Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) describes reported cases of the burning of a living human body without an apparent external source of ignition. There have been about 200 cited cases worldwide over a period of around 300 years.
It is argued that SHC can be caused by an individual’s behaviour and habits – such as alcohol consumption – inner mechanisms of the body, or even acts of God or sorcery.
Gruesome photos purporting to show SHC often feature a large pile of grey ash from which a pair of legs protrude, while nearby objects appear untouched by the inferno. Accounts often feature tales of blue flames emerging from
On July 2, 1951, at about 8 a.m., Reeser’s landlady, Pansy Carpenter, arrived at Reeser’s door with a telegram. Trying the door, she found the metal doorknob to be uncomfortably warm to the touch and called the police.
Reeser’s remains, which were largely ashes, were found among the remains of a chair in which she had been sitting. Only part of her left foot (which was wearing a slipper) and her backbone remained, along with her skull. Plastic household objects at a distance from the seat of the fire were softened and had lost their shapes.
Reeser’s skull had survived and was found among the ashes, but shrunken (sometimes with the added descriptive flourish of ‘to the size of a teacup’). The extent of this shrinkage was enough to be remarked on by official investigators and was not an illusion caused by the removal of all facial features (ears, nose, lips, etc.). The shrinking of the skull is not a regular feature of alleged cases of SHC, although the ‘shrunken skull’ claim has become a regular feature of anecdotal accounts of other SHC cases and numerous apocryphal stories. However, this is not the only case in which the remains featured a shrunken skull.
On July 7, 1951, St. Petersburg police chief J.R. Reichert sent a box of evidence from the scene to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. He included glass fragments found in the ashes, six “small objects thought to be teeth,” a section of the carpet, and the surviving shoe.
Even though the body was almost totally cremated, requiring very high temperatures, the room in which it occurred showed little evidence of the fire.
Reichert included a note saying: “We request any information or theories that could explain how a human body could be so destroyed and the fire confined to such a small area and so little damage done to the structure of the building and the furniture in the room not even scorched or damaged by smoke.”
The FBI eventually declared that Reeser had been incinerated by the wick effect. As she was a known user of sleeping pills, they hypothesized that she had fallen unconscious while smoking and set fire to her nightclothes. “Once the body starts to burn,” the FBI wrote in its report, “there is enough fat and other inflammable substances to permit varying amounts of destruction to take place. Sometimes this destruction by burning will proceed to a degree which results in almost complete combustion of the body.”
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