I recently read Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. 5/5. An excellent book and well worth the time. It is a lengthy book. He definitely got paid by the word. I like to read older books using audio. I don’t know why, but the logorrheic circumlocutions of 19th century writers are better heard than read. It is why I listen to Respectful Insolence.*
Deep into the book I came across this:
..The cat remains where they found her, still snarling at the something on the ground before the fire and between the two chairs. What is it? Hold up the light.
Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is—is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? Oh, horror, he IS here! And this from which we run away, striking out the light and overturning one another into the street, is all that represents him.
Help, help, help! Come into this house for heaven’s sake! Plenty will come in, but none can help. The Lord Chancellor of that court, true to his title in his last act, has died the death of all lord chancellors in all courts and of all authorities in all places under all names soever, where false pretences are made, and where injustice is done. Call the death by any name your Highness will, attribute it to whom you will, or say it might have been prevented how you will, it is the same death eternally—inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself, and that only—spontaneous combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died.
Death by spontaneous human combustion. What the?
I will henceforth refer to it as SHC to ease my weary fingers. Turns out the Dickens was a proponent of SHC. He was criticized for that and, like any good believer in the absurd, he doubled down.
The possibility of what is called spontaneous combustion has been denied since the death of Mr. Krook; and my good friend Mr. Lewes (quite mistaken, as he soon found, in supposing the thing to have been abandoned by all authorities) published some ingenious letters to me at the time when that event was chronicled, arguing that spontaneous combustion could not possibly be. I have no need to observe that I do not wilfully or negligently mislead my readers and that before I wrote that description I took pains to investigate the subject. There are about thirty cases on record, of which the most famous, that of the Countess Cornelia de Baudi Cesenate, was minutely investigated and described by Giuseppe Bianchini, a prebendary of Verona, otherwise distinguished in letters, who published an account of it at Verona in 1731, which he afterwards republished at Rome. The appearances, beyond all rational doubt, observed in that case are the appearances observed in Mr. Krook’s case. The next most famous instance happened at Rheims six years earlier, and the historian in that case is Le Cat, one of the most renowned surgeons produced by France. The subject was a woman, whose husband was ignorantly convicted of having murdered her; but on solemn appeal to a higher court, he was acquitted because it was shown upon the evidence that she had died the death of which this name of spontaneous combustion is given. I do not think it necessary to add to these notable facts, and that general reference to the authorities which will be found at page 30, vol. ii the recorded opinions and experiences of distinguished medical professors, French, English, and Scotch, in more modern days, contenting myself with observing that I shall not abandon the facts until there shall have been a considerable spontaneous combustion of the testimony on which human occurrences are usually received.
… reduced to a pile of ashes that was a little more than 1 metre (3 ft 3 in) from the bed, although her lower legs below the knee, three fingers and front of her skull were relatively intact. The bed and the rest of the furniture had not been affected by the fire, but were covered by a greasy and smelly layer.
The event was reported by the Reverend Joseph Bianchini, a Prebend in the City of Verona. It has been suggested that since this particular SHC was reported by a member of the Church, the facts of the case must be true. Right. Like the Church is noted for the being honest and forthright. I would be disinclined to automatically grant veracity on any topic to such a source, except, perhaps, on how to maintain a worldwide child molestation ring without the need of a pizza parlor as a front.
I am sure her death by fire had nothing to do with the fact she was known to sprinkle camphorated brandy on her body at bed time to relive pain. Naw. Covering yourself with flammable fluids in a world lit by candles would never lead to disaster.
The likely cause of SHC has been worked out. Someone dies. Often a smoker and a drinker. The coal from the end of the cigarette, or perhaps a spark from a nearby fire, smolders through the cotton clothes, burrowing down until it hits fat. Then you get a slowly burning candle, the cotton being a wick, that is fed by the adipose until most of the torso is gone. Ick. But a straightforward explanation.
So what does that have to do with science-based medicine? Well, for hoots and giggles I entered “spontaneous human combustion” into Pubmed. 111 hits dating back to 1848. While most turned out not to be human spontaneous combustion (hay, garbage dumps, and coal can suffer the same fate), I thought it would be entertaining to wander through the medical literature on the topic. Hence the ‘Narrative Review.’ A narrative review is
a review method in which the researchers summarize different primary studies from which conclusions may be drawn in a systematic way and from a holistic point of view, contributed by researchers’ own experience and existing theories.
Practically speaking, it is a book report with unsubstantiated opinions by people who can’t do the statistics required for a systematic review. Perfect for me.
Let’s start in 1848 and move forward in time and see what the medical literature has to say about SHC.
The first report was interesting for two features. First, when the body was first discovered, it was noted
“..on the body of the deceased a small, lambent, whitish flame…”
Lambent, btw, means glowing, gleaming, or flickering with a soft radiance. It is a word I did not know.
But it is curious he was burning like a candle. Fits with the most likely explanation of how SHC occurs.
The deceased was not fat, nor a drinker, but was known to carry matches in his waistcoat. They eventually blamed a warm brick he had in bed with him to keep his feet warm as the source of the combustion, although at the time it was thought that whatever process kept the body warm could spin out of control and ignite a person.
The other fact was that the son and daughter were accused of killing him and burning the body, but were acquitted after the examining physician called it spontaneous combustion.
The second case of the 19th century. concerns the death of Countess of Goerlitz at Darmstadt, on the 13th June 1847, and is presented like a murder mystery in a lengthy report from 1852. Part of the mystery is she was found burned in bed, but she had the habit of locking herself in the room at night and she had the only key. Atypical for SHC, it appeared to start at the head and neck rather than the torso.
It was said the SHC is difficult to extinguish with water (like any grease fire?) and this fire was easily put out, so, per Dr. Graff, it was one of the many reasons the death was typical for SHC.
In the end it was decided she had been murdered by John Stauff and set alight.
The author did note of the famous case referenced by Dickens as
a very silly and fabulous relation, abounding in those marvelous circumstances which weak minds take please in remarking
and the author also noted
The tendency of which is to create wonder and terror at an unknown event of doubtful occurrence, and at variance with known physical laws.
That could be the motto of this blog.
The last case from the 19th century in the medical literature was not really spontaneous human combustion, but I enjoy the style:
Twelve years ago last August, a man met death in a peculiar and horrible manner in San Francisco. James Harley, the victim, had just recovered from an attack of delirium tremens. He had been a regular sot and was thoroughly soaked with alcohol. His last attack of the “ jim jams ” was the third he had undergone within a few months. On the morning in question he had started on another spree. At about 11 o’clock in the day, he had about all the liquor on board he was able to carry. Stepping into a saloon on one of the principal streets he called for a swig of “bug juice,” which was promptly refused, the bartender noting the condition of the man and remembering his late battle with the snakes. Harley scowled and turned to a gas jet to light his pipe. A second later there was a drunken moan, a flash of alcoholic flame, and Harley fell heavily to the floor, his head and neck veiled in smoke, while blue jets of flame were issuing from his ears, mouth and nostrils. As soon as water could be procured (water was a commodity rather scarce around such places) it was dashed into the sufferer’s face, not in time, however to save his life. The face was as black is that of a negro. The ears were charred, the inside of the mouth black and the tongue burned to a crisp.
I wonder how high his blood alcohol was to become a human alcohol flame.
There was a lull in the medical literature until the 1990s.
One case was a seizure patient who had two matchbooks in his pocket. The seizure caused the one matchbook to rub against the striking surface of the other, igniting the patients pants. Again, not a true SHC, but another way, albiet rare, that a human could erupt into flames. Probably more plausible than exposure to cosmic radiation.
Most of the other papers are reviews of the topic that rehash the topic from the point of view of forensic medicine. Which is important. Was the person killed, then set alight? Usually. Or was it the rare perfect storm that led to not-really-so-spontaneous human combustion. Is it SHC? Or murder?
There have been few experiments published in the medical literature looking into SHC. Given its (rare) importance in forensics, I was surprised at the lack of basic research. Probably why the topic has never been covered in one of those police procedural shows.
Finding a body to burn is hard, but there is a pig model.
Previous tests by these authors have demonstrated the conditions necessary to promote combustion of a body: the presence of adequate body fat, presence of a porous, rigid char to act as a wick, and an external flame source sustained for several minutes to char the body and cause the subcutaneous fat to begin rendering. In the test reported here, a freshly-slaughtered pig carcass with a net weight of 215 lb. (95 kg) was wrapped in a cotton blanket and placed on a carpet-covered plywood panel. The fire was initiated using 1 L of gasoline poured on the shoulder area of the blanket-wrapped carcass. The gasoline burned off within 4 min, having ignited a large area of the blanket and adjoining carpet. Flames from those fuel packages resulted in the establishment of a steady-state fire sustained by the rendering of the body fat, with the necessary wick provided by the charred cotton blanket and carpet. The heat release rate of this fire was 60+/-10 kW, with flames less than 12 in. (0.35 m) high for its duration. The fire sustained itself by the rendering process for more than 6 1/2 h from ignition, at which time it was extinguished. An average mass loss rate of 1.5 g/s (5.3 kg/h) was observed during the self-sustained fire. Extensive destruction of the carcass (more than 60% by weight) included reduction of large bones to a fragile, ashen state.
I think I will stick with a pellet smoker for my next BBQ pork shoulder. Although, my wife has long been of the opinion that most men are pigs, so it may be a good model.
But one always starts small and works their way up. For example, burn bits of people:
Two experiments were conducted. The first involved the cremation of “healthy” and “osteoporotic” human bone and observing the resulting fragmentation and color change. Osteoporotic elements consistently displayed more discoloration and a greater degree of fragmentation than healthy ones. The second experiment involved the combustion of a sample of human tissue (an amputated leg) and observation of the flame height and burning area in order to calculate the effective heat of combustion. The resulting heat was 17kJ/g indicating a fire that is unlikely to spread.
Man. The smell. I could never tolerate the smell of electrocautery, I hope they used a hood. Although
Burning muscle tissue gives off an aroma similar to beef in a frying pan, and body fat smells like a side of fatty pork on the grill.
I hope to never learn from experience.
That is mostly it for the basic research on SHC. But not an area that would be easy to explore and not open to odd speculation. Or is there?
As mentioned, the mechanism by which most cases of SHC occur is reasonably well worked out. But not everyone is convinced.
For example, Mr. Seun Ayoade, an independent researcher in Nigeria, wondered if Spontanous Human Combustion-are the Microzymas the Culprit?
The short answer is no. But he suggests
It could very well be that in rare instances microzyma carry out some extremely exothermic reactions for which tissue conductance is hopelessly inadequate, and thus the cells, tissues, organs and systems literally burn up! The death of the unfortunate individual coincides with the de-coordination of the microzyma and that explains why the fire doesn’t affect inanimate objects around the victim to an appreciable degree.
It could very well be? Not so much.
Published in Global Journal of Forensic Science & Medicine, I think the GJFSM is failing their aim of that aim of publishing quality articles. And it was peer reviewed. Who would review that article? A naturopath?
But it is curious how ideas never die. Microzymas were first hypothesized by Bechamp, the anti- Pasteur. The microzyma, which by the way do not exist,
.. is an independently living element, found in all living organisms and survives after the death of the organism. It functions to both build and recycle the organism.
Mr, Ayoade seems to have an idee fixe on the topic, as he is also of the opinion that The Future of Medicine Lies in Microzyma Research, Not in Stem Cell Research; Flexner the Germ Theory Fiend
I love that. Germ Theory Fiend. I want that on my tombstone.
So, what have we learned? Not much. So I will conclude with the always lame classics: more research needs to be done, and the next time you see a person mostly consumed by fire, consider spontaneous human combustion.