• AP Magazine

    An alternative way to explore and explain the mysteries of our world. "Published since 1985, online since 2001."

  • 1
Classic Mysteries—Alternate Perceptions Magazine, June 2017

An old case of Partial Spontaneous Combustion

by: Brent Raynes

In the Transactions of the Medical Society of Tennessee for 1835, the volume 17 of the American Journal of Medical Science, Dr. John Overton, M.D., described the puzzling “partial spontaneous combustion” of a 35-year-old mathematics professor in Nashville, TN.

The subject, whom he refers to simply as Mr. H. stated that the episode had occurred on January 5, 1835. He had just walked about three-fourths of a mile from the university to his home. It was a chilling eight degrees above zero. Shortly upon arriving home H had stepped outside again when he became aware of a pain in his left leg. The pain was steady and the intensity of a hornet sting, with a sensation of heat. Glancing down, H perceived a bright flame several inches in length with a width of a dime. He slapped at it several times but it kept burning. Then with his bare hands, he cupped his hands over it, figuring he could cut off the oxygen, and that extinguished the flame.

Gradually the pain lessened. Returning inside H removed his trousers and underwear, and inspected his leg. He found a small abrassion-like burn, about three-fourths of an inch in width and three inches in length. The trousers were not burned at all, although a small hole had burned through his underwear. Although the burn was like any ordinary burn in appearance, it was deeper and did not heal as quickly as such burns normally do.

And, of course, there was the fundamental question of what caused Mr. H's flesh to ignite in the first place? He was outside in freezing weather and no where near any source of heat.

Science cannot explain this phenomenon, which is known as “spontaneous human combustion.” In these cases, the body can reportedly be reduced to ashes. The sort of heat it takes a crematorium hours to accomplish at about 3,000 degrees fahrenheith! Usually the only parts of the body that remain partially burned are the feet, hands, and head.

Researchers wonder how many puzzling cases of SHC (spontaneous human combustion) may have been simply written off as a careless smoker or “cause of fire unknown.” For whatever the reasons, most victims have been elderly and most have been women. The cases also have been concentrated in northern regions and to the winter season. But the real mystery is the absence of an explainable fire source and the tremendous intensity of the fire that burns the victim but leaves other nearby objects and furniture untouched.

Is there something in human chemistry that can possibly account for these bizarre fires that a noted zoologist named Ivan Sanderson stated reminded him of atomic heat more than anything?

Reference: Mysterious Fires and Lights, by Vincent H. Gaddis, 1967, Dell Publishing Co., Inc.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023