Irishman’s Death Ruled Spontaneous Combustion

Sep 23, 2011 11:01am

The death of a 76-year-old Irishman has been ruled a case of spontaneous combustion, the BBC reported.

Michael Faherty died in his home in December 2010. His body was badly burned, but a fire in the nearby fireplace did not cause the blaze, forensic experts said. Scorch marks on the ceiling above the body and the floor below, and no trace of accelerant, led the coroner to return the controversial verdict,  the first of its kind in Ireland, according to the BBC.

“This fire was thoroughly investigated and I’m left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation,” West Galway coroner Dr. Ciaran McLoughlin told a court Thursday.

Proposed explanations for spontaneous combustion range from static electricity to divine intervention. One theory, called the wick effect, paints a person’s clothes as a wick, of sorts, and their body fat as a fuel source. But the burning would take several hours, and many alleged victims have not tried to escape, the BBC reported. The wick-effect theory also fails to explain the absence of an ignition source or accelerant.

Some experts dismiss claims that such cases occur spontaneously, arguing instead that the flame’s source, such as a match or cigarette, must be masked by the badly burned body. But the mystery continues to captivate, as it has for centuries.

Charles Dickens described the haunting scene in his 1853 novel “Bleak House.”

“Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is — is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? Oh, horror, he IS here!”

In 1951, Mary Reeser, 67, burned to death in her Florida home. Only her skull, left foot and ashes remained. But her apartment was intact, save some soot on the ceilings and walls.

“I cannot conceive of such complete cremation without more burning of the apartment itself. In fact, the apartment and everything in it should have been consumed,” Wilton Krogman, an anthropology professor who investigated the case, reported at the time. “I regard it as the most amazing thing I have ever seen. As I review it, the short hairs on my neck bristle with vague fear. Were I living in the Middle Ages, I’d mutter something about black magic.”

The police report claimed Reeser’s dressing gown had caught fire but no flame source or accelerant was found, the BBC reported.

Larry Arnold, author of “Ablaze! The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Combustion,” has three theories. The first posits that small, high-powered particles whizzing between the molecules of the body collide – an event he calls “the Internal Hiroshima Effect.” The second suggests kundalini, a powerful energy flowing up and down the spine, becomes unbalanced, triggering a temperature spike. The third theory, based on the geographical clustering of alleged spontaneous combustion cases, credits the phenomenon to energy anomalies in the earth.

“Although I am constantly speculating about what could cause those patterns to manifest, at this point I have nothing I can take into a scientific laboratory and reproduce under controlled conditions,” Arnold wrote in a February 2011 report in Vice. “This is essentially why it’s so easy for the experts and the scientific orthodoxy to dismiss spontaneous human combustion. It is truly spontaneous.”

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