FBI Opinion by Ev ..... Spontaneous Human Combustion Debate
Date: 9/19/2005 7:18:46 PM ( 14 years ago ago)
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By Todd Venezia
NEW YORK (APBnews.com) -- For hundreds of years, mystery lovers have theorized about spontaneous human combustion -- the strange physical phenomenon that allegedly turns its victims into columns of fire, without an apparent spark and without doing damage to anything else around.
Stories of death by such magic flames have been written about since Charles generations of believers in the paranormal. These rumors have proved so persistent that they are still commonly accepted as fact on the Internet, on television and in the minds of many people today.
But almost 50 years ago, a source no less authoritative than the FBI testing lab came to a different conclusion on the issue of "SHC" after examining the immolation of an elderly St. Petersburg, Fla., woman who mysteriously burned to cinders in her easy chair.
'Absolutely no evidence'
Instead of finding a case worthy of the X-Files, the lab discovered that spontaneous human combustion is, in fact, a lot of nonsense.
"It is not generally realized the extent to which the human body can burn once it becomes ignited," the bureau wrote in a report now posted here for the first time online. "It was formerly believed that such cases arose from spontaneous combustion or the burning was sometimes attributed to preternatural causes.
"There is, however, absolutely no evidence from any of the cases on record to show that burning of this nature occurs."
Before the bureau's dismissal of the spontaneous combustion rumors, the 1951 case of Mary Hardy Reeser's burning had stumped local police.
On July 1, the grandmotherly 67-year-old -- upset over a delay in plans to move back to Pennsylvania -- took a dose of the sleeping pill Seconal to calm herself and settled into her easy chair to have a smoke.
It was her usual ritual, but that night it would have tragic consequences.
Nothing but cinders -- and one foot
At about 8 a.m. the next morning, Reeser's landlady, Patsy Carpenter, arrived at her door with a telegram bearing news of the impending move. When Carpenter reached for front door, however, she found the knob hot and became suspicious.
When she went inside, she found a tableau that would stun the city of St. Petersburg and provide fodder to paranormal enthusiast for decades.
In a quiet corner of the apartment's iving room, strewn over a burnt easy chair, lay Reeser's ashen remains. There were teeth and bone, and a small clump of soot that some observers initially took to be the woman's shrunken skull. Reeser, in fact, was so thoroughly immolated, the local press started calling her "cinder woman."
The only part of the woman's zaftig body still intact was her left ankle and foot, which was still wearing an undamaged shoe.
But this fire -- which was hot enough to destroy a human body -- did not destroy several items sitting just a few feet away, including things as flammable as a pile of newspapers. And the only damage to the structure of the house was some charring to the carpet and a layer of soot and grease high on the walls of the room.
Turning to the FBI for answers
Police were stunned. How could this happen? It seemed possible that Reeser could have fallen into a deep sleep from the pills and dropped her cigarette onto the highly flammable rayon acetate nightgown she was wearing.
But how could a cigarette fire destroy a body? Maybe if gasoline or some other accelerant was used it could explain this level of burning. But no such liquid was found at the scene. Some writers at the time quoted the proprietors of a crematory as saying their furnaces reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and still did not completely destroy bone, as was done in the Reeser case.
And even if the fire from a cigarette could get that hot, how could such a roiling blaze fail to spread to the many flammable items sitting just feet away and, ultimately, fail to consume Reeser's home?
With this mystery fueling a firestorm of rumor even hotter than the fire that killed Reeser, St. Petersburg police chief J.R. Reichert turned to the FBI for answers.
On July 7, 1951, he sent a box of evidence from the crime scene to bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover. The package included glass fragments found in the ashes, six "small objects thought to be teeth," a section of the carpet, the surviving shoe and a host of other items that could hold some clue as to the cause of the blaze.
Also included was a note saying: "We request any information or theories that could explain how a human body could be so destroyed and the fire confined to such a small area and so little damage done to the structure of the building and the furniture in the room not even scorched or damaged by smoke."
A human candle wick
The FBI's answer was simple -- though not intuitive. And, ultimately, not everyone accepted it.
The bureau ruled Reeser died from a phenomenon known today as "the wick effect," in which a small simmering fire sparked by something such as a cigarette grows to an intense heat with the body's own fat acting as fuel source.
The fat, in effect, seeps into the victim's clothes and causes the victim to burn like the wick of a Coleman lantern.
This process causes great heat in the immediately vicinity. But the heat only goes straight up, leaving flammable items next to the fire as unharmed as a camper sleeping next to a crackling campfire.
"Once the body starts to burn," the FBI wrote in its report, "there is enough fat and other inflammable substances to permit varying amounts of destruction to take place.
"Sometimes this destruction by burning will proceed to a degree which results in almost complete combustion of the body."
Body fat as fuel
The FBI determined that Reeser's death was a case of an elderly woman who made an unwise decision to fire up a cigarette while waiting for her sleeping pills to take effect.
The cigarette likely toppled out of her mouth and onto her chest, igniting her highly flammable bedclothes. The fire began to smolder, and Reeser likely began to be badly burned. She was so doped up, though, she probably never knew what was going on.
As the blaze grew, the overweight woman's copious fat liquefied and provided the fuel. This turned Reeser into a giant candle in the middle of her living room. The heat rose and scorched the cement ceiling. But the heat, which was intense in the inches near Reeser's body, never spread beyond the vicinity of her body before the fuel was exhausted.
This gruesome scenario, described by FBI scientists nearly 50 years ago, is what skeptics say is the most common cause behind most of the more than a dozen cases of fire death attributed to spontaneous human combustion over the years.
Experiment on a pig
"People wonder how these kinds of things happen," said Dr. John De Haan of the California Criminalistics Institute. "It turns out the subcutaneous body fat of animals is a pretty good fuel. It has about the same caloric content as candle wax."
To test this theory, De Haan recently wrapped an entire pig carcass in cotton and set it on fire. Gasoline was used as an accelerant to mimic a blaze started by a cigarette.
In the test, the pig fat leeched into the cotton and caused the fire to simmer for hours, eventually destroying the pig's entire body. Such decimation of bones happens as the fat fire rises to the 1,700- or 1,800-degree heat of a crematory at the immediate point where it touches bones and sinew. This sort of fire, it turns out, actually does more damage than a flame coming from outside the body, such as in a house fire.
"The elderly, the infirmed and sometimes the inebriated are the ones that are most likely to start an accidental fire in their bedding or clothes ... and then be overcome," De Haan said. "So the fire starts literally near them, but not on them, and then it's the fire from the furnishing that actually gets the process going. By that time they've succumbed."
From 'pyrotrons' to Dickens
Despite the experiments and explanations of scientists, the legend of spontaneous human combustion goes on.
Over the years, it has been attributed to many causes from ball lightening to subatomic particles dubbed "pyrotrons" that SHC believers say get out of control and cause a person to just burst into flames.
In the 1800s, the legend of spontaneous human combustion often was supported by members of the temperance movement, who saw it as a way to scare people off drink. The legend said that too much liquor or beer could soak one's body so completely with alcohol one would become intensely flammable.
Charles Dickens even described such a scene in his novel Bleak House.
"Call the death by any name your Highness will, attribute it to whom you will, or say it might have been prevented how you will, it is the same death eternally -- inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself, and that only -- spontaneous combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died."
But despite the theories, and literary heritage of the SHC story, skeptics say that most of cases follow a similar, mundane plotline: An incapacitated, often elderly person (sometimes drunk or on sleeping pills) dressed in flammable clothing or sleeping in a flammable place decides to smoke, or comes into contact with a flame for some other obvious reason.
"What's happening is a lot of people who are putting out the notion of spontaneous human combustion are primarily mystery mongers, and they are in the mystery-mongering business," said Joe Nickell, a writer for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. "They are trying to convince you that if you don't know what the explanation is, therefore it's supernatural, and that is a logical fallacy."
Disputing the wick effect
One investigator who viewed the Reeser case as an unknowable mystery -- and possibly as a case of spontaneous human combustion -- was Dr. Wilton Krogman, who wrote a well-known article in the 1960s disputing the FBI's findings.
According to skeptics, Krogman's was the most common pro-SHC argument: Because there are some unknowable details, and because theories such as the "wick effect" cannot be 100 percent proved because no one ever sees these fire start, then anything could have happened, even the supernatural.
"I find it hard to believe that a human body, once ignited, will literally consume itself -- burn itself out, as does a candle wick, guttering in the last residual pool of melted wax," Krogman wrote. "Just what did happen on the night of July 1, 1951, in St. Petersburg, Florida? We may never know, though this case still haunts me."
But the doctor's article wasn't the only attempt to explain the death.
The FBI file posted here contains numerous notes and letters from the pubic positing theories on how the woman could have died. They came from as far as Oklahoma City, where a welding company worker put his expertise to work just six days after the fire by suggesting to Hoover that an oxy-acetylene torch could have been used.
Another man, from Woodbury, N.J., suggested that an as yet unknown cancer could have made her body temperature rise to over 15,000 degrees.
The file also contains several letters from other police departments that said they had similar cases of what they thought might have been SHC.
Family denies the supernatural
The letters kept coming even after the FBI's findings were reported in the press. Just too many people did not believe the empirical evidence.
This atmosphere wasn't helped by the St. Petersburg police chief himself, who, after the answers came in from the FBI, still said: "This is the most unusual case I've seen during my almost 25 years of police work. ... Since we have had hundreds of suggestions as to how this incident may have happened, I am not closing the door on the case yet."
Reeser's family is also still haunted by her death -- nearly five decades later.
Over the years, they never liked the attention the unusual demise attracted. Her son, Richard, who died about a year and a half ago, had always agreed with the FBI findings and disputed conclusions such as Krogman's.
"My husband always hated all this stuff," Ernestine Reeser, Mary Reeser's 88-year-old daughter-in-law, told APBnews.com. "He tried to tell people that she burned up slowly and naturally and there was no artificial business there. It was just a natural situation, though it was an unusual situation. There wasn't anything supernatural there."
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