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How to Explain Spontaneous Human Combustion

• August 16, 2013 • 6:00 AM

(PHOTO: WHATLEYDUDE/FLICKR)

While there’s no proof that any human being has ever suddenly burst into flames and died, there’s also no proof that it hasn’t happened.

At some point in the 15 hours or so prior to the evening of March 26, 1986, a 58-year-old former firefighter named George Mott apparently burst into flames and died. When he was found that night, what remained of him were mostly the ashes on the floor beneath his mattress, which his body had apparently burned through. There was more, but reports vary a little as to what; Wikipedia says they found “an implausibly shrunken skull” (as opposed to the plausible level of shrunkenness, I guess) and a piece of rib cage. Others say it was a shrunken skull and the lower half of his right leg. Either way, the scene found in Mott’s Crown Point, New York, apartment was pretty grim.

It was also (for reasons beyond just the obvious) weird. For one, there was no heat or fire damage to the ceilings, which were low. Everything inside the closed refrigerator was melted. A number of plastic objects (wall ornaments, a plastic fly swatter) around the apartment were, too. But investigators could not identify the source of the damage—no gas leaks, accelerants, signs of suicide or foul play. Mott wasn’t a smoker. It didn’t make sense.

Eventually, investigators would rule that the fire was caused by one of two things: a gas leak or “an electrical arc” that shot out from an outlet onto Mott and set him on fire. There wasn’t any evidence found to support either claim. According to most people, there just wasn’t much evidence to support any other claims, either. To the professionals, that Mott was a firefighter who burned to death in his own home was likely just an unfortunate, semi-poetic coincidence. Even firefighters have to die in one way or another.

On the other hand, if you were neither a scientist nor a police officer, but a self-designated student of the supernatural and an enthusiastic-if-haphazard researcher of unexplained phenomena, a former firefighter burned almost totally to ashes in an otherwise largely unharmed apartment is the kind of thing—and this is going to sound bad, but I don’t mean it that way—you dream about.

For M. Sue Benford (author of a book called Strong Woman: Unshrouding the Secrets of the Soul, which seems, from its description, to be equal parts self-help and theorizing about the Shroud of Turin, the purported burial cloth worn by Jesus Christ) and Larry E. Arnold (author of a book about spontaneous human combustion with the excitable title Ablaze!), there had to be more to Mott’s story.

It used to be that when a fire started and nobody was quite sure why, it was either God or the devil to blame.

SPONTANEOUS HUMAN COMBUSTION (SHC), or the apparently sudden and inexplicable burning of a living human body, is sort of a real thing, maybe. If you ask Benford and Arnold, you’ll get a statistic that varies: somewhere between 200 and 400 cited cases of SHC have occurred over the past 300 years or so. Of course, “cited” doesn’t mean that’s what it says on the official death certificate. These are just cases, like Mott’s, that seemed a little odd.

The defining characteristics of a potential case of SHC are: 1) a high degree of bodily incineration partnered with a comparatively minimal level of damage to its surroundings, 2) burning centered around the torso, 3) no obvious signs of an external cause of the fire, and 4) the victim is found alone with little to no sign of having struggled.

It used to be that when a fire started and nobody was quite sure why, it was either God or the devil to blame. Near the end of the 17th century, the discovery of phosphorous in human bones prompted the theory that fire came from within us, and it could be provoked in certain people upon their engagement in conveniently frowned-upon activities, like women who drank alcohol. But in the early- to mid-19th century, medical scientists discovered the combustibility of body fat.

This is the way scientists explain virtually all cases of supposed SHC: a body becomes ignited, and the fat (typically centered around the torso, which is why so many of the bodies in these cases show the most burn damage there) begins to burn. The victim’s clothing then soaks up liquefied body fat (I’m so sorry) and acts like the wick that keeps the body burning.

This process is called “wick effect,” and it explains nearly every issue a person could raise about SHC, except—if you’re not so easily satisfied—this one: How did the body ignite?

YOU HAVE TO TAKE any study published in the journal Subtle Energies & Energy Medicine with a grain of salt, maybe five. That’s where, in 1997, Benford and Arnold published a study called “Scientific Analysis of an Artifact From a Presumed Episode of Spontaneous Human Combustion: A Possible Case for Biological Nuclear Reactions.” In it, the authors seek to prove the existence of SHC by analyzing a piece of evidence recovered from the scene of Mott’s death: a book jacket taken from a hardcover on a shelf.

It’s hard, for most of us anyway, to accept the idea that a plastic-coated book cover could in any way be used to prove that a human, just a handful of feet away, burst into flames for no apparent reason—but let’s hear them out. Mott’s book jacket was discolored all along the front, as if the heat source had been directly and evenly applied. This is somewhat strange—per Benford and Arnold—for a book that had apparently been lying back-cover-down on the shelf. In an attempt to replicate the burn damage seen on Mott’s book cover, Benford and Arnold tested two others, one with an open flame and another in a furnace. Neither looked like Mott’s, and the latter was reduced entirely to ash.

There are a number of other very scientific-sounding tests done here: an XPS analysis of the book jacket’s “atomic surface content” and another that checks for the level of carbon present, which is atypically elevated. According to Benford and Arnold, one reasonable explanation for the jacket’s chemical makeup is a “biologically-induced nuclear explosion,” or SHC.

Of course, they also acknowledge that another explanation might be that the jacket was made with carbon-heavy pulp from the inside of a very old tree. But SHC sounds better, doesn’t it?

There are certainly cases, from time to time, of people dying by fire in weird and isolated circumstances. The bad news is that we’re generally more flammable than our ancestors liked to believe, and that under the right (or very wrong) circumstances, our bodies can act, as Wikipedia so alarmingly puts it, like “inside out candles.” But the good news is that—according to genuine scientists—it’s never actually “spontaneous.” There had to (probably!) be something external to George Mott’s body that started the fire. We just don’t get to know what that was. Either you can live with not knowing, or—like Benford and Arnold—you can’t.

Katie Heaney
Katie Heaney is a writer and an editor at BuzzFeed and author of Never Have I Ever. Follow her on Twitter @KTHeaney.

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