Irish State Pathologist: Spontaneous human combustion a “myth”

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When, in September, west Galway coroner Dr Ciarán McLoughlin ruled that a 76-year-old pensioner had died as a result of spontaneous human combustion it was, unsurprisingly, widely covered

Today’s Irish Times notes the comments of Irish State Pathologist, Prof Marie Cassidy, at a separate inquest at Dublin Coroner’s Court where she is reported to have said that spontaneous combustion was “a myth and a theory that has not been valid for 500 years.”  From the Irish Times report

Prof Cassidy said outside the court that spontaneous human combustion was a “misnomer”.

“It captures everybody’s imagination, this idea that somebody suddenly erupts into flame.

“The pattern is unusual in that the fire is localised to the body and the immediate surrounds because most fires that we deal with cause extensive damage to the fabric of the building, the body and everything else that is associated with it,” she continued.

“Because of that, this name tripped off the tongue. It goes back to Charles Dickens in Bleak House, where he describes a man dying with spontaneous combustion,” Prof Cassidy added.

But it shouldn’t trip off the tongue of a coroner, particularly when others might believe such rulings have authority.  Just because investigators can’t find evidence of the source of a fire doesn’t mean that there wasn’t a source of some kind.  Whether that should mean, possibly, an open verdict or death by misadventure is another matter.

[So no champagne dinner then? - Ed]  No.

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  • Rory Carr

    There’ surely a cue for a song here:

    http://bit.ly/9RPNln

  • between the bridges

    Rc indeed

  • Rory Carr

    Thank you, BtB. I think if I had to listen to much more of that I might spontaneously combust myself.

  • Nordie Northsider

    What’s got two legs and goes woof?

  • wee buns

    ”To prove that a human being might burn like a candle, Dr. John de Haan of the California Criminalistic Institute wrapped a dead pig in a blanket, poured a small amount of gasoline on the blanket, and ignited it. Even the bones were destroyed after five hours of continuous burning.”

    When it starts snowing this year, a politician in a blanket may be the answer to those stricken by fuel poverty.

  • http://redfellow.blogspot.com Malcolm Redfellow

    Two “facts” turn me on to this story:

    1. Many years ago I chaired the local joint crematorium panel, and so — as a rank civilian — had the process explained to me.

    As I recall, once a normally-fatted human body reaches a temperature somewhere above 700 degrees C., the fat will combust, burn and consume the rest.

    Cremaroria work at a higher temperature to avoid the distasteful black smoke produced thereby.

    The reported cases of “spontaneous combustion” seem all to involve fgatty-smoke deposits, which suggest to me that the incineration

  • http://redfellow.blogspot.com Malcolm Redfellow

    Obviously this entry isn’t worked.

    Sorry.

    I’ll try again late.

  • http://redfellow.blogspot.com Malcolm Redfellow

    OK: that effort on a iPad was a complete disaster.

    Now, fully equipped with the tools for the job, a second go.

    Two “facts” turn me on to this story:

    1. Many years ago I chaired the local joint crematorium panel, and so — as a rank civilian — had the process explained to me.

    As I recall, once a normally-fatted human body reaches a temperature somewhere above 700 degrees C., the fat will combust, burn and consume the rest. Once the cremators are up to working temperature, the knack is to keep feeding in cadavers. Then the process is remarkably efficient — in those days (before 1982) it needed about 40p worth of Thames Gas per stiff.

    Crematoria work at a much higher temperature to avoid the distasteful black smoke produced thereby.

    The reported cases of “spontaneous combustion” seem all to involve fatty-smoke deposits, which suggest to me that the incineration was incomplete or at a lower temperature.

    2. The celebrated use by Dickens of spontaneous combustion (in Bleak House, one of my top three Dickens novels) caused a small furore, which is why all subsequent editions have that justifying authorial preface. He was basing the convenient — and appropriate in plotting terms — death of the rag-and-bone man, Krook, on accounts of the end of Countess Cornelia de Bandi Cesenate in Verona, 1731, and (I believe) the account by Giuseppe Bianchini. A translation of Bianchini is on-line.

    Dickens (publishing in 1852) had literary precedents: Captain Marryat (Jacob Faithful, 1834), Herman Melville (Redburn, 1842) and Nikolai Gogol (Dead Souls, 1849) had all beaten him to it.

    Fiction apart, if the phenomenon is spontaneous human combustion is to be totally — ahem! — exploded, there are numerous deaths to be credibly ascribed to other means.

    Looking at the preview, that seems a better post. Sorry for the previous ones.

  • Pete Baker

    “Fiction apart, if the phenomenon [of] spontaneous human combustion is to be totally — ahem! — exploded, there are numerous deaths to be credibly ascribed to other means.”

    No, Malcolm.

    It’s for those who imagine that the phenomenon actually occured to provide evidence that spontaneous human combustion has ever taken place.

    Absence of evidence [of a trigger source] is not evidence of absence [of a trigger source].

    And literary examples are not credible witnesses.

    In the meantime, here’s the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry on SHC again – which cites stories collected by Jonas Dupont published in De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis (1763) [referenced here].

    Interestingly that last linked reference includes this note on the inspiration behind Jonas Dupont’s 1763 collection of stories. And something on your literary examples.

