The phenomenon of Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) has baffled open-minded scientists for centuries. One of the earliest claims occurred prior to April 4, 1731 when details on the death of Countess Bandi of Cesena (Italy) were published. Remains of the sixty-two year old Countess were discovered by her maid the morning after her demise when she failed to emerge from her room at her usual time. All that was left of Countess Bandi was three fingers, two legs from the knee down (still wearing stockings), a charred skull (parts of which had burned away completely) and a pile of ash. A foul-smelling, greasy, yellowish fluid was found dripping from the windows in the room and evidence suggested the Countess had calmly gotten out of her bed while on fire and walked several feet before succumbing to the flames. This case is most likely one of the many false accounts of spontaneous human combustion as the Countess was well-known for lathering herself in camphor oil, a highly flammable substance. Two burned-out candles were noticed near the bed when the Countess’s body was discovered. Unfortunately, due to the large volume of blatantly false claims of SHC skeptics tend to ignore evidence which suggests it is possible and jump to the conclusion that every case was caused by the victim standing too close to a candle or falling asleep while smoking a cigarette. In the 1700s and 1800s, spontaneous human combustion was a very popular writing topic; Many famous authors including Charles Dickens and Herman Melville mentioned this mysterious cause of death in their stories. In the 1800s, the belief was that spontaneous combustion became possible when a person drank so much liquor that their body was completely saturated in alcohol, causing the person to become flammable. Those with religious inclinations believed that it was “divine retribution” and victims of SHC had angered God and been struck down with a lightning bolt. Another less-popular theory at the time was that mystical lights referred to as “will-o’-the-wisps” which were sometimes seen rising from stagnant marshes were to blame. Astoundingly, the will-o’-the-wisps theory is closest to the truth. These strange lights, often mentioned in folklore, were caused by methane gasses being released from decomposing vegetable matter underwater. Humans and animals also produce and release methane, hydrogen and phosphate through bacterial action in the digestive system. Luckily, if and when these gasses come into contact with a flame, you will not spontaneously combust; If that were the case, people would be catching fire right and left. However, diphosphane, a substance related to phosphorus, would cause a person to spontaneously combust under the right conditions. Until rather recently, it was believed that human production of diphosophane was highly unlikely. In 2000 German researcher John Emsley published his findings on spontaneous human combustion in The Shocking History of Phosphorus. In his research he found