Hello, Lovelies! Welcome to Ashley’s show notes about spontaneous human combustion and information on this week’s drink break! As promised, Click Here to watch the video of animals getting drunk on fermented fruit in Africa Rebecca briefly talked about during this episode.

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Ashley’s Show Notes

July 1, 1951 was a normal evening for 67 Year old Mary Reese it was spent visiting with her son and a neighbor.

During the visit she was said to be wearing a rayon nightgown, slippers and a robe. After they left they state everything appeared normal in her apartment.

The following morning a telegram courier arrived and received no answer to his knock at the door.

Summoning the same neighbor, who had visited Mary the previous evening, they found the doorknob hot to the touch.

The neighbor asked nearby workers (some sources say policemen some construction workers) for help getting into the apartment

Once inside, they found the apartment unusually warm, even though some of the windows were open.
After a bit of investigation they found a pile of ashes, the burnt remains of a chair and lamp, and an electric clock with a melted plug that had stopped at 2:26 a.m.

Other than the charred remnants in this corner, the apartment was completely undisturbed.

Upon closer examination, they found a woman’s left foot, still wearing a slipper, in the ashes (some sources say a shrunken human skull was also found).

That’s all that was left of Mary Reeser.

There was no sign of a break-in or a burglary or any other outside influence in the apartment. The authorities were stumped and began to call in consultants to help.

Reeser took sleeping pills and was also a smoker.

A common theory was that she was smoking a cigarette after taking sleeping pills, and then fell asleep while still holding the burning cigarette, which could have ignited her gown, ultimately leading to her death.

But, To the experts, clearly this was no ordinary fire. They estimated that a fire of 3,500 degrees burning for several hours would be needed to consume a human being so thoroughly. With a fire that hot, burning for that long, why wasn’t the rest of the apartment, if not the entire building, burned down?

St. Petersburg police solicited the help of the F.B.I., but the Bureau couldn’t shed any light on the situation.

Physical anthropologist Wilton Krogman, a consultant on the case, wrote: “”I find it hard to believe that a human body, once ignited, will literally consume itself — burn itself out, as does a candle wick…never have I seen a body so completely consumed by heat. This is contrary to normal experience, and 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.”

Possible explanations have been put forward ranging from ball lightning to explosives to a neglected cigarette which is what was ultimately ruled as the cause of death.

So, what actually happened to Mary Reeser?

For well over a century, some have claimed that people can suddenly and inexplicably explode into a ball of fire.

The phenomenon is called spontaneous human combustion (SHC). Which is a term for the concept of the combustion of a living (or recently deceased) human body without an apparent external source of ignition.

Spontaneous combustion has its roots, medically speaking, in the 18th century.

Paul Rolli, a fellow of London’s Royal Society, the world’s oldest scientific academy in continuous existence, coined the term in a 1744 article entitled Philosophical Transactions.

Rolli described it as “a process in which a human body allegedly catches fire as a result of heat generated by internal chemical activity, but without evidence of an external source of ignition.”

In fact, there are nearly a dozen references to people bursting into flames in pre-1900 fiction.

The most famous example is Charles Dickens’s 1853 novel “Bleak House,” in which a character explodes into fire, When critics accused Dickens of legitimizing something that didn’t exist, he pointed to research showing 30 historical cases.

In modern times, SHC has appeared in movies and on television shows, including “The X-Files,” and it’s even, sort of, the super-power of Johnny Storm, the Human Torch, in “Fantastic Four” comic books.

More recently, cases of SHC have been suspected when police and fire department officials have found burned corpses with unscathed furniture around them. But, As we know fires do not typically start on their own.

However, many things can self-ignite without exposure to flames, under the right circumstances, including coal dust, piles of compost and used oily rags.

But it’s a whole different matter to claim that people can suddenly burst into flames for no apparent reason. As we know by my last subject bodies can burn; crematoriums routinely reduce the human body to ashes in the course of a few hours.

The mystery of SHC lies in the supposedly strange circumstances under which victims burst into flames.

