Fires, Paranormal

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Fires, Paranormal

Spontaneous combustion or "auto-oxidation" of human beings is one of the most baffling types of unexplained phenomena. For centuries, cases have been reported of individuals who burst into flames for no apparent reason; although their bodies were destroyed by fire, their clothes and surrounding objects were often unaffected. For example, on December 16, 1904, Mrs. Thomas Cochrane, a widow of Falkirk, Scotland, was burned to death in her bedroom. There was no fire in the grate but she was burned almost beyond recognition, although the chair in which her body was found and the pillows and cushions with which she was surrounded were not even scorched. In January of the same year Elizabeth Clark of Hull, England, was found with her body covered with burns. There was no fire and her bed was not scorched. Although still alive when found, she could not explain what had happened, and she soon died. On December 13, 1959, Billy Thomas Peterson was found burning in his garaged automobile in Pontiac, Michigan. His left arm was so badly burned that the skin rolled off; his nose, mouth, and ears were burned; and his genitals were charred to a crisp. The hairs on his body were unsinged, however, and all his clothing remained unscorched, although the heat involved was so intense that a plastic religious statue on the auto dashboard had melted.

Such cases are usually explained away by rationalizations that do not meet the facts. For example, when a victim of spontaneous combustion has been seated near a fireplace, the usual explanation is that a cinder from the fire ignited the clothing ignoring the fact that the calcined body indicates tremendous heat but often clothing is unaffected. In some cases of victims who were seated in autos, the instrument panel and fuel tanks were unaffected in spite of the great heat required to burn up a human body. Of course there are cases that are less ambiguous, where clothing and surroundings have been burned and some natural explanation is indicated.

The phenomenon of spontaneous combustion has been recognized by the medical profession over many years, although it is frankly admitted that a coroner's verdict of "death by spontaneous combustion" or even "accidental death" explains nothing in such cases.

Early Cases

The first professional recognition of spontaneous combustion recorded in print appears to be in the book Acta Medica & Philosophica Hafniensia Ann. 1671 & 1672, by Thomas Bartholin, published in Copenhagen in 1673. The earliest detailed account of spontaneous combustion of a human body is in De Incendiis Corporis Spontaneis, by Jonas Dupont, published in Leyden in 1763. During the nineteenth century, the phenomenon was often discussed in medical works and journals, but there was a tendency to dogmatize on insufficient evidence. An 1833 paper by M. J. Fintelle for the French Academy of Sciences suggested that the victims were usually corpulent women who were addicted to alcohol, thus generating "inflammable gases" in the stomach, and were usually seated near a source of heat or flame. Examination of numerous cases of spontaneous human combustion has shown these assumptions to be little more than inaccurate generalizations. There have been many male victims, most not heavy drinkers and often not seated near a source of flame.

The case of John Greley, helmsman of the S.S. Ulrich is instructive. On April 7, 1938, he was steering the ship toward Liverpool, England, when the second mate noticed it was beginning to yaw. The second mate ran to the wheelhouse, where he found the helmsman burned to a crisp at the wheel. The compass, varnished wooden wheel, and even the holystoned deck were not scorched. Interestingly enough, on the same day two other individuals died of spontaneous combustion. George Turner, a British truck driver, was heading for Liverpool from southeast England when the vehicle stopped and rolled into a ditch. Turner was later found calcined in his cab, but nothing else was burnednot even a grease stain on the passenger side of the truck. Willen ten Bruik, an 18-year-old Dutchman, also similarly died at the wheel of his vehicle while driving into Ub-bergen, Holland.

The extraordinary coincidence of these three similar deaths on the same day is heightened by the fact (pointed out by Michael Harrison in his book Fire From Heaven ) that the deaths were geographically linked, taking place in a triangular area with two sides roughly 340 miles long. Is this another "fatal triangle" mystery? No other similar coincidences have been recorded in the same area, although the mystery remains. As journalist Michael McDougall wrote in the Newark Sunday Star-Ledger: "It was as if a galactic being of unimaginable size had probed Earth with a three-tined fork: three fingers of fire, which burned only flesh."

Little is known of the reason for spontaneous combustion, but the Transactions of the Medical Society of Tennessee for 1835 reports a remarkable case of partial combustion that offers clues to the onset of the phenomenon. On January 5, 1835, on a very cold day, James Hamilton, professor of mathematics of the University of Nashville, walked home, a distance of about three-quarters of a mile. Forty minutes later he was inspecting a hygrometer that he had hung outside his house when he felt a sudden pain in his left leg "like a hornet sting, accompanied by a sensation of heat." He looked down and saw a bright flame, several inches long, "about the size of a dime in diameter," issuing like a gas flame from his trousered leg. After slapping the flame several times, he eventually extinguished it by cupping his hands around it to cut off oxygen. After putting out the flame he found that his leg had an injury that resembled an abrasion; the wound was very dry and the scar tissue had gathered in a roll at the lower edge of the abraded surface. Other writers have stated that spontaneous combustion begins with a bluish flame that extends rapidly all over the body until all parts are blackened and burned to a cinder. Throwing water on this flame only aggravates it, they say.

During the nineteenth century the phenomenon of spontaneous combustion was so familiar that it was referred to in various works of fiction, such as Frederick Marryat's Jacob Faithful (1833), Honore de Balzac's Le Cousin Pons (1847), Herman Melville's Redburn (1849), Charles Dickens's Bleak House (1853), and Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi (1833).

Cases of human spontaneous combustion are still reported. Various theories have been advanced to account for this weird phenomenon, such as unusual effects of ball lightning, static electricity, or even psychical effects related to levitation and telekinesis. If this latter theory should seem far-fetched, it is worth quoting a comment of Soviet parapsychologist Genady Sergeyev about the telekinetic subject Nina Kulagina, reported in the British newspaper Sunday People (March 14, 1976): "She can draw energy somehow from all around her. On several occasions the force rushing into her body left burn-marks up to 4 inches long on her arms and hands. I was with her once when her clothing caught fire from this energy-flowit literally flamed."

Of the many recorded cases of spontaneous human combustion it is probable that there is no single appropriate explanation but rather various types of phenomena. In some cases there may be a simple explanation, in others a mysterious and as yet inexplicable reason. Joe Nickel and John F. Fischer, skeptics of the paranormal, tried their hand at explanations, but fared little better than previous observers. Jerome Clark suggested that spontaneous human combustion may be a manufactured mystery bringing together a series of unrelated cases, each of which has its own explanation.


Bartholin, Thomas. Acta Medica & Philosophical Hafniensia Ann. 1671 & 1672. Copenhagen, 1673.

Clark, Jerome. Encyclopedia of Strange and Unexplained Phenomena. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.

Gaddis, Vincent H. Mysterious Fires and Lights. New York: McKay, 1967.

Harrison, Michael. Fire From Heaven. London, 1976. Re-print, New York: Methuen, 1977. Rev. ed. London: Pan, 1977.

Lair, Pierre. Essai sur les combustions humaine, produites par l' abus des liqueurs spiritueses. Paris, 1808.

Michell, John, and Robert J. M. Rickard. Phenomena: A Book of Wonders. London: Thames and Hudson, 1977. Reprint, New York: Pantheon Books, 1977.

Nickell, Joe, and John F. Fischer. Secrets of the Supernatural: Investigating the World's Occult Mysteries. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Press, 1988.

Rickard, Robert, and Richard Kelly. Photographs of the Un-known. London: Book Club Associates, 1980.

Russell, Eric Frank. Great World Mysteries. London, 1957.

United States Army. Index-Catalogue of the Library of the Surgeon-General's Office. Washington, D.C., 1882.