Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Page 31: Spontaneous Human Combustion

Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) refers to a rarely-reported phenomenon wherein a person fatally bursts into flame without any external source for the fire. (SHC is occasionally also reported with recently-deceased bodies, as well.) Although doctors and lay-persons alike have offered hypothetical explanations, the phenomenon’s rarity—there have been approximately 200 cases in the past three centuries—lead skeptics to conclude that this is more likely a case of “unsolved deaths by fire,” and that the cause of the blaze simply has not been identified. This conclusion is further supported by the fact that most instances of SHC involve the elderly, the infirm, the obese, or persons with otherwise restricted mobility. The notable exception to this pattern has been the succession of drummers for the band Spinal Tap, all of whom have inexplicably combusted.

Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) is a serious problem for Spinal Tap.
(This Is Spinal Tap (1984), dir. Rob Reinder, © MGM. Video source: YouTube

According to Thomsen (1978), the earliest known medical report of SHC was in the 1671 issue of Medical Acts, in which a Professor Jacobsen describes a woman in Paris who drank so much alcohol that, while sleeping in a chair, she burst into flames. Alcohol is a frequently-cited culprit in accounts of SHC: see, for example, Julia Fontanelle’s report to the Royal Academy of Medicine of Paris (Revue Medicale, June 1828). Such speculation reflects the strong temperance-oriented sentiments of the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries, and has been met in the medical community with great skepticism (Lancet, 1828; Scientific American, 1869). Despite the lack of conclusive evidence and almost universal skepticism, the subject continued to be addressed now and again in twentieth century forensic and medical literature (e.g., Adelson, 1952; Gromb et al., 2000).

“Spontaneous Human Combustion” also happens to be the name of an instrumental by the group Celestial Serenity, led by my friend Joshua Leon, on which I guest as keyboard player. This is sheer coincidence. Or synchronicity. You can preview and/or purchase the track at Bandcamp.

Richard coincidentally plays keyboards on the instrumental "Spontaneous Human Combustion"
from Celestial Serenity's The City of the Golden Gates (2015).

For Further Reading (some links have paywalls)

Lester Adelson, “Spontaneous Human Combustion and Preternatural Combustibility,” Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, 1952 42(6): 793–809.

Anonymous, “Foreign Department: On Human Spontaneous Combustion,” Lancet 1828, 2: 552–4.

Anonymous, “Spontaneous Combustion of the Human Body,” Scientific American, Dec 25, 1869; 21(26): 404.

S. Gromb, X. Lavigne, G. Kerautret, N. Grosleron-Gros, and P. Dabadie, “Spontaneous Human Combustion: A Sometimes Incomprehensible Phenomenon,” Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine 2000 7: 29–31.

M. Thomsen, “Spontaneous Human Combustion,Burns 1978, 5(1): 54 – 9.

Wikipedia article on Spontaneous Human Combustion

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