Typically, there is no reported obvious source of ignition, no open fires nearby that might set the person aflame.

Furthermore, SHC is fatal there are no reports of partial burn on arms or legs.

Some claim that burning often seems to begin in the chest or stomach area, leaving the grisly remains of legs and hands intact.

Others claim that the furniture and floors under and surrounding the victims (including even their clothing) remain mysteriously unburned.

Some of these popular claims are simply wrong. For example, there are many photographs of supposed SHC victims that clearly show extensive burning and damage to the clothing and surroundings of the burned person.

It’s also important to understand a bit of fire forensics: many fires are self-limiting; that is, they put themselves out naturally because they run out of fuel.

Though we often see uncontrolled fires completely engulfing and burning down entire rooms and buildings, fires are unpredictable.

It is quite possible, for example, for only a rug, bed, or sofa to catch fire without spreading to the rest of the room.

Because fires normally burn upward instead of outward, there is nothing paranormal or strange about finding a victim in one part of a room burned to death while the rest of the room has little more than smoke damage.

What about the source of ignition? What could possibly cause people to suddenly burst into flames? A century ago, it was blamed on intemperance and even God’s wrath: most victims were assumed to be drunkards who had saturated their cells with alcohol.

In the 1970s, a quasi-Freudian explanation came to be suggesting that a person’s depressive emotional states could somehow cause him or her to become enflamed.

Others have suggested that sunspots, cosmic storms, gas-producing intestinal bacteria, or even a buildup of the body’s supposed “vibrational energy” may be to blame.

Yet there is no evidence for any of these “explanations”.

Our bodies are about 60 percent to 70 percent non-flammable water, and the simple fact is that there is no physical or medical mechanism by which a person could possibly self-combust.

If people truly could suddenly burst into flames without being anywhere near an open flame, presumably there would be examples that have occurred while the victim was swimming, in a bathtub, or even scuba diving. Yet those cases do not exist.

Only about a dozen claimed real-life cases of SHC have been investigated in any detail. Researcher Joe Nickell examined many “unexplainable” cases in his book “Real-Life X-Files” and found that all of them were far less mysterious than often suggested.

Reported cases and descriptions of the alleged phenomenon appear in literature have been observed to share common characteristics in terms of circumstances and the remains of the victim.

Forensic investigations have analyzed reported instances of SHC which resulted in ideas of potential causes and similarities, including victim behavior and habits such as alcohol consumption and proximity to potential sources of ignition.

An Article in The British Medical Journal in 1938 stated that commonalities among recorded cases of spontaneous human combustion included the following characteristics:

“[…]the recorded cases have these things in common:

  1. the victims are chronic alcoholics;
  2. they are usually elderly females;
  3. the body has not burned spontaneously, but some lighted substance has come into contact with it;
  4. the hands and feet usually fall off;
  5. the fire has caused very little damage to combustible things in contact with the body;
  6. the combustion of the body has left a residue of greasy and fetid ashes, very offensive in odour.”[5]

Most “victims” of SHC were elderly, alone and near flames (often cigarettes, candles, and open fires) when they died. Several were last seen drinking alcohol and smoking.

Alcoholism is a common theme in early SHC literary references, in part because some Victorian era physicians and writers believed spontaneous human combustion was the result of alcoholism

The investigations also found that there was a correlation between alleged SHC deaths and the victim’s intoxication (or other forms of incapacitation) which could conceivably have caused them to be careless and unable to respond properly to an accident

If the person is asleep, intoxicated, unconscious, infirm or otherwise unable to move or put the flames out, the victim’s clothes can act as a wick.

Where the destruction of the body was not particularly extensive, a primary source of combustible fuel could plausibly have been the victim’s clothing or a covering such as a blanket or comforter.

However, where the destruction was extensive, additional fuel sources were involved, such as chair stuffing, floor coverings, the flooring itself, and the like.

The investigators described that it could be accounted to a process known as the “wick effect” or the “candle effect”.

