Spontaneous human combustion and “the wick effect”
By Andy Kaiser
Article ID: 1310
Imagine you’re sitting at home on your favorite overstuffed armchair. You sink down in the stuffing and relax. You’ve got a cigarette in one hand, a drink in the other.
You smoke and drink. You’re sleepy, and the lazy trail of cigarette smoke is a gentle hypnosis. It lulls you into closing your eyes. Your brain decides it would rather be dreaming, and the rest of your body agrees. You go to sleep.
You never again wake up.
After your hysterical neighbor calls emergency services, the police break in to your home and find a gruesome and unbelievable sight.
Your body is burned. Clothing, flesh and bones. It’s gone. All that’s left of you is a foot still wearing a slipper. Your chair is nothing but black cinders. But what’s so perplexing, so frightening, is that there is no other damage to the room. Your body and your chair were destroyed, incinerated. But despite the horrible heat and flame needed to accomplish this, the fire never spread beyond, well, you.
This wasn’t caused by an electrical problem, and there was no highly-combustible fuel like gasoline. The fire was brutally hot, and burned fast, so couldn’t have been caused by a dropped cigarette. And in either case, the pain of being burned would have woken you up before killing you.
This is the mystery of spontaneous human combustion.
While I’ve used a little poetic license in the story above, it really did happen. These were the facts of what could be the most famous case of spontaneous human combustion, that of Mary Reeser, who died in St. Petersburg, Florida, in 1951.
Proponents of spontaneous human combustion point to several possible explanations. Humans can suddenly explode into flame, they say, because of things like excessive static electricity build-up. Get a big enough zap, and you’ll spark a fire. There are indeed people who get more than the average amount of static shocks. And every human gut carries around a quantity of methane gas. This highly flammable gas is one of the byproducts of digestion. Perhaps certain unlucky people – those with more than average methane and a higher incidence of static shocks – are more likely to burst into flame without warning. If you were looking for a reason to stop smoking, I can’t think of any better incentive.
Luckily for those of us who haven’t yet combusted, things make more sense when we look at spontaneous human combustion from a skeptical point of view.
In order for a human body – or anything – to burst into flame, we need three things:
Let’s examine the Mary Reeser case. We have oxygen, of course: The air we breathe is about 21% oxygen. We have heat: Reeser’s lit cigarette. And we have a limited fuel source: Reeser’s chair.
What I haven’t yet detailed beyond the opening story are a few additional facts about Mary Reeser: She was overweight. At the time of the accident, she was wearing flammable nightclothes. She had also just taken multiple doses of sleeping pills. The floors and walls of her apartment were made of concrete.
The wick effect
I said the chair is a “limited” fuel source because stuffing and wood are probably not enough to produce a bone-incinerating heat all on their own. To achieve this, we consider “the wick effect“. This is where the fat in a body contributes to a fire. As the fire heats a body, the fat will melt and begin to burn. Just as a cotton wick will pull molten wax from a candle and burn it, cotton stuffing in a chair will do the same thing with human body fat of a person sitting in that chair. Like Mary Reeser.
With the addition of these facts, the sequence of events becomes ever clearer: Mary Reeser fell asleep in her chair. Her lit cigarette dropped and ignited her nightgown or her chair. The material burned, and Reeser did not wake in time (or at all) because of her recently-ingested sleeping pills. The fat in her body liquefied and burned, and her chair stuffing acted like a candle wick, accelerating the burning. This created a localized, high-heat fire, one that burned fiercely but briefly. At the end of this horrible accident, hardly anything of Mary Reeser remained, though the rest of her apartment was undamaged because the fuel was used up and the apartment itself was non-flammable concrete.
I specifically addressed the Reeser case because it’s one of the most popular of SHC proponents, and is also one where many of the facts are known. But in working with cases of supposed spontaneous human combustion, an explanation like the “wick effect” won’t cover all of them. There are too many variances between cases, too many different environments and situations. Each situation must be addressed on a case-by-case basis. Given enough facts, there is always a non-supernatural explanation for spontaneous human combustion. No supernatural evidence for SHC has been produced. But because we don’t always have the facts, because credulous media reporting and pseudoscience can be sexier than deductive reasoning, stories of spontaneous human combustion will continue. The key is to treat them for what they are: just another horror story to be told around the campfire. Is spontaneous human combustion entertaining? Yes. Is it interesting? Absolutely. Is it supernatural? No.
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Nickell, Joe. 2001. Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky.
Parker, Trey (Writer) Stone, Matt (Writer and Director) and Goodman, David (Writer). (1999). Spontaneous combustion. Comedy Central (Producer), South Park. Los Angeles: South Park Studios.