Spontaneous Human Combustion Term Paper

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Spontaneous human combustion is the claim that human beings from time to time burst into flame and are consumed, usually without much damage to their surroundings, as if the heat from the flame came from inside their bodies. These claims have been made for a long time, fueled by newspaper accounts of such deaths and vague statements about there being no other apparent means for these fires to have started. More recent investigations have suggested that most of these accounts ar a matter of faulty observation or faulty reporting in the press. Mark Benecke makes this clear when he writes,

Paranormal proponents and popular articles are quick to attribute certain dramatic fire-death characteristics to an unknown or bizarre power source, but in all such deaths documented in forensic literature, there has been no need to resort to bizarre interpretations to account for the observed facts (Benecke 47).

The phenomenon was brought to the public eye more than 150 years by "Charles Dickens's horrific description of the death of Krook, the rag dealer in Bleak House" (Martin 2), which in turn is believed to have been inspired by the death by fire of countess Cornelia Bandi in 1731 (Benecke 47).

Cases that are believed to be spontaneous human combustion surface from time to time, such as the report from 1999 that the remains of Diarmuid Brosnan, a single man in his sixties, had been found in the village of Gneeveguilla, County Kerry, in Ireland. The body had been badly burned body when it was discovered in the living room, and the room itself was not itself badly damaged. Someone who saw the body stated, "It was most unusual in so far as there was very extensive damage to the center of the body but that's almost as far as it went" (Sieveking 21). A similar death...

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The settee on which she was sitting was burned, but nothing else in the apartment (Sieveking 21).
In 1998, French police were investigating a case that might also be a matter of spontaneous human combustion. An elderly woman was reduced to a small pile of ashes and a slippered foot. She was sitting in an armchair at home. The police said that house seemed untouched by the fire, with the exception of the chair the woman had been sitting in at the time (Herbert B1).

Such cases suggest at least two lines of inquiry: 1) whether such cases are simply a matter of false observation and do have external causes; or 2) if they have internal causes, what are the mechanisms which cause this to happen? Scientists have pursued both avenues in some degree. An experiment in 1998 suggested that spontaneous human combustion might be possible even if not really spontaneous. An experiment was conducted using gasoline, blankets, and a pig carcass: "The experiment shows how human beings can suddenly be consumed by a fire so intense that it destroys even their bones while leaving the rest of a room untouched" (Matthews and Blundell 12). Forensic experts studying cases state that the destruction of bone suggests that the fires would have to reach temperatures of more than 600-degrees Centigrade for hours. Scientists have suggested that the so-called "wick effect" could be the reason. This occurs when a person's clothing catch fire accidentally and acts "like a candle wick, heating the body to temperatures where fat melts, giving the fire a source of fuel for hours" (Matthews and Blundell 21). The aforementioned experiment showed…

Sources Used in Documents:

Works Cited

Benecke, Mark. "Spontaneous Human Combustion: Thoughts of a Forensic Biologist." Skeptical Inquirer (4 March 1998), 47-50.

Chalmers, Robert. "Weird Stuff: Flaming mysteries..." The Observer (3 March 1996), 24.

Herbert, Susannah. "International: Mystery of Widow Reduced to Ashes." The Daily Telegraph (10 Dec 1998), 4.

Irwin, Aisling. "The Theory of Spontaneous Human Combustion Goes Up in Flames." The Daily Telegraph (14 April 1998), 4.


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