Spontaneous Combustion Controversy Rekindled

Human male and female - anatomical features po...
A diagram showing where fat occurs in the human body. Not gratuitous nudity at all.

Thank you, Professor Marie Cassidy, for putting the sane side of the story.

A couple of months back I was horrified by a coroner here in Galway describing a case of a body catching fire as “spontaneous human combustion”. Working on a comparable case, Professor Cassidy took the opportunity to call that description a myth. And as State Pathologist – and a professor of forensic medicine – she is perhaps better qualified on the subject than a GP.

To be as fair as possible to that coroner (Dr. Ciaran MacLoughlin), I’m sure he wasn’t envisioning the phenomenon as it appears in fiction: A person becoming so saturated with alcohol – and possibly sin – that one night they just burst into flames. But in finding spontaneous combustion to be the cause of death, he asserts that living people can ignite of their own accord. Which is… nuts.

What does seem to be a real – if rare – phenomenon is a person’s dead body catching fire and burning with no source of kindling other than their clothes or perhaps the chair they were in. The simple if somewhat disturbing fact is that we contain a lot of fuel. Human fat – which even the most svelte of us have – is basically oil after all.

What’s not real is the spontaneity bit; an external cause of ignition is sometimes hard to find, but it seems more than likely that there always is one. Nor is the entire body consumed as in a cremation – despite what some of the more sensationalist papers reported. And it was most certainly not, even in this case, the cause of death. There was good evidence that the ‘victim’ was already dead when their body caught fire.

So how did MacLoughlin conclude that this was spontaneous human combustion? By logical fallacy, apparently. Fire investigators had found no proof that any nearby source – including the open fire burning in the grate – had ignited the body. (One wonders how you could prove that.) He appears to have taken this lack of proof that it was the source as proof that it was not. In formal logic, this is a category of error known as being a dur-brain.

Well, Professor Cassidy can put down the myth of spontaneous human combustion. What she can’t do is quash the rumour that we have state-appointed medical professionals in this country who believe it.

Spontaneous Combustion Controversy Rekindled

Human male and female - anatomical features po...
A diagram showing where fat occurs in the human body. Not gratuitous nudity at all.

Thank you, Professor Marie Cassidy, for putting the sane side of the story.

A couple of months back I was horrified by a coroner here in Galway describing a case of a body catching fire as “spontaneous human combustion”. Working on a comparable case, Professor Cassidy took the opportunity to call that description a myth. And as State Pathologist – and a professor of forensic medicine – she is perhaps better qualified on the subject than a GP.

To be as fair as possible to that coroner (Dr. Ciaran MacLoughlin), I’m sure he wasn’t envisioning the phenomenon as it appears in fiction: A person becoming so saturated with alcohol – and possibly sin – that one night they just burst into flames. But in finding spontaneous combustion to be the cause of death, he asserts that living people can ignite of their own accord. Which is… nuts.

What does seem to be a real – if rare – phenomenon is a person’s dead body catching fire and burning with no source of kindling other than their clothes or perhaps the chair they were in. The simple if somewhat disturbing fact is that we contain a lot of fuel. Human fat – which even the most svelte of us have – is basically oil after all.

What’s not real is the spontaneity bit; an external cause of ignition is sometimes hard to find, but it seems more than likely that there always is one. Nor is the entire body consumed as in a cremation – despite what some of the more sensationalist papers reported. And it was most certainly not, even in this case, the cause of death. There was good evidence that the ‘victim’ was already dead when their body caught fire.

So how did MacLoughlin conclude that this was spontaneous human combustion? By logical fallacy, apparently. Fire investigators had found no proof that any nearby source – including the open fire burning in the grate – had ignited the body. (One wonders how you could prove that.) He appears to have taken this lack of proof that it was the source as proof that it was not. In formal logic, this is a category of error known as being a dur-brain.

Well, Professor Cassidy can put down the myth of spontaneous human combustion. What she can’t do is quash the rumour that we have state-appointed medical professionals in this country who believe it.

Spontaneous Human Combustion

The alleged SHC victims is almost always alone, even in fictional accounts like this one of Dickens'. How come?

West Galway coroner Dr. Ciaran MacLoughlin has ruled the death of a pensioner to be Spontaneous Human Combustion. This follows his finding of a 2009 murder-suicide to be the action of “shape-shifting beings of intelligent energy”, his 2005 decision that a local man’s disappearance was caused by him being “simply pulled down into Hell”, and his opinion that the 1998 death of a lorry driver was caused by something that “mortal man wots naught therof”.

OK I made those up, but they really are no more silly than a verdict of spontaneous human combustion, a thing not recognised by science to actually f***ing exist. A coroner has entered, as the official cause of death, that a person… burst into flames.

Let’s get this clear:

Spontaneous combustion is a real – and quite ordinary – thing. It simply means that substances can catch light without any flame being introduced. This can happen in a variety of ways, heat generated by decomposition in compost heaps being a common example.

Human combustion is a real thing too. Human bodies can burn; we cremate them all the time. Though we aren’t exactly highly inflammable, it doesn’t take a terribly big fire to entirely consume a body. Our Neolithic ancestors would do it with simple pyres of wood.

Spontaneous human combustion is when a human bursts into flame without any external cause, and this… just doesn’t happen. It’s been a thing of legend for some time, and has been popularised in fiction – most significantly, Charles DickensBleak House. The theory, perhaps “legend” would be a better word, is that some strange chemical change in the body causes it to catch light all by itself. Nobody has ever managed to recreate such a chemical reaction though.

What get labelled ‘spontaneous’ human combustion are cases where a body is found mostly or partially burned away without being on a pyre of any kind. It’s shocking, but should we really be surprised? We are partly inflammable bodies wrapped in often quite inflammable clothing. It’s perhaps surprising that we don’t catch fire more often.

There is no reason to believe that there was anything spontaneous about these conflagrations. Such bodies are often found in front of an open fire, very often the victim is a smoker. (It’s perhaps telling that reports of SHC begin only after the introduction of tobacco.) To my knowledge there has never been a case where an external source of ignition could be ruled out. Certainly not this one, where the victim was found near both matches and an open fire. (Investigators merely said that the fire did not spread from the hearth.)

Another telling thing that all these cases have in common: The victims are alone. Usually too they are very old or otherwise incapacitated (the victim in this case had type 2 diabetes, so coma is a possibility), and it seems likely that in many of these cases they are dead before the fire starts. Something sets their clothing (or the chair they are in) alight; perhaps the cigarette they were smoking, perhaps the heat of the open fire. Normally when things start to smoulder we react instinctively and quickly, but if the victim is dead or deeply unconscious and alone there is a small but real chance that smouldering can break into fire. It seems clothing fires can sometimes reach sufficient temperature to make the body’s own fats start to burn, whereupon it will to a greater or lesser extent consume itself. Animal fats make excellent fuels.

Why doesn’t the house burn down? Often it does, and so becomes another ordinary house fire caused by another ordinary stray cigarette. Just occasionally though the victim isn’t near anything the fire can spread to, and you get horrifying scenes like this.

Pathologist Professor Grace Callagy made the correct call – it was impossible to say the exact cause of death because too much of the body had been consumed by fire. We simply don’t know if he was already dead when the burning started. So for the coroner to return “spontaneous human combustion” as cause of death is quite simply ludicrous.

Prepared to be laughed at, fellow Galwegians. For this makes us look like a bunch of nineteenth-century bog goblins.