Beyond Belief: Strange, True Mysteries of the Unknown – Part 6

Sorry for the delay (if anyone cared), I was a little busy this week with not writing this. Welcome to Chapter 9 The Terror of Spontaneous Human Combustion. See parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 for more chapters from this hilarious and infuriating book.

Spontaneous human combustion is pretty self-explanatory – people catch fire…spontaneously. Paranormal investigators like to add the detail that “there was no source of flame nearby!” This adds mystery to an otherwise uneventful tragedy. But since it’s so far impossible for a body to just randomly burst into flame with no apparent reason, I prefer explanations that make sense. Although some things can combust seemingly spontaneously (such as saw dust, oily rags, etc), the human body is made up of too much water and too little flammable material to generate enough heat to spontaneously combust. Once on fire we can burn, especially if we have things around us that are flammable – such as clothing or furniture – to keep the flames going. But for a human to burn, there needs to be some “catalyst”.

Brad mentions many alleged cases of spontaneous human combustion, but one of the more well-known is the case of Dr. John Irving Bentley who was found burned in his bathroom. This case was investigated by Joe Nickel (he has also investigated other cases) who provides his own explanation.

Brad’s “explanation”: He doesn’t provide an explanation so much as he provides misleading and irrelevant details such as the paint in the tub wasn’t peeled, his cane wasn’t burned, etc. He describes the remains as a pile of ashes with nothing left but the lower left leg. And that’s about it. Pretty much all the stories go like this, where he presents all the details and doesn’t explicitly say much that’s falsifiable. Just questions and details as if to say “See? Explain that!”

Ok then. Joe’s explanation: Dr. Bentley’s robe was smoldering in the bathtub next to the hole and pieces of a broken water pitcher were found in the toilet. The doctor had a habit of dropping pipe ashes into his pocket (and keeping matches there) and it’s possible that this unsafe habit led to his clothes catching fire from a smoldering ember. The evidence suggests that the Doctor probably awoke with his clothes on fire and tried to extinguish it with a pitcher of water in the bathroom but passed out due to smoke inhalation, leaving him burning to death over the toilet. This burned a hole in the flammable linoleum floor and cool air from the basement kept the fire hot enough to burn his body.

As we can see, one specific case may have one specific explanation. The global explanation of “spontaneous human combustion” is not necessarily wrong because this case doesn’t match, but the details here illustrate that there are natural explanations available for the burned bodies that can be found with a thorough and careful enough investigation. If you start with the assumption that it was spontaneous human combustion, you may miss key details.

What really ticks me off about this chapter is that he has a section in which a scientist proposes 3 theories (i.e., natural explanations) for why people may be catching fire like this and another scientist tested these ideas and found evidence to support each one. Dear Brad concludes:

Dr. Gee admits [emphasis mine] that these experiments are by no means conclusive, but he argues that they [are] “the most reasonable explanation…” But reasonable explanations do not always fit the actual circumstances and the facts of a situation.

Brad, you’re killing me. It is not an “admission” for a scientist to state the obvious – that an explanation after the fact with a small number of circumstantial details is never going to be 100% accurate or provable for every single case. Also, just because these explanations don’t necessarily match all cases, that doesn’t mean there aren’t yet more explanations to fit the other cases (or that there may be details missing, preventing a proper investigation). Most importantly, failing to fit the actual circumstances of a particular situation is not proof of spontaneous human combustion. You know what would be? Actual evidence of spontaneous human combustion. The alleged failure of one idea doesn’t prove another idea.

Unfortunately, accidents happen. With fire. And they may happen in such a way that it’s not immediately obvious what all the circumstances were. “Spontaneous human combustion” is probably one of those kids of accidents – how did the fire start? why were only certain things burned? what heat is necessary to completely turn a person to ash? are the details of the story accurate? Those are all interesting and fair questions, but there is no reason to assume that anyone is under any danger of randomly bursting into flames. Knowing what actually happened is important for fire safety and prevention. Believing in magical phenomenon that are not apparently physically possible, with no concrete supporting evidence, helps no one and may create needless fear or panic.

These cases tend to occur when people are alone in their homes. They don’t tend to occur in crowded well-ventilated places that have no fire around. Also many of the cases were from years ago (the latest case discussed was 1975, most were in the 1960s and some were even in the 1930s) – I find it curious that he could find no modern reports to add to his book (published in the early 90s). Furthermore, many of the victims are middle-aged to elderly, often retired and living alone, and may have had physical disabilities or disease that prevented them from waking up, moving, or otherwise saving themselves from fire.

The sad reality is, people smoke. People fall asleep. People are sometimes careless with their personal safety. It’s not unreasonable to assume that this would sometimes lead to some people dying in fires that failed to light the rest of the house. When the rest of the house does catch fire, it’s not more than a typical fire tragedy. When the house doesn’t go up in flames, it’s supposed to be a “mystery” and evidence for spontaneous human combustion. While it is a mystery, odd happenings are not in themselves enough evidence to support supernatural phenomena.

Please click on some of those links above for more detailed information on spontaneous human combustion.

Stay tuned for the last part….the part to end all parts of stuff…part 7Chapter 10 Animals that Talk, Spell, and Find their Way Home. My very favorite chapter.

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One response to “Beyond Belief: Strange, True Mysteries of the Unknown – Part 6

  1. Oh and I forgot to mention the part where he suggests ball lightening. You know, the same ball lightening that apparently tried to hijack plane in Chapter 8. An explanation, which in addition to being contrary to previous descriptions of the characteristics of ball lightening, is completely antithetical to the concept of spontaneous human combustion.