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)
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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)
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)
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 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)
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 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)
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)
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.”
Andrew Handley is a freelance writer. You can get in touch with him through Facebook