Return of “Spontaneous Human Combustion”

February 21, 2013

Here we go again! In 2011 it was an elderly Irishman who allegedly perished by “spontaneous human combustion” (SHC). Now it is an elderly Oklahoman—according to the Sequoyah County sheriff—who supposedly died by SHC.

As I said regarding the Irish case, after CBS News’ online Health Watch asked me to look into it, such claims are blarney. They are based on faulty logic—what is termed “an argument from ignorance” (i.e., a lack of knowledge). (See my blog of Sept. 27, 2011.)

SHC is a non-explanation for bizarre burning deaths, no better than positing the attack of a fiery demon, because there is not only no scientifically authenticated case of SHC but no credible mechanism by which it could happen. On the other hand, careful investigation usually shows what much more likely happened in a given instance.

In the Oklahoma case, the 65-year-old victim was “incinerated” but there “was no damage to the furniture or anything around the fire,” Sheriff Ron Lockhart told KSFM radio (broadcast Feb. 18). He concluded, “So it was a low-heat fire.” Lockhart admitted that the victim, Danny Vanzandt, was a cigarette smoker and drinker of alcohol, but he insisted that those factors could not have caused such incineration.

Obviously the sheriff is unaware that—given only the facts he mentioned—an obvious hypothesis naturally presents itself: The possibly intoxicated victim, who was alone so there was no one to intervene and rescue him, accidentally set himself on fire and collapsed, whereupon his clothing acted as a wick, absorbing the burning body’s melting fat to fuel still more burning—a cyclical process known to forensic experts as “the wick effect.” Thus there is a relatively low-temperature fire which does little damage to surroundings while efficiently consuming much of the body over an extended period. (See my Secrets of the Supernatural, 1988, pp. 149–57, 161–71, and my Real-Life X-Files, 2001, 28–36, 240–44.)

(Forensic analyst John Fischer and I investigated numerous historical “SHC” cases from the eighteenth century onward and published our results in the journal of the International Association of Arson Investigators in 1984. I have done much additional work since then and have presented on the subject at forensic conferences. In 2010 I gave a three-hour illustrated lecture on alleged SHC as a special instructor at the New York state Academy of Fire Science.)

Not all instances of bizarre burning deaths necessarily involve the wick effect, and there is no substitute for thorough case-by-case investigation by knowledgeable experts. However, those who believe in “spontaneous human combustion” are too ill-informed to qualify.