Coroner Concludes Irishman Died of Spontaneous Human Combustion


Can people suddenly and inexplicably explode into a ball of fire?

It sounds like something in a horror film, but some people believe it happens. It’s also what an Irish coroner recently concluded about the death of Michael Faherty, a 76-year-old Irishman who burned to death in his home in December 2010. There were scorch marks above and below the body, but no evidence of any gasoline, kerosene, or other accelerant. The coroner, Ciaran McLoughlin, reported: "This fire was thoroughly investigated and I’m left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation."

Usually, of course, fires do not start on their own. When investigators are searching for the cause of forest fires they don’t assume that the flame ignited itself, but instead that it was probably caused by a careless camper or a lightning strike. Though rare, spontaneous combustion has long been known to occur. Under the right circumstances many things can self-ignite on a hot day, including used rags containing oil or gasoline and piles of compost. Coal dust can also spontaneously ignite, one of many dangers that miners face.

But the claim that people can suddenly burst into flames for no apparent reason is a whole different matter. The best-known case of spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is actually fictional: in Charles Dickens’s 1853 novel "Bleak House" a character explodes into fire. The phenomenon has also appeared in movies and on TV shows like "The X-Files."

But are there any confirmed real-life cases?

This is where things get trickier. Though some writers suggest that there are hundreds (or even thousands) of SHC cases throughout history, only about a dozen have been investigated in any detail. Researcher Joe Nickell examined many "unexplainable" cases in his book "Real-Life X-Files" and found that all of them were far less mysterious than often suggested. Most of the victims were, like the Irishman Faherty, elderly, alone, and near flames (cigarettes, candles, fires, etc.) when they died. Several were last seen drinking alcohol and smoking.

How could a body burn once it has ignited? If the person is asleep, intoxicated, unconscious, too weak, or otherwise unable to move or put the flames out, then the victim’s clothes can act as a candle wick, drawing on the body’s fat (which, because it is an oil, is flammable, and very near the skin’s surface) to fuel the fire. Once a body starts to burn, it will continue to burn until the fuel (clothing, chairs, paper, body fat, etc.) is used up.

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