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Dublin: 7 °C Thursday 2 October, 2014

Spontaneous human combustion: around since (at least) 1833?

The case of a Galway pensioner who was pronounced a victim of spontaneous human combustion this week would have posed a challenge to Irish doctor who raised the mystery in early 19th century medical journal.

Image: Herval via Flickr.com

THE CASE OF a Galway pensioner who, it has been decided, died as a result of spontaneous human combustion last December has shocked many.

Spontaneous Human Combustion, however, was the subject of one Irish doctor’s study as far back as the early 19th century. Dr Edmond Sharkey wrote in the Dublin Journal of Medical and Chemical Science in 1833 that he was surprised his fellow physicians had not taken more note of it.

So are we, considering the latest ruling by a coroner that 76-year-old Michael Flaherty died as a result of the bizarre phenomenon in his home on 22 December last.

Gardaí who investigated the scene said that the fire was contained to the area immediately around Mr Flaherty’s body, while pathologist Dr Grave Callagy said that some of his bones had been cremated, which would have required temperatures of between 700 and 1,000 degrees Celsius, reports the Galway City Tribune.

Fire experts said that they believed that the fire had not spread from the hearth, and forensic analysis found no evidence of accelerant on or around the remains of Mr Flaherty.

A tradmark sign of spontaneous human combustion includes total cremation of either the while body, or parts of the body. The fire tends not to spread far away from the body, with only smoke and soot damage evident.

The body also tends to be close to a heat or ignition source – in this case Mr Flaherty’s body was found lying near the fireplace. Post mortem results usually show that the burning occurred after the victim died – again as was the case with Mr Flaherty.

At the time of writing about the condition in 1833, Dr Sharkey speculated that the lack of research into the phenomenon was a result of “the presumed unfrequency of the disease, and its consequent deficiency of practical interest”. And yet, says the good doctor, “the cases on record are so numerous, and have come down to us from different countries and eras” that there can be no denying it is indeed a real condition.

However, in 2000, the authors of an article in The Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine concluded that it didn’t actually exist as a phenomenon on its own. They wrote in Spontaneous human combustion: a sometimes incomprehensible phenomenon that the first cases had been reported in the 1600s but that a “flurry of cases”, half of which occurred in France, provoked people’s curiousity in the early 1800s. (And, presumably, that of Dr Sharkey).

Modern investigations had found that, according to the five French authors, that:

It is now accepted that under certain circumstances, a body can burn by combustion of its own fat with little or no damage to the close surroundings, and that such combustion is never ‘spontaneous’, but is instead ignited by an external source of flame. In some cases the body is found in the hearth of a chimney; in such instances, oxygenation is good and the draught of the conduit prevents the formation of smoke and particular circumstances cause combustion, not some unspecified extraordinary inflammability.

The paper makes reference to a 1965 experiment which found that a model based on the structure of the body’s layers of fat and skin could burn like a ‘candle’ in some circumstances and that the external source of the fire can disappear during the lengthy process “which explains the absence of heat source when the corpse is discovered”.

And their piece de resistance? The scientists argued that there were probably reasonable explanations for most, if not all, of the cases. They cite one modern case which could have turned into a case of ‘so-called’ spontaneous human combustion:

Just as he was placed on the examination table and before he could be undressed, the patient had a tonicclonic seizure, beating the air with his arms and striking his thighs. Within seconds, the doctors were amazed to see a trail of smoke rising from the man’s abdomen. Fortunately, the fire was quickly extinguished. It had quite simply started in a book of matches in one of the man’s pockets that he strick during the seizure. Thus an incident was prevented that might otherwise have turned into a further case of ‘spontaneous human combustion’.

The Discovery Channel made a documentary, Burning Bodies, to explore the phenomenon. It doesn’t draw any definitive conclusions but it does feature some pretty astounding archive footage and images of previously suspected cases of SHC:



-Additional reporting by Emer McLysaght

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