Myths and mysteries: Burning up; spontaneous human combustion
The summer heat is sure beating down on us, but here is a tale so strange, that getting hot or “burning up” has a whole new and macabre meaning. In this mysterious and bizarre case, a human being bursts into flames without any external cause of fire. It is called spontaneous human combustion. The explanation of the term is difficult as the theories given for the strange event are not satisfying enough, keeping some of the most intriguing cases in mind.
It has been well-documented and people who have died due to this phenomenon have been studied and their corpses examined thoroughly. For the last 300 years, the cases of a human body igniting itself without any definite known cause of a fire nearby have been almost too many to just brush away as mere coincidence or accident. Almost 200 cases of people dying of catching fire by themselves have been reported and written about. And in some cases in front of witnesses!
To make the whole phenomenon even more puzzling and mind-boggling is the fact that in quite a few of the cases, only the body of the person burned or got charred without anything else nearby getting burnt. In fact the clothes on the person were left unharmed!
The first recorded cases of spontaneous human combustion dates back to the 17th century as found in old medical reports.
And over four decades that followed the initial written accounts, the incidents vary slightly regarding the damage that remained after the body was on fire. In some cases, the entire body got burned without much damage to the chair or bed on which the victim was in contact with. While in some cases, the whole body was burned but a foot or fingers remained un-charred.
The initial belief about why this horrific kind of fate may be someone’s destiny was because it was a punishment for sins committed by the person. Then there is the supernatural explanation. Something evil was responsible for the firing up of the person possessed by an evil spirit or an evil spirit was unhappy with that person.
While some had been sitting near a fireplace, some cases were near a fire. In fact, some were driving a car while some people got ignited while walking. Science does not accept the idea that people can self-ignite. To completely get burnt, a human body would need temperatures almost over 300 degrees Fahrenheit! As to how the clothing and nearby objects remain unburnt, the mystery is just termed as “unsolved”.
According to scientists, how can a human body that consists mostly of water get burnt by itself to the point of being charred? When a dead body is cremated or burnt, it requires huge amounts of heat and a fire kept burning for many hours.
But aside from water, our bodies do contain small amounts of methane gas and fat tissue. But these are not nearly enough to
burn our bodies. Scientists say that to get a human body to ignite due to some sort of chemical reaction would not be easy at all. For example, if a person had eaten huge quantities of hay which was infested with bacteria, maybe and maybe just, the guts would catch fire due to some strange chemical reaction, if at all.
Or stranger still, if the person ate a lot of newspapers, (okay don’t laugh, I know it’s funny), and then drank a lot of oil and stayed in a well-heated room for a couple of weeks, he or she might have their intestines or stomach on fire.
Then there is the ‘candle wick effect’. Dr John de Haan, from the California Criminalistics Institute, conducted an experiment in which a dead animal was wrapped in a blanket and a small amount of gasoline was dropped on the blanket and then the blanket was set fire to. After five hours of burning, the animal was completely burnt. Since the fat content in the body of the particular animal was the same as in a human being, Dr De Haan explained that the damage that the dead animal’s body went through is exactly the same as that of a person burning up from spontaneous human combustion.
Theories abound that the dead person was drunk and went to sleep with a cigarette burning in his hands, or that an elderly lady sat too close to her fireplace, etc., but then these do not explain the bizarre scenario that is the mystery.
Supernatural theories abound regarding this phenomenon. One is especially intriguing. Since January 5, 1820, spontaneous fires were going up all over the house of John Wright. This occurrence was mostly around his mother Mrs Wright. Now as it happened, most of the time that the fire started, a servant girl in the household was in the same room. But she did not physically start the fire. It only happened by her being around in the house.
Wright once heard screams from the kitchen. He raced there to see his mother on fire and the maid was in the kitchen as well. He sent for his sister to sit with the mother who was in bed recovering from her burns. As soon as they left her sleeping in her room, they heard her screams and ran to her room to once again see her in flames. The servant girl was sacked and after she left there were no more mysterious fires in the house. Strangely, Mrs Wright never blamed the girl for the evil occurrence.
Then 11-month old Peter Seaton of London was sleeping in his bed in the evening of January 1939. A guest sitting in the living room downstairs heard screams. He rushed up to the child’s room to see huge flames all around. Firemen were called and the fire was put out. Nothing inflammable was found in the nursery and most of the furniture was hardly damaged.
Another incident of horror due to this strange phenomenon involves six people on the 27th of December 1976. It was written about in the Nigerian Herald. In a small wooden room six people got spontaneously burnt in the room while they were asleep while the rest of the room remained intact, including two cotton mattresses. The mother of the family said that someone had sprinkled gasoline on the sleeping people but investigation did not show any evidence of such a claim.
Serious-minded individuals and scientists do not agree that such a phenomenon exists at all. Otherwise, they say, why is the number of people dying, as claimed due to this reason, so small? After all, there are almost five billion people on the planet, so there should be many more occurrences to make it a possibility, which does make sense. But then what happened to the people who died in this mysterious way? This is indeed a ‘burning topic’.