a man on fire
The death of a man in Ireland last year has been ruled spontaneous combustion. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

The death of Michael Faherty in 2010 was recently ruled a case of spontaneous combustion. Spontaneous human combustion is widely believed to be impossible, but there have been numerous cases where it appears likely.

First case recorded in Emerald Isle

Spontaneous combustion is widely reported. A 2010 death in Ireland was recently ruled to be spontaneous combustion, according to ABC. Michael Faherty, 76, of Galway, was the first recorded case in Ireland.

According to the Irish Times, a neighbor of Mr.Faherty, Tom Mannion, called emergency services around 3 a.m. on Dec. 22 of last year after hearing a smoke alarm and seeing smoke coming from Faherty’s house. When firefighters arrived, they found the charred body of Michael Faherty facing his fireplace, with scorch marks on the ceiling and the floor directly above and below him. According to The Guardian, the rest of the house only sustained smoke damage.

Spontaneous combustion cause

Certain materials can catch fire if they start producing heat that doesn’t get released. Once at the right temperature, the material bursts into flame. Susceptible items include trees, hay and pistachio nuts, according to Wikipedia.

Still unproven

Spontaneous human combustion remains mysterious. One explanation, according to the BBC, is the “wick” effect. Clothing, which burns easily, is lit on fire by a cigarette or other ignition source and acts like a candle’s wick, igniting the person’s body fat. It has never been proven.

Another explanation is a weather event called ball lightning. According to National Geographic, ball lightning is created when lighting strikes material rich with certain minerals, such as silicon, creating an electrically-charged vapor that floats through the air in an “orb” shape. When ball lightning collides with something, it’s like a lightning strike. Scientist Georg Richmann was killed by ball lightning in 1753, when he recreated Benjamin Franklin’s kite experiment, according to Wikipedia.

Many cases still unsolved

In all reported cases of spontaneous combustion a body, or parts of one, are found burnt where a typical home fire didn’t occur. Charles Dickens, according to the BBC, wrote the phenomenon into his novel “Bleak House” after looking at more than 30 documented cases of spontaneous human combustion.

Relatives of Jean Saffin saw her “burst into flames” in London in 1982, without explanation. Coroners never fully explained the cause of death.

In 1951, according to ABC, the foot, skull and ashes of 67-year-old Mary Reeser were found in her Florida home. No damage to the home was done besides soot on the walls.


ABC: http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/health/2011/09/23/irishmans-death-ruled-spontaneous-combustion/

Irish Times: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2011/0923/1224304578285.html

The Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/sep/23/irish-pensioner-killed-spontaneous-combustion?newsfeed=true

Wikipedia on Spontaneous Combustion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spontaneous_combustion

BBC : http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/4456428.stm

National Geographic: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/01/070122-ball-lightning_2.html

Wikipedia on Georg Richmann: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georg_Richmann

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