The “wick effect” hypothesis suggests that a small external flame source, such as a burning cigarette, chars the clothing of the victim at a location, splitting the skin and releasing subcutaneous fat, which is in turn absorbed into the burned clothing, acting as a wick. This combustion can continue for as long as the fuel is available. This hypothesis has been successfully tested with animal tissue (pig) and is consistent with evidence recovered from cases of human combustion.[17][18] The human body typically has enough stored energy in fat and other chemical stores to fully combust the body; even lean people have several pounds of fat in their tissues. This fat, once heated by the burning clothing, wicks into the clothing much as candle wax (which typically was originally made of animal fat) wicks into a lit candle wick to provide the fuel needed to keep the wick burning.[19] The protein in the body also burns, but provides less energy than fat, with the water in the body being the main impediment to combustion. However, slow combustion, lasting hours, gives the water time to evaporate slowly. In an enclosed area, such as a house, this moisture will recondense nearby, possibly on windows.[citation needed] Feet don’t typically burn because they often have the least fat; hands also have little fat, but may burn if resting on the abdomen, which provides all of the necessary fat for combustion.

Brian J. Ford has suggested that ketosis, possibly caused by alcoholism or low-carb dieting, produces acetone, which is highly flammable and could therefore lead to apparently spontaneous combustion.[21][22]

Mast cell researcher Lawrence Afrin, M.D. posits that a rare condition called Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS) may be the cause of the phenomenon. In MCAS, mast cells spontaneously release over 200 inflammatory molecules known as mediators, including the substance norepinephrine. Afrin describes a case report of a man with MCAS who grew ill and appeared to “smoke” in the presence of several witnesses. Afrin writes that the release of large amounts of norepinephrine, or perhaps another mast cell-derived substance, could turn on a regulatory protein called UCP-1 in greater-than-normal amounts. UCP-1 causes adipose oxidization to be released as heat. Adipose tissue is a known repository of mast cells. Under the right circumstances, a sudden flood of norepinephrine released from adipose mast cells could activate the UCP-1 “switch” and cause heat generation in excess of 90 degrees Celsius, the ignition point of fat. Once the adipose tissue was ignited, it would in theory burn itself out, inclusive of bone marrow. [26]

There is also a rare medical condition called Stevens-Johnson syndrome that, in extreme cases, may be mistaken for a case of an aborted spontaneous combustion.

The skin disease, which can be triggered by a toxic reaction to medications, including antibiotics and prescription painkillers, causes the appearance of severe burns and blisters, and can be fatal.

Pseudoscientific and fictional theories[edit]

  • Larry E. Arnold in his 1995 book Ablaze! proposed a pseudoscientific new subatomic particle, which he called “pyrotron”. Arnold also wrote that the flammability of a human body could be increased by certain circumstances, like increased alcohol in the blood.[3]:84[20] He further proposed that extreme stress could be the trigger that starts many combustions.[3]:163[20] This process may use no external oxygen to spread throughout the body, since it may not be an “oxidation-reduction” reaction;[citation needed] however, no reaction mechanism has been proposed. Researcher Joe Nickell has criticised Arnold’s hypotheses as based on selective evidence and argument from ignorance.[20]
  • In his 1976 book Fire From Heaven, UK writer Michael Harrison suggests that SHC is connected to poltergeist activity because, he argues “the force which activates the ‘poltergeist’ originates in, and is supplied by, a human being”. Within the concluding summary, Harrison writes: “SHC, fatal or non-fatal, belongs to the extensive range of poltergeist phenomena.”[citation needed]
  • John Abrahamson suggested that ball lightning could account for spontaneous human combustion. “This is circumstantial only, but the charring of human limbs seen in a number of ball lightning cases are very suggestive that this mechanism may also have occurred where people have had limbs combusted,” says Abrahamson.[27]

If SHC is real why doesn’t it happen more often?

