Weird Things You Didn’t Know About Spontaneous Human Combustion

Not too long ago, spontaneous human combustion (SHC) was accepted by the general public as something to really crap your pants about. People were catching fire and scientists couldn't figure out what was going on. So what is spontaneous human combustion? It's basically exactly what it sounds like - suddenly, you just explode. In fact, people are still spontaneously combusting every once in a while, and there's still no definitive answer why. 

A lot of what's been written about SHC focuses mostly on mysterious, fiery deaths and the gruesome remains left behind. And for obvious reasons - everyone knows SHC sells. But there is a slew of weird points in its lively history, interesting tidbits that are often forgotten or ignored in favor of the crazy fact that someone just went up in flames for no good reason. So, for the record, here are a bunch of weird and often overlooked spontaneous human combustion facts to give you some insight into what happens to your body if you spontaneously combust.


  • The Fire Doesn't Spread

    One of the weirdest things about SHC is that the people-eating fire pretty much never spreads beyond its victim. It'll toast the unfortunate human now and then, plus whatever that human happens to be sitting/sleeping/existing on, but not much else. Again and again, officials have reported fires that consume people while mysteriously ignoring all the delicious flammable materials nearby.

    One famous example of this fire-don't-care phenomenon is Mary Reeser (pictured above), who was found burnt to ashes inside her home in St. Petersburg, FL, on July 2, 1951. The upholstered chair Reeser was sitting in was totally roasted, but nothing else was damaged by fire - including a pile of newspapers sitting right beside it.

    The clock on Reeser's table was found dead, too. Its hands displayed 4:20, which, as we all know, is the best time to light something on fire.

  • Most Victims Don't Fully Combust

    Mary Reeser didn't burn completely to ashes. Just mostly - and this is another weird fact about spontaneous human combustion. A lot of times, the flames miss a body part or two, like a bonfire that dies down and leaves behind a few smoldering logs. Reeser's left foot and part of her skull and spine were found unconsumed in the 1951 spontaneous combustion incident. And in 1980, a man named Henry Thomas was discovered in his South Wales home burned entirely to ashes, save his skull and parts of his legs.

    This kind of thing happens all the time in the world of SHC, and it's probably related to the concentration of fat in the human body (which there isn't much of in the lower legs or skull).

  • Some Managed To Survive SHC

    Some Managed To Survive SHC
    Photo: Science Channel

    Believe it or not, Ripley, there are people who've experienced the horror of having their bodies catch on fire for no reason and have then brushed themselves off and moved on with their lives. Granted, this is not the common result of SHC; it is the rare exception, and anyone who catches fire and survives without too much physical or psychological suffering is a lucky person indeed.

    Such lucky people include Frank Baker, who burst into flames one day in 1995 while preparing for a fishing trip. His story was later the subject of an episode of The Unexplained Files, in which he notes that he was "petrified" but doesn't offer to explain what spontaneous human combustion feels like. Mrs. Charles Williamson is another lucky example. According to Juanita Rose Violini's Almanac of the Infamous, the Incredible, and the Ignored, Mrs. Williamson's dress caught fire inexplicably in 1932, but she lived.

    In both of the above cases, friends and/or family were present to beat out the flames. Absent witnesses, these endings would likely have been a lot more sad than happy.

  • SHC May Be Tied To Alcoholism

    Jan Bondeson writes in A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities that "from the earliest literature, it is evident that the notion of spontaneous human combustion emanated from the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century popular belief that the drinking of strong spirits might light a spontaneous flame in the stomach." Many people saw a connection between SHC and dipsomania a long time ago - and glancing through a few old articles and pamphlets will make that clear.

    But most people also saw that SHC preferred murdering old alcoholics. Daniel Drake's 1828 A Discourse on Intemperance gives three such examples: M. Boinneau, 80; Countess Cornelia, 62; and M. Thuars, "above 60." All had been accustomed to drinking, and all were found burnt to a crisp.

    An elderly person, drunk, in poor health, and suddenly consumed by fire, might be forgiven for being unable to move quickly enough to extinguish the flame, and then burning to ashes. However, SHC doesn't hesitate to make exceptions - in the absence of drunken elders, it will go for any old drunk it comes across. There was 25-year-old who caught fire and then survived for 13 days, but he was a chronic alcoholic.