    Nicole Millet was the wife of the landlord of the Lion d’Or in Rheims, who was supposedly found burnt to death in an unburnt chair in February, 1725 (on Whit Monday). Her husband was accused of her murder and arrested; however, a young surgeon named Nicholas le Cat managed to convince the court that her death was caused by SHC. The court ultimately ruled her death as ‘by a visitation of God.’ However, the investigative author Joe Nickell stated in his book, Secrets of the Supernatural, that Millet’s body was not actually found in the chair, but that a portion of her head, several vertebrae and portions of her lower extremities were found on the kitchen floor, the surrounding ground of which had also been burnt. Three accounts were cited: Theodric and John Becks’s Elements of Medical Jurisprudence (1835), George Henry Lewes’s Spontaneous Combustion from Blackwoods Edinburgh Magazine No. 89 (April 1861) and Thomas Stevenson’s Principals and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence (1883). Strangely, there was no mention of Nicholas le Cat.

    Many hacks continued in this vein in the 1800s, dramatising these mysterious deaths in ‘penny dreadfuls’, the 19th Century equivalent of comic books. Of course these were mass works of gruesome fiction intended to deliciously terrify the reader; however, two well-known writers incorporated the SHC phenomenon into their works, which caused the audience to sit up. The first of these was the novel Jacob Faithful by Captain Marryat, in which the main character’s mother is reduced to ‘a sort of unctuous pitchey cinder’ – the details of which Marryat had apparently nicked from an article in an 1832 edition of the Times of London.

    The other author was – surprise surprise – Charles Dickens, who in 1852 used SHC as a device to eliminate the character Krook in his novel Bleak House. Because Krook was a heavy alcoholic, and the belief of the time was that SHC was attributed to excessive drinking, Bleak House caused quite a stir in the literary world. The philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes debunked Dickens’s novel as impossible and being mired (propagating, even!) in uneducated superstition. Dickens countered this unflattering review in the preface of the novel’s second edition, stating that the story was not written without prior research, that he knew of about 30 cases. He reckoned that Krook’s death was modelled after the death of the Countess Cornelia de Bandi Cesenate. Interestingly, the only other case that was cited in detail was the Nicole Millet account.

  • Alias

    Malcolm, the combustion process requires an oxidizing agent so the only way that a smoldering fire could be sustained is if it burned from the outside in, and not vice versa. Since the body is mostly water, that would serve to cool the outter layers of fat below its ignition point by converting the heat into steam and drawing it away, thereby extinguishing the fire. I don’t see how the chemistry of fire can support a process that leads to complete burning.

  • http://redfellow.blogspot.com Malcolm Redfellow

    Pete Baker @ 11:23 pm:

    Why do we have this sniping every time? Clearly I am not welcome on any Baker thread; but why?

    Oddly enough, I might just have enough marbles left not to confuse fiction and reality. Nor did I actually give unquestioning credence to SHC. I used the term “phenomenon”, which (where I come from) is generally a clue.

    Much of the rest of your cut-and-paste was implicit in what I put up.

    Incidentally, once SHC has been eliminated, according to some texts the next likeliest explanation has to be murder.

    A happy bunny now?

  • Pete Baker

    Why do we have this sniping every time? Clearly I am not welcome on any Baker thread; but why?

    A tad overly sensitive there, Malcolm. It was a straight response to your comment. And SHC is a ‘phenomenon’ that has yet to be proven to exist.

    Incidentally, once SHC has been eliminated, according to some texts the next likeliest explanation has to be murder.

    Again, no.

    Spontaneous human combustion does not have to be eliminated.

    Murder, on the other hand, does.

  • http://redfellow.blogspot.com Malcolm Redfellow

    Alias @ 11:36 pm:

    Again, see previous comment.

    That apart, I concur.

    Anyone who wants to “improve” on Dickens, can start here in Chapter XXXIII:

    Out of the court, and a long way out of it, there is considerable excitement too, for men of science and philosophy come to look, and carriages set down doctors at the corner who arrive with the same intent, and there is more learned talk about inflammable gases and phosphuretted hydrogen than the court has ever imagined. Some of these authorities (of course the wisest) hold with indignation that the deceased had no business to die in the alleged manner; and being reminded by other authorities of a certain inquiry into the evidence for such deaths reprinted in the sixth volume of the Philosophical Transactions; and also of a book not quite unknown on English medical jurisprudence; and likewise of the Italian case of the Countess Cornelia Baudi as set forth in detail by one Bianchini, prebendary of Verona, who wrote a scholarly work or so and was occasionally heard of in his time as having gleams of reason in him; and also of the testimony of Messrs. Fodere and Mere, two pestilent Frenchmen who WOULD investigate the subject; and further, of the corroborative testimony of Monsieur Le Cat, a rather celebrated French surgeon once upon a time, who had the unpoliteness to live in a house where such a case occurred and even to write an account of it — still they regard the late Mr. Krook’s obstinacy in going out of the world by any such by-way as wholly unjustifiable and personally offensive. The less the court understands of all this, the more the court likes it, and the greater enjoyment it has in the stock in trade of the Sol’s Arms.

    Note the belly-laugh implied in Sol’s Arms