For some time, people have debated whether or not human beings could spontaneously combust, or burst into flames, without an external heat source. However, over the past 300 years, there have been more than 200 reports of such incidents occurring. This phenomenon is called Spontaneous Human Combustion (or SHC) and it occurs when a person supposedly burns to death by a fire believed to have started from within the body of that person. Of the hundreds of accounts on record, there seems to be a similar pattern.
A solitary victim is often consumed by flame, usually inside his or her home. However, the extremities, such as the hands, feet, or parts of the leg often remaining intact. The torso and head are charred beyond recognition and, in rare cases, the internal organs of a victim remain unscathed.
The room the victim was in usually shows little to no signs of fire, aside from a greasy residue left on furniture and walls. Often there is a sweet, smoky smell in the room where the incident has occurred.
Historical Examples of Death Claimed to be Caused by Spontaneous Human Combustion
The history of SHC can be traced back to medieval literature and some even believe there are several passages in the bible making reference to it.
In 1641, the Danish physician, Thomas Bartholin (1616-1680), described the death of Polonus Vorstius in his book Historiarum Anatomicarum Rariorum, a collection of strange medical phenomena.
Vorstius was an Italian knight who, while at his home in Milan, Italy in 1470, drank some strong wine and started vomiting flames before bursting into fire. This is considered to be the first recorded account of spontaneous combustion in human history.
In 1673, French author Jonas Dupont, published a book entitled De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis which is a collection of cases and studies on the subject of SHC.
One famous incident from France dates back to 1725, when a Parisian innkeeper was awoken by the smell of smoke and discovered that his wife, Nicole Millet, had been reduced to ashes while lying on a straw pallet which itself had been untouched by the flames.
All that remained of Madame Millet, a chronic alcoholic, was her skull, a few bones from her back and lower legs. Wooden items found around her were undamaged. Her husband was charged with murder and initially found guilty.
On appeal, however, the judges agreed with his defense of “spontaneous human combustion,” thanks in part to the testimony of a surgeon named Dr Claude-Nicolas Le Cat. Le Cat was at the inn when the smell of smoke awoke the house and Nicole’s body was discovered. Her death was later declared to be the consequence of “a visitation of God.”
Spontaneous Human Combustion became popularized in the 19th century after famous English author, Charles Dickens, used it to kill off one of his characters in the novel Bleak House. When critics accused Dickens of trying to validate something that didn’t exist, he simply pointed to existing research showing 30 historical cases at the time.
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