Can I, nay, will I spontaneously combust? A question that haunts most of us throughout the entirety of our lives. With every passing hour, we ask ourselves, will this be it? The moment, without any prior warning that my body uncannily bursts into flames? For me personally, at this time facetiously writing about Spontaneous Human Combustion, it would be the peak of irony and hilarity if my time to spontaneously combust was right—now.
It didn’t happen. But that doesn’t mean the gruesome and bizarre cause of death is purely a fictitious concept. One of the earliest records of Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) dates back to c. 1470 AD. The commonly told story is that the Italian Knight Polonus Vorstius was drinking copious amounts of wine when all of a sudden, he burst into flames. This was outlined in the Historiarum Anatomicarum Rariorum (Rare Anatomical Histories) by Thomæ Bartholini, 1654. This first instance many suspect an open flame may have been an ignition source, upon which Polonus might have belched. Wine is not flammable because the level of alcohol present is too low. But in its vapor form, wine can be ignited. Regardless of whether or not it was a true event of SHC, friends and family looked on in horror as the once joyous Knight turned to a gruesome sight of flame and ash before their eyes.
The next well-known, recorded case didn’t occur for nearly 261 years in 1731. Possibly the most famous incident of SHC, was Countess Cornelia Zangheri Bandi. Coincidentally, this event also took place in Italy. This incident is documented in the Parere Sopra la Cagione della Morte della Signora Contessa Cornelia Zangari Ne’ Bandi Cesenate by Giuseppe Bianchini, translated by Paul Rolli:
“Four feet distance from the bed there was a heap of ashes, two legs untouched, from the foot to the knee, with their stockings on; between them was the lady’s head; whose brains, half of the backpart of the scull, and the whole chin, were burnt to ashes; amongst which were found three fingers blacken’d. All the rest was ashes, which had this particular quality, that they left in the hand, when taken up, a greasy and stinking moisture. The air in the room also observed cumbered with soot floating in it: a small oil-lamp on the foor was cover’d with ashes, but no oil in it.”
Again, there could have been a possible cause for ignition to lead to this tragedy, such as the oil-lamp. It’s also often overlooked that the Countess practiced smearing her body with camphorated brandy to relieve a variety of ailments (brandy contains up to 60% ethanol).
Globally, it’s believed there are around 150 accounts of alleged incidents of Spontaneous Human Combustion. Where some people who are far more involved with the incidents than I am (as I’m only reading diluted records of these events) believe that an individual has spontaneously combusted WITHOUT an external ignition source. One theory is that the victim’s intestines are filled with methane gas and that is somehow ignited by enzymes. A sort of hypergolic chemical reaction resulting in a combustion. Like for example mixing Monomethylhydrazine (MMH) with Nitrogen Tetroxide (NTO) as a rocket propellant.
By whatever means, this “phenomenon” often results in the victim being found as a mere scattered body parts, usually only remaining are an unscathed pair of lower legs. While most of the upper torso is severely burned, to the point of charred bone remains in most instances.
In a book published in 1823 called the Medical Jurisprudence by L. A. Parry (later referenced in the British Medical Journal in 1938), it states that at that time victims had these characteristics in common:
⦿ The victims are chronic alcoholics.
⦿ They are usually elderly females.
⦿ The body has not burned spontaneously, but some lighted substance has come into contact with it.
⦿ The hands and feet usually fall off.
⦿ The fire has caused very little damage to combustible things in contact with the body.
⦿ The combustion of the body has left a residue of greasy and fetid ashes, very offensive in odor.
So, all said and done, should someone worry about Spontaneous Human Combustion? Well, look at it this way, annually 240,000 people are injured by lightning strikes. Globally, the death toll from lightning is 6000. Some estimations of fatal car accidents globally are over 1.2 million, per year. The World Health Organization has risen the estimated number of deaths due to various forms of cancer to just under 10 million deaths per year. So the likelihood of an individual reading this text spontaneously combusting, extremely, extremely low odds.
Though, not impossible.