researchers, and the public for centuries.

While SHC has been widely debated and remains a rare phenomenon, exploring its potential causes, symptoms, characteristics, real cases, and alleged survivors can shed light on this enigmatic topic.

Causes of spontaneous human combustion

The phenomenon of SHC has long perplexed researchers, leading to numerous theories attempting to explain the seemingly inexplicable. These theories can be broadly categorized into two main schools of thought:

The Wick Effect: This theory suggests that SHC is the result of the “wick effect,” where a person’s clothing or body fat acts as a fuel source. In this scenario, a small external ignition source, such as a cigarette or ember, ignites the individual’s clothing. The clothing then acts as a wick, drawing melted body fat and other flammable substances to sustain the fire.

Chemical reactions: Some researchers propose that internal chemical reactions within the body could generate enough heat to ignite clothing or surrounding objects. Methanol, a flammable substance produced within the body, has been suggested as a potential trigger for such reactions.


SHC incidents share common characteristics that set them apart from other types of fires. Key characteristics include:

Lack of external ignition: One of the defining features of SHC cases is the absence of any obvious external ignition source. Traditional fires are typically initiated by sparks, flames, or heat sources external to the body.

Limited fire damage: SHC incidents often result in localized burning, with the fire primarily consuming the victim’s body and immediate surroundings. This contrasts with standard fires that tend to spread and cause more widespread damage.

Burning of surrounding objects: In some cases, nearby objects may show signs of heat or fire damage, indicating that the victim’s body acted as the ignition source.

Real cases of spontaneous human combustion

Though rare, documented cases of SHC have left investigators and scientists puzzled. Some notable incidents include:

Mary Reeser (1951): A 67-year old, was found burned to death in her house. Perhaps the most famous case, Mary Reeser’s death was initially attributed to SHC due to the intense heat that left her body largely consumed and her surroundings relatively untouched. Her remains were completely burned into ash, with only one leg remaining.

Margaret Hogan (1970): An 89-year-old widow who lived alone in a house on Prussia Street, Dublin, Ireland, was found burned almost to the point of complete destruction on 28 March 1970. Plastic flowers on a table in the centre of the room had been reduced to liquid and a television with a melted screen sat 12 feet from the armchair in which the ashen remains were found; otherwise, the surroundings were almost untouched. Her two feet, and both legs from below the knees, were undamaged.

Henry Thomas (1980): A 73-year-old man, was found burned to death in the living room. His entire body was incinerated, leaving only his skull and a portion of each leg below the knee. The feet and legs were still clothed in socks and trousers. Half of the chair in which he had been sitting was also destroyed.

Michael Faherty (2010): An Irish man, Michael Faherty, died under mysterious circumstances with signs of localized burning on his remains, prompting speculation about SHC. He was 76.


While purported cases of SHC exist, the scientific community remains skeptical about its legitimacy. Critics argue that the body’s composition and the lack of proper documentation in historical cases make it difficult to definitively conclude that SHC is a genuine phenomenon. Moreover, alternative explanations, such as accidental fires and medical conditions, cannot be discounted. However, there have been about 200 cited reports of SHC.

Unraveling the mystery

Spontaneous human combustion continues to be a subject of fascination and controversy, straddling the line between scientific inquiry and popular mythology. As researchers strive to comprehend the mechanics behind these unusual events, the phenomenon serves as a reminder of the limits of human understanding in the face of the extraordinary.

While the mystery persists, only time, rigorous investigation, and advancements in our understanding of combustion and human biology will reveal whether spontaneous human combustion is a true enigma or merely an elusive puzzle.

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