Mental Floss

The Quick 7: Seven Cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion

Stacy Conradt
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Don't you hate it when you're just sitting there at home, watching some TrueBlood (any other fans out there?) and enjoying a night at home on the couch, when all of a sudden your leg just randomly bursts into flames? No? Is it just me? Well, it's not just me "“ there are about 200 reported cases of incidents that may have been spontaneous human combustion (SHC). Here are a few of those cases.

1. Henry Thomas was a 73-year-old man living in South Wales when he came to his mysterious end in 1980. The policemen and forensic scientists deduced this from Thomas' remains: he had been sitting comfortably in his easy chair when he somehow caught fire near the top of his body and burned to death. And it was an intense fire "“ all that was left of Mr. Thomas were his legs below the knee and his skull. Oddly, his feet were completely unburned and what was left of his legs were still clothes in socks and trousers that were practically untouched by the fire. Although there was evidence of a fire in the fireplace, there was no evidence that it had spread from there. One of the non-SHC theories was that Thomas had somehow managed to set his hair on fire while stoking it, then sat down in his chair unaware of the fact. The trained crime scene officer who analyzed the place argued that if a man had been sitting down when he realized his hair was on fire, he certainly wouldn't sit there and continue to let it burn. In the end, though, Thomas' death was ruled "death by burning" with no mention of SHC.

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3. Mary Reeser of St. Petersburg, Florida, was found dead in her home on July 2, 1951.

Her landlady showed up at the door around 8 a.m. on July 2, and when she touched the doorknob to the apartment it was alarmingly warm to the touch. Getting no response from inside, the landlady called the police. They found what was left of Mary Reeser in a chair, just like Henry Thomas. Part of her left foot remained, including the slipper it was encased in. Her skull remained as well, but some reports say the heat shrunk it down to the size of a teacup. Reports and evidence were sent off to the FBI; they concluded that Reeser had taken sleeping pills "“ something she was known to do regularly "“ and then inadvertently set herself on fire with her cigarette after the pills had taken effect. Professor Krogman of the University of Pennsylvania had another theory, though "“ someone had murdered her, then incinerated her remains in a crematorium and brought them back to her apartment for someone to find. What's more, they used some sort of a portable heating device to burn the spots that surrounded Mary's body and burn the doorknob to make it hot.

4. John Irving Bentley enjoyed an evening of visiting with friends at his home on December 4, 1966, and then, apparently, he spontaneously combusted. Sometime after 9 p.m. when his friends departed and the morning of December 5 when his meter reader showed up to check the meter, Bentley was reduced to a pile of ashes, except for his right leg (seeing a trend here?). The meter reader noticed a weird odor and saw some blue smoke and decided to investigate; when he reached Bentley's bathroom he found Bentley and ran to get help, yelling, "Dr. Bentley has burned up!!" At first, it was thought that the elderly man had accidentally set himself on fire with his pipe, but then his pipe was found intact by his bedside. Nevertheless, it remains the culprit in this case: investigators determined that he dropped ashes from his pipe onto his robe and then went to the bathroom to fetch a pitcher of water to put out the flames. This was supposed by the broken remains of something that may have been a pitcher and by Bentley's smoldering robe, which was found next to the hole that had burned through the floor. Bentley apparently kept matches in his robe pocket, which are thought to have intensified the fire when they caught.

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6. George Mott of Crown Point, N.Y., was enjoying an episode of The Twilight Zone the night before he burst into flames, and is said to have remarked, "Nothing weird like that ever happens to me. I wish it would." Umm"¦ be careful what you wish for. The next day, according to Weird New England, his son found the three and a half pounds of bone and ash that used to be George Mott. Unlike some of the other people on this list, Mott was not a smoker and therefore couldn't have accidentally touched a cigarette to his clothing or anything along those lines. An investigation could come up with no means of external ignition whatsoever. Another kicker: Mott was a retired fireman.

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So, what do you think? Can SHC always be explained by things like smoldering cigarettes and strange alcohol reactions, or is there something more mysterious at work? Share your theories in the comments. By the way, there are some rather horrifying pictures of spontaneous combustion, but I chose not to show them in case some of you are squeamish. But just do a Google Images search and you'll see the ones I mean.

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