But for the hundreds of dispersed accounts that testify to its existence, spontaneous human combustion would likely be dismissed by all as an impossibility. Reports of the phenomenon reach back through centuries of history; it’s been credited as divine judgment for drunkards, discredited as a gruesome hoax, taken up as evidence of paranormal activity, ridiculed time and again, and researched with a vengeance.
The stories about it are numerous and horrifying. It kills the vast majority of its victims. It’s rejected by scientists, for good reason and almost without exception. Some theories that attempt to explain spontaneous human combustion are borderline insane, while others are actually pretty thought-provoking. An example of the latter would be research biologist Brian J. Ford’s acetone theory and resulting experiment involving pork tissue marinated in said highly flammable liquid.
But we’re not here to debate the causes or scientific possibility of spontaneous human combustion. We’re simply here to present some intriguing cases of people who apparently experienced spontaneous combustion—whether of their bodies directly or of the clothes they were wearing—and survived.
10. Baby Rahul
Our first case is Rahul, an Indian child who made headlines for catching fire while yet an infant. This baby human torch was barely a week old when he first ignited, and in the span of a couple months he’d managed to flame on a total of four times. His parents, Rajeshwari and Karnan, first admitted Rahul to the Kilpauk Medical College and Hospital in Chennai on August 8, 2013.
Some doctors initially accepted the parents’ claim that the burns were caused by spontaneous human combustion. Most were skeptical. However, after tests indicated Rahul was completely normal, pretty much all attending physicians became concerned that child abuse might be an issue. The KMCH eventually filed complaints with the police and the Child Welfare Committee requesting investigations into the matter. But Rajeshwari and Karnan stuck with their story, and psychiatric counseling revealed them to be normal as well. No investigations were ever made, though many suspected the mother had a condition called factitious disorder imposed on another (formerly Munchausen syndrome by proxy). In other words, Rajeshwari was setting her own son on fire, an idea she flatly denied.
The story doesn’t end there. Rahul had a younger brother, Sanjay, who suffered from the same mysterious condition. Born January 9, 2015, Sanjay was found with his feet on fire when barely a week old—just like Rahul. Sanjay only caught fire on one occasion, but sadly he died on the way to the hospital after suffering from a bad case of diarrhea in February 2016.
Rahul, however, had a burning desire to stay alive. He survived his mysterious condition, and today he still toddles among us.
9. Frank Baker
In June 1995, decorated Vietnam War veteran Frank Baker got the surprise of a lifetime, and by that we mean he burst into flames. Baker and his fishing buddy, Pete Willey, were all set for the next day’s derby, and the two were passing time inside on the couch. All of a sudden, the man with two Purple Hearts and a gallantry medal found himself under a different kind of fire.
Fortunately, the men were able to extinguish the fire licking Baker’s forearm and torso and get to the hospital. There, the doctor informed Baker that his injuries were like nothing he’d ever seen before. The fire seemed to have burned from the inside out—which, incidentally, is a common observation in cases of spontaneous human combustion.
Baker’s story was later featured in an October 2013 episode of Science’s documentary TV series The Unexplained Files. (You can find a preview of Baker’s segment here.) There’s also an interesting thread over at Science Chat Forum started by Baker, where he described the incident as “the most terrifying experience of [his] life.”
Larry Arnold, author of Ablaze! The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion, adds to the discussion via interview by noting that Baker experienced a second similar event while fishing a Vermont lake with Willey. He also mentions that Baker felt no pain during either event, a dispensation not extended to the studious Tennessee professor farther down this list.
8. Susan Motteshead
As related by Mystique Earth, an account in John Heymer’s The Entrancing Flame describes the curious 1980 case of Susan Motteshead and the flame-resistant pajamas that weren’t. It was winter in Cheshire, England, and Motteshead was in her kitchen, the last thing on her mind presumably the possibility of her jam jams catching fire.
But that’s exactly what they did, wrapping poor Motteshead in a warm cloak of yellow and blue flames for no apparent reason other than to guard against the chilly weather. Her daughter Joanne was present to provide the appropriate screams. Mercifully, the fire was brief, and Susan was not harmed. Even her hair was unscorched.
When the fire brigade arrived, they tried to light the pajamas by traditional means, ostensibly to disprove an insane woman’s tale of spontaneous combustion (in a kitchen, of all places), but failed. Perhaps a career spent fighting fires in homes deprives you of the ability to start fires in homes?
7. Jeanna Winchester
What began as a pleasant cruise with a friend ended unexpectedly for a naval airwoman named Jeanna Winchester. On October 9 of the same year as Susan Motteshead’s unplanned pajamas test, Winchester was riding in a car with her friend Leslie Scott. As they drove along Seaboard Avenue in Jacksonville—celebrating Florida’s enjoyably warm October weather, we imagine—Winchester’s body decided to turn the heat way up.
Yellow flames engulfed Winchester. Scott started beating them out with her hands, saving her passenger but leaving the car to drive itself into a telephone pole. Though 20 percent of her body was burned, Winchester lived to tell the tale.
Well, sort of. She later stated that she had no recollection of the actual incident, only riding in the car before and waking up in the hospital after. Which, if we’re being honest, doesn’t really sound all that crazy for a woman we want to assume spent a lot of time jumping out of planes with flippers on her feet.
A policeman named T. G. Hendrix investigated the accident, reporting no sign of accelerant in the car and minimal fire damage to the interior. “The white leather she was sitting on was a little browned,” he said, “and the door panel had a little black on it.” If we were a fire, we’d be pissed if all we got was 20 percent of a human and barely enough car to even mention. Back to the drawing board, fire.
6. Mr. H., Professor of Mathematics
An 1836 edition of The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal contains a detailed report on the fiery experience of a thirty-something University of Nashville mathematics professor called simply “Mr. H.” The report, authored in the previous year by Dr. James Overton, describes in very precise terms how the professor’s left leg caught fire on January 5, 1835.
Here’s the basic story: in the middle of what was an otherwise normal day of classes and meteorological observations, Mr. H. was suddenly subjected to a sharp pain in his upper left leg. It began as a strong sensation, “as if produced by the pulling of a hair,” and grew more and more severe until a small flame finally hatched. Though in great pain and certainly flabbergasted by this turn of events, the professor retained his presence of mind and was able to extinguish the flame by using his own hands to starve it of oxygen. It’s true; people were way tougher back in the day.
Mr. H. survived the odd combustion and recovered, much to the dismay of man-eating fires all across Tennessee. Later, in retelling his story to Dr. Overton, he described the flame as having a small base the size of a ten-cent coin and an appearance like that of mercury. The extent of the damage to Mr. H. was a 3″ x 3/4″ burn wound inflicted on his leg. His trousers suffered no damage at all, but his drawers sported a brand-new hole in the exact size and shape of the wound described. Small price to pay for a lifetime of introducing yourself to students with “Hello, I’m Professor H. I once caught on fire for no reason. So I put it out. With my bare hands. I AM BECOME FIRE, DESTROYER OF HOMEWORK. Now please turn with me to Chapter 1.”
5. Mrs. Charles Williamson
January, 1932. A cold winter day in Bladenboro, North Carolina. Charles Williamson was downstairs listening to the radio (and probably wishing television would hurry up and hit the market) when his wife’s cotton dress went up in flames.
Her screams of terror brought Charles and their daughter to the rescue, and together they were able to tear off her dress before it was too late. Though Mrs. Williamson wasn’t hurt, the dress was reduced to not being a dress anymore.
This was just the beginning of four days of bizarre combustions. First the bed took fire. Then some curtains, and then a pair of Charles’s pants. All these items and more were consumed by what witnesses described as blue, jetlike flames that left neither smell nor smoke. The Williamsons evacuated on the fourth day, clearing the house for various experts and authorities to investigate. But nothing abnormal could be found.
On the fifth day, the random fires ceased, and the Williamsons moved back into their home. No further troubles were reported, though the events undoubtedly left behind a lingering scent of foreboding doom to keep the family company for the next few months.
4. Debbie Clark
So far, most of our cases have involved people who were legitimately terrified to be attacked by a mysterious kind of fire that usually leaves its victims in a pile of ashes. But Debbie Clark is different, because while her family was busy freaking out about the giant flashes of blue light sparking out of her, Debbie Clark was laughing.
Mystique Earth again cites The Entrancing Flame in its account of Clark. As the story goes, the girl was on her way home when she started seeing what were likely static flashes, a possible cause of spontaneous human combustion according to one theory. Of course, the sight of strange blue light leaping from Clark’s body was not well received by her mother Dianne, who immediately took to screaming, or by her brother, who started yelling about spontaneous human combustion.
Clark ended up being fine, as the static flashes never ignited the killer fire they portended. Her sense of humor was apparently dark enough to change Death’s mind on the spot. So, the next time you think your body might be preparing to cremate itself, just remember that laughter is quite literally the best medicine. And if laughing doesn’t work for you, well, you’ll still be able to say you went out laughing. Either way, you win!
3. The Wife of Dr. Freilas
The last three survival cases on our list all come from Jan Bondeson’s A Cabinet of Medical Curiosities. They’re brief and obscure, but they’re also some of the most peculiar accounts we came across while researching this article. For example: this 18th-century tale of an unfortunate woman with a bad case of flammable panties.
According to the clergyman Giuseppe Bianchini, there once was a certain physician by the name of Freilas who was employed by the archbishop of Toledo, Spain. As Bianchini testified, the doctor’s wife suffered from an odd kind of chronic perspiration—the kind of sweat that burns.
It got to the point that her undergarments would catch on fire whenever they were exposed to the air, and flames would shoot out “like grains of gunpowder.” No word on whether this was a boon or bad fortune for the couple’s sex life.
2. Zakris of Hester
If the previous account was amusing, well, we’re blazing straight into crazy territory now. Apparently, 19th-century Scandinavian folk medicine had a fairly disgusting prescription for spontaneous combustion—human urine, preferably that of a woman. Makes sense, right?
Anyway, a tale from Västergötland, Sweden, introduces us to a drunkard named Zakris who burst into blue flame while lying in bed. This Zakris must have still been lovable despite his boozing ways, for his wife promptly ah, relieved herself and her husband of the situation.
“After this,” the story concludes, “he did not drink aquavit any more.” Good call.
1. The Man Gampe-Saevrei Saved
Our final entry dates back to the early 16th century and is possibly the first recorded case of spontaneous human combustion. One fine Sunday in Rauland, Norway, a parson by the name of Gampe-Saevrei was just leaving church when he came across a drunk blacked out on the ground with blue flames shooting from his mouth. So, he did the only proper thing an honest parson in his situation could do—he pissed on the guy.
However, the drunkard, not being privy to this generally accepted treatment for spon-com, took offense to the action. And, unfortunately for the well-intentioned priest, so did the rest of the congregation who witnessed it. Thus did Gampe-Saevrei’s life come to an end as a violent mob of churchgoers (and at least one alcoholic) chased him down and beat him senseless with a candlestick taken from his own altar.
The drunk man survived.