There are 7 billion people in the world, and yet we don’t see reports of people bursting into flame while walking down the street. No one has ever been seen, filmed or videotaped (for example, on a surveillance camera) suddenly bursting into flames.

It always happens to a single person left alone near a source of ignition.

And if some natural (but unknown) mechanism causes the combustion, why would it only occur in humans?

Why wouldn’t cows, dogs, elephants, birds or other animals suddenly, randomly and inexplicably explode in a ball of flames now and then?

Even if the phenomenon is incredibly rare, with billions of animals on the planet, statistically we should expect to see thousands of them exploding every day all around us.

Though there is no scientific evidence that SHC exists, now and then a case makes the news when officials cannot find another explanation.

Paranormal researcher Brian Dunning states that SHC stories “are simply the rare cases where a natural death in isolation has been followed by a slow combustion from some nearby source of ignition.” He further suggested that reports of people suddenly aflame should be called “Unsolved deaths by fire”, stating that an unknown cause did not necessarily imply that the fire lacked an external ignition source.

The most recent reported case of apparent SHC occurred in the early afternoon of 17 September 2017 in Tottenham, north London, when a 70-year-old pensioner, John Nolan from County Mayo in Ireland, appeared to spontaneously burst into flames while walking in the street. Some passers-by tried to help him at the scene and he was airlifted to hospital where he died the next day, having suffered severe third-degree burns on 65% of his body. At the time, investigators were unable to establish a reason for this incident and his death was treated as unexplained.[32][33] An inquest was opened at North London Coroner’s Court in March 2018, to further examine the circumstances of his death. The coroner concluded that Mr. Nolan accidentally set fire to himself while lighting a cigarette and the cause of death was given as “accidental ignition of clothing”.[34]


Margaret Hogan, an 89-year-old widow who lived alone in a house on Prussia Street, Dublin, was found burned almost to the point of complete destruction on 28 March 1970. Plastic flowers on a table in the centre of the room had been reduced to liquid and a television with a melted screen sat 12 feet from the armchair in which the ashen remains were found; otherwise, the surroundings were almost untouched. Her two feet, and both legs from below the knees, were undamaged. A small coal fire had been burning in the grate when a neighbour left the house the previous day; however, no connection between this fire and that in which Mrs. Hogan died could be found. An inquest, held on 3 April 1970, recorded death by burning, with the cause of the fire listed as “unknown”.[29]

Henry Thomas, a 73-year-old man, was found burned to death in the living room of his council house on the Rassau estate in Ebbw Vale, South Wales, in 1980. His entire body was incinerated, leaving only his skull and a portion of each leg below the knee. The feet and legs were still clothed in socks and trousers. Half of the chair in which he had been sitting was also destroyed. Police forensic officers decided that the incineration of Thomas was due to the wick effect. [30]

In December 2010, the death of Michael Faherty in County Galway, Ireland, was recorded as “spontaneous combustion” by the coroner. The doctor, Ciaran McLoughlin, made this statement at the inquiry into the death: “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.”[31]

Though Faherty’s body was found a few feet away from an open, burning fireplace the coroner decided that it had not set him afire.

On Dec. 5, 1966, the body of 92-year-old Dr. J. Irving Bentley was discovered in his Pennsylvania home by a meter reader. Actually, only part of Dr. Bentley’s leg and a foot were found. The rest of his body had been burned to ashes in his bathroom. Part of the good doctor’s incinerated robe lay at the site and his walker was left propped against the blackened bathtub. But the most eye-catching clue was a massive hole in his vinyl floor. Measuring 2 feet (.6 meters) wide by 4 feet (1.2 meters) long, it had eaten into the wooden floor beams and left a pile of ashes in the basement below. The rest of the house remained intact [source: Endeavour].

At first, Bentley’s demise was identified as a careless mishap. The elderly gentleman loved to smoke his pipe and he had a habit of carrying matches in his robe pockets. Upon reviewing the scene, the coroner deduced that Bentley had fallen asleep while smoking in the bathroom and was burned alive after some of his clothing caught fire