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MEDICINE | ESOTERICA MEDICA

Mystery of `combustion' smoldered for centuries

January 22, 2007|Elena Conis

A body -- spontaneously -- bursts into flames, leaving behind nothing but ash and a leg, a head or (in one alleged case) a prosthetic hip. In the three centuries since spontaneous human combustion was first discussed by researchers and investigators, heavy drinking, smoking, body fat, static electricity and the wrath of God have all been blamed. These days, most experts have dismissed the phenomenon as a myth. Still, some of the culprits of yore do explain cases of bodies that seem to have combusted from within.

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According to 18th century accounts, a body that had spontaneously combusted appeared distinct from one that burned in a fire. Although the body ignites and burns, the fire rarely spreads or damages anything nearby. Entire body parts often remain intact even as flames reduce bones to ash. But the most puzzling (and defining) element is the lack of an obvious source of ignition.

An English writer in 1717 recounted the demise of a Parisian woman whose body -- except for her skull and fingertips -- burned to ash and smoke as she lay on a straw-filled couch that survived largely unscathed.

In 1731, a servant went to rouse the Italian countess Cornelia Bandi and found her on the floor of her room, several feet from her bed, reduced to ash from neck to knee. All that remained were her head and two lower legs.

Mary Clues, who combusted in England in 1773, was found one morning on the floor of her bedroom, one leg and her skull still whole, nothing but ashes for the rest of her.

Just a few dozen such cases were documented over the course of the 1700s, but in each, furniture and entire body parts survived the conflagrations. Observers concluded that either gender could suffer such a fate, but that older, overweight, heavy-drinking women were most likely to ignite. (Mary Clues, for one, smoked and drank. Countess Bandi enjoyed bathing in a basin of alcohol.) Some doctors blamed women's susceptibility on their soft, weak bodies; others saw the flames as divine punishment for sloth and turning to the bottle.

By the 1800s, stories of spontaneous human combustion made their way into literature. In Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," Ebenezer Scrooge ponders the possibility he might become a victim when the spirit of Christmas Present illuminates his room. In the author's "Bleak House," an alcoholic character spontaneously combusts. But some in the scientific and medical establishment were already coming around to the idea that spontaneous combustion was nothing more than an urban legend -- and they sharply criticized Dickens for helping to perpetrate it.

After all, they pointed out, nearly all the historical accounts had certain things in common: Many of the victims were found just feet from a fireplace or were in the habit of smoking. And in nearly every case, the bodies were found after the disaster had occurred -- unwitnessed by anyone.

These days, spontaneous human combustion is invoked every once in a while when a body is found severely burned in a room that has otherwise hardly suffered (among the alleged cases: an elderly Philadelphia doctor turned to ash while the rubber fittings on his walker scarcely melted, and a Florida woman found reduced to ash, skull, left foot and a few vertebrae -- while neither the carpet she lay on nor the newspapers nearby burned).

As explanation, English forensic scientists in the 1960s proposed not spontaneous combustion but the so-called candle effect, which was later demonstrated on a British TV show using a cloth-wrapped dead pig -- who did suffer more than his surroundings. With something nearby (a cigarette, a heater) to set the fat aflame, the theory goes, body fat acts as fuel and clothing as a wick, generating heavy smoke and greasy soot that keep the fire from spreading.

All of which can be helped along by bathing in booze, drinking too much and sleeping too close to the fire.

- Elena Conis

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