Top 10 Unsolved Cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion

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Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is one of the great unsolved mysteries of modern science. Although coroners often develop plausible theories as to how and why these deaths occur, many of these inexplicable fatalities eventually end up with every possible explanation debunked. That being said, there are some features that nearly every case has in common. For one thing, most victims of spontaneous combustion were either fairly elderly or obese, and many were alcoholics. The crazy thing is, despite the advanced forensics technology we have and plenty of documented cases to study (nearly 200), we just plain don’t know what really causes SHC. Sure there are theories, like the wick effect which has the people burning down like birthday candles, but in the end they’re all just guesses. Here are the top 10 cases, along with the age of the victim at the time of death where available.

10. John Irving Bentley (92)

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John Bentley was a doctor who was found dead in his home on December 5, 1966. Specifically, his lower right leg was found, next to a 2.5×4 foot hole in the floor through which his ashes had dropped down to the lower level. His entire body, minus the leg, had been burned to ash. The unharmed leg still had on his bedroom slipper, which was completely untouched by the fire that had consumed the body. Bentley’s friends initially thought that he had accidentally started the fire with his pipe, which was later found in the next room. In the end, the only perceivable cause of death was the burning of “90 percent of the body.”

9. Henry Thomas (73)

image so gross

Henry Thomas was found in 1980, with his entire body burned except for the skull and his lower legs. According to the police officer who arrived on the scene first, there was a fine mist of human fat covering all the surfaces in the room, which had evaporated in the extreme heat of the fire. The front panel of the TV was melted as well, despite being at least 15 feet away from the body. The only other things that burned were objects which had been in direct contact with the body – half of a chair, which eventually tipped and dropped the body to the floor.

8. Mary Hardy Reeser “The Cinder Lady” (67)

mary reeser

This story of spontaneous combustion starts out much the same as any other: on a warm Florida evening on July 1, 1951, Mary Reeser inexplicably went up in flames while all alone in her apartment. Like the first two cases, one of the only remains was her left foot. Unlike the other cases though, her skull survived the fire, but was shrunken down to about half of its original size. An anthropologist by the name of Wilton Krogman was especially puzzled by this, saying that in any normal situation with such extreme heat, the skull would be more likely to explode than anything else.

7. George Mott (58)

george mott

In what can only be described as a cruel twist of fate, firefighter George Mott became a victim of SHC in 1986 when his ashes were found in his New York home. Mott was a heavy drinker and prolific smoker, but in the end these were both ruled out as possible causes of death. Like Reeser, Mott’s only remain was an inexplicably shrunken skull in a human sized pile of ashes.

6. Olga Stephens (75)

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A continuing theme of most of these stories is that the victim was alone when he or she spontaneously combusted. Olga Stephens, on the other hand, had the decency to do it in broad daylight while sitting in her car. Everything in the car besides the seat was completely undamaged, and the report stated that there was no chance that the fire was started by anything inside the car. Stephens was consumed quickly, before anyone could even come to help.

5. Agnes Phillips (age unknown)

agnes phillips

Agnes Phillips was one of the few SHC victims that actually survived for awhile before dying from the burns. On August 24, 1998, Phillips caught fire in a car on a busy street in Sydney, Australia. Her daughter, Jackie Park, became alarmed when she saw smoke coming from the car, and, with the help of a man passing by, pulled her out onto the street. There were no possible ways for her to ignite in the car; the motor wasn’t even running. To this day the cause of the fire is still undetermined. Agnes died in the hospital a week after the incident.

4. Helen Conway (age unknown)

helen conway

One of the features of many of these cases is that the body of the victim is generally considered to have burned over a long period of time. In the case of Helen Conway though, it’s estimated that her entire body was consumed and reduced to ashes in no more than 20 minutes. Supposedly, Conway’s remains were “greasy,” which led coroners to believe that she had burned somewhat like a kitchen grease fire, the fat in her lower body and torso fueling the intense fire.

3. Waymon Wood (age unknown)

waymon wood

Waymon Wood became a victim of SHC in March of 1953. He combusted while in his car on a highway in South Carolina, and remarkably the car itself was completely unharmed, except for a slight melting of the windshield from the heat.

2. Allen M Small (52)

alan small

In the most extraordinary case of SHC in which none of the surrounding area was touched by the flame, Allen Small caught fire on March 1, 1953. Small’s body was completely incinerated, yet the only other damage to his home was a few scorch marks on the carpet below him. This suggests that he was likely standing up when the fire ignited, and it burned through him so quickly that the fire didn’t even have enough time to mar anything else.

1. Michael Faherty (76)

michael faherty

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The most recent recorded case of SHC occurred on December 22, 2010, less than a year ago from the date this list was published. Michael Faherty was found when his neighbor called the cops after seeing smoke coming out of his house in Ballybane, Ireland. The only things damaged by the fire were Faherty’s body and the ceiling and floor directly above and below him. The coroner on the case, Dr. Ciaran Mcloughlin, stated, “This fire was thoroughly investigated and I’m left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation.”


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14 Comments

  1. When everything is burnt, it is hard to find an explanation for a fire sometimes. This however doesn’t make the wick effect “just guessing” like you wrote. A lot of the examples you show here are classic examples of the wick effect. The main characteristics are a corpse burnt completely to ashes with little to no damage to the surroundings. (just look in wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wick_effect it even mentions your 2010 example as an incident of the wick effect)
    Given how easy it is to set yourself aflame and die – especially in a narrow space like a car, I would not label any of these cases as misterious. Artificial fiber clothes, hairspray, pillows, old car seats – all these things can be set on fire with very little effort.

    For some time I worked with mentally handicapped people in a big insitution. While I did my service there one of the workers was severly injured with large second degree burns – from standing to close to a Christmas candle. He wore a cheap polyester sweater which caught fire instantly and set him ablaze completely. He only survived because it happend right next to a fire extinguisher and a lot of people where around.

    But if you as me, that was a prime example of spontanous combustion. Spontanous combustion doesn’t have to mean that there is no logical explanation to it, does it? Especially since there is no way for a human body to catch fire without any source of heat from outside.

    • There is no way a body can combust with no heat source? are you aware that the body is composed primarily of extremely combustible elements i.e: oxygen, hydrogen, carbon. mixing of gases in the perfect atmosphere can cause combustion and even explosions. Even water (H2O) hydrogen (extremely flammible) oxygen (extremely flammible) if the situation is just perfect for it to occur it very well can

      • You say it: Mixing them in a perfect atmosphere. Like a test tube. And you STILL need an external heat source.
        How do you get the hydrogen out of a human body? How do you set it on fire without heat?
        The only way to make the hydrogen and oxygen in water explode is if you set them free through electrophoresis. Applied to a human body, the electricity to produce enough oxygen and hydrogen for an explosion could well set clothes on fire and produce the wick effect. Water is not flammable.

        Let’s look at a widely known non-flammable substance with your understanding of chemistry: Asbestos. It was used for heat isolations because it stays unaffected by fire even under the most heavy condition. Even the Roman historian Plinus the Elder writes about its quality and uses. It’s (Mg)3Si2O5(OH). We have magnesium – a metal that will burn with a bright, hot, white flame if set on fire and we have lots of oxygen and hydrogen. Why doesn’t it burn, huh?

  2. To the author of this list. “IMAGE TOO DISTURBING ??” Maybe you should rent out the movie “Schindler’s List” or see pictures of the Jewish Holocaust if that isn’t horrifying enough for others to see. I put this list up with UFO sightings or the so-called apocalypse that creationists and fundamentalists are brought up to believe. Its all phony as far as I am concerned…….

    • I personally felt the “image so gross” was kind of disrespectful and immature. While I respect the choice to leave very graphic pictures out of the list, I think the wording could have been more sensitive to the individual and families. How would you feel if this happened to a loved one and people were like “ewww that’s so groooooooss!”

      Cool list topic though! SHC is very interesting.

  3. FMH: Thanks for your comment. The Wikipedia page on the wick effect specifically mentions that it’s just a theory. The idea behind these cases, the thing that makes them “mysterious,” is that in nearly all of them there was no identifiable external source of heat. As tragic as your own story is, it wouldn’t fall under the accepted parameters for spontaneous combustion. Maybe there is a logical explanation for all of these cases, maybe not. Maybe we’ll never know.

    Robert: Whether or not you believe the cause of the deaths, the images are still very graphic. We try to provide bizarre information but will never rely on shock value to do so. Anyone can Google the names to get the pictures.

    • I would say, in most cases the source of heat was a cigarrette. What traces does a cigarrette leave when completely burnt? None. Maybe you can find traces of a lighter, but if the victim used matches there will be no evidence for a heat source. It’s that simple.

      The wick effect is a theory for some cases, because all the evidence is burnt, so you can’t be 100% sure. But it is the most plausible theory and it has been proofed to exist in experiment (the pig the BBC burnt) and in actual cases. For example there were two murder cases where the body was soaked with a very small amount of flamable liquid and burned in exactly the same way as bodies which “spontanously combusted”, and several people who burnt in their beds with lighter and cigarretes still on their night tray. None of these deaths can be counted as spontanous combustion because the proof that it happend from other reasons is there. If that proof would be burnt, you would probably say it was “spontanous combustion”

      In my opinion it is like finding a broken body below a cliff. Nobody saw how the person fell, so it must be a case of “spontanous massive trauma”.

      Nobody ever witnessed spontanous combustion, but many people witnessed other people setting themselfs on fire. There is no way a body can just start burning.

      The wick effect itself is real and can be proofed to exist and work. It has to remain a theory in some special cases, because you simply can’t find any intact evidence.

  4. I for one completely agree with the author. Spontaneous combustion was actually studied and proven possible in the late 1940’s by German scientists working for the Nazis party. There was a correlation with methane build up in red blood cells caused by alcohol and cigarette smoke combined with lack of sleep. The 2007 documentary of the Johnny Blaze in “Ghost Rider” was a bastardization of the concept but was an accurate depiction of what would happen to the human body during spontaneous combustion, if in fact that human was not a demon. I for one applaud your work, good sir.

  5. very horific if u ask me makes me wonder now. is philly experiment also hot like that?? why them what did they do to themselves to make themselves so much like wood to lightning or metal to lightning.
    makes ya wanna go to turn aircons on . anyway i have a PBG its hot same thing as philly exp. i mean i dont get hot i can use it by computor signals to go wherever i want. the problem is when it returns its very hot it melts metal quicker than u can blink an eye it also uses renewable energy as its moving source or moves around via renewable energy.i dont know i dont wanna dabble no more in it after looking at all them pictures i saw on net of ppl burned as qjuck as seconds kinda scares me . but …..its prolly worth looking into cuz of the heat it holds …..yet its blue to look at like a cool colour pulsates like a heart does go brighter n darker i cant explain what i have i found it yrs ago in a old house we been mates since as i was lonely and well i had no one else i dont think PBG burns ppl i dont see it doing that kinda thing its too kind too cuddly and different

  6. I love how hard core intellectual materialists try to debunk EVERYTHING under the sun with the most mundane explanation possible. The problem with people that are habitually “debunking” everything is that their hardcore materialistic beliefs about the world excludes the possibilty that there are unseen and unknown forces, these people think they understand the world and the whole universe and that there is nothing new to discover. I loathe closed minded debunkers so very very much. I think theres atleast a little bit of truth in everything.

  7. Jesus Demetrius Zeus on

    Let me first introduce myself:

    I am a Physicist and have written more than 60 books and articles on various topics, (including a book in 6-dimensional Physics on the Origin and Nature of the Universe – both Matter and Consciousness; the only conclusive theory).

    I have been looking into the SHC phenomenon with some detailed scrutiny.

    SHC is not at all spontaneous. It is initiated deliberately by an electric spark, in a water medium, (usually in the belly area), by somebody who knows how. The flames are ‘electric blue’.

    The victim does not feel any pain (and therefore does not scream) because s/he is knocked unconscious almost simultaneously or just a second before ignition.

    I know an organization* that have the know-how. They do it for experimentation but mostly to relieve the victim from a boring or miserable life; the victim has been wishing to die for some time. Of course, s/he does not apply for it; the organization has a way of knowing metaphysically; also the ignition is remote, again metaphysical; (mental or psychic).

    I have also seen it performed with inanimate material, but the material must first be drenched with water; (like the simultaneous explosion and TOTAL destruction of 98 metal containers full of various explosives at Mari, Cyprus on the 11 July 2011. I saw 98 almost simultaneous blue sparks setting it off; one in each container. Conventional explosive experts do to have this technology; In all attempts to destroy explosives, they fail to destroy them all, whatever they try.)

    Jesus Demetrius Zeus

    PS: * I know the name and the logo of this organization

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