Spontaneous Human Combustion

Going Up In Flames – A History Of Spontaneous Human Combustion

The term ‘spontaneous human combustion’ was first used by Paul Rolli in Philosophical Transactions in 1746. Rolli was repeating the story of Countess Cornelia Zangari and Bandi from an Italian source.

Rolli’s story really took off, and when Charles Dickens had his character, Mr Krook, burn suddenly to death as a result of an excess of alcohol in his body in his 1853 novel Bleak House the idea really entered mass public consciousness. Dickens was protective enough of his authorly integrity to list a number of recorded cases of the phenomenon as a justification in the preface to the novel.

Science has no answer to spontaneous human combustion. Humans are largely made up of water. If you’re dumb enough you can try to set fire to yourself, and while you might be able to get your hair to smoulder or burn, you won’t get very far.

Dickens’ and Bartholin’s idea that alcohol could play a role has been popular, but no-one has been able to produce evidence for this.

In 1961, a London coroner, Gavin Thurston, came up with the idea of the “wick effect”. Thurston argued that while you’d need to produce a temperature of 250c to burn human fat; once the fat was melted it would burn at room temperature on a wick.

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