originally published August 18, 2012

If you have a weak stomach, you might not want to read today’s article. Maybe flip back a day and read about the wild wackiness of the Golden Girls. This is going to get ugly.

Much like alien abductions, unexplained tales of the paranormal, and the wide appeal of Tyler Perry’s oeuvre of work, spontaneous human combustion has always fascinated me. Meet Henry Thomas:

Henry had a particularly bad day in 1980. Alone in his south Wales home, he settled into his easy chair, slid his slippers off his feet, took his glasses off to watch some TV, then promptly incinerated. Is it in poor taste to wonder if the last thing he watched was one of those Athlete’s Foot cream commercials in which the sufferer’s feet are shown as being on fire?

All that remained of Henry was his skull and a piece of each leg below the knee. His socks and pant legs were still in place. Half his chair had melted, so had a few of his television knobs across the room. Televisions back then had knobs – I skew to a younger demographic so I feel I have to point this out.

The living room was orange. The windows and electric lighting were covered by a translucent film of evaporated human fat. Hey, I warned you this was going to get ugly.

Henry had a fire going in the room, but there was no evidence linking what happened to him to the fire in the fireplace. Nothing was disturbed, there was no blood, no signs of anything other than the gradual diminishing of a coal fire unstoked.

Investigators determined that the fire had been limited to Henry, and his body only shifted slightly when the damaged chair beneath him collapsed. So what happened?

The official investigative report determined that Henry had fallen into the fireplace and lit his hair on fire. Then he died via the Wick Effect. This is when the body acts as a candle, with the clothing working like a wick while the body’s store of fat acts like that other part of the candle that smells really good but is always disappointing when you bite into it.

Anyway, police recovered a scrap of matter on the fireplace and figured it to be from Henry’s forehead, which supports the fell-into-the-fireplace theory. Except that it totally doesn’t.

John E. Heymer, the crime scene officer who arrived on the scene, doesn’t buy the Wick explanation. The fibrous scrap from the fireplace was later determined to be of bovine origin, which suggests that either Henry was part cow or he had earlier burned something made of leather. Also, the room was sealed fairly tight – Henry lived in a remote part of Wales, had no central heating system, and it was winter. There was no way the oxygen supply in the room would have been enough to sustain a slow-burn via the Wick Effect.

The lack of damage to anything else in the room, including the stack of wooden sticks right beside the fireplace, suggests that this was not a lengthy incident. The fire just didn’t spread. Also, one would assume that Henry’s response to his head igniting might be a tad more extreme than settling back in to his favorite chair in order to die in comfort. Most folks – even if they aren’t versed in the stop-drop-roll method of self-extinguishing – would probably take some action with the lower part of their body when their upper part ignites.

There have been about two hundred cases of spontaneous human combustion over the past three hundred years (before that, it was simply assumed that God did it). That’s not a lot of cases – I’d wager more people have died by choking on Lego bricks. Here are the requirements for such a case:

  • No trace of what could have started the fire or how it kept going.
  • The torso is where the action happens; if any scraps are left over, it’s usually the feet.
  • The area of damage around the body is nothing more than the furniture, the floor beneath it and the ceiling above it.
  • There is usually little or no sign of struggle.
  • The victim is typically alone.

Is that suspicious? Is it perhaps the reason a lot of people doubt that spontaneous human combustion even exists? Alien abductees are usually alone. So are people who see ghosts walk into their kitchen and fix a sandwich. So are people who watch Tyler Perry movies.

Almost every case involves someone old, fat, or otherwise slow-moving. Many of them involve smokers. These two facts together could point to someone having a heart attack and dropping a cigarette onto themselves, then dying while the fire overtakes them.

Again, these people are all alone. If spontaneous human combustion is really something we need to worry about, why has it never happened at a local Burger King? You’ll certainly find the old, the fat and the slow-moving there.

One theory suggests that high-energy particles or gamma rays could react with the alcohol in someone’s blood and cause the combustion. The theory doesn’t offer an explanation as to why these gamma rays would be in old people’s homes; we can assume if they made contact with a sober young person instead, we’d probably have a new superhero instead of a pile of ashes.

So, just like alien abductions and paranormal weirdness, I’m not going to lose too much sleep worrying about succumbing to spontaneous human combustion. Glancing at a few of the other reported cases, the facts seem to be similar. Except for one.

Jeannie Safin, a mentally-disabled 61-year-old from Edmonton (the district in London, not the city I wake up to everyday), suddenly caught on fire while sitting in her kitchen. With her father.

Jack, her dad, was looking at something else in the room, when suddenly he noticed his daughter was on fire. There was no source of flame in the room except for the stove’s pilot light. One report states that her clothes were not burned (another states they were) and there was no smoke damage in the kitchen. She died a few days later in the local hospital.

Critics suggest that maybe Jack knocked out some used tobacco from his pipe, which allowed a tiny ember to fall onto Jeannie’s clothing. A cross-breeze from the window fed the fire, and boom – there went Jeannie.

Creepy. I’m suddenly feeling unsafe in my own chair. I think I’ll do the safe thing and head down to Burger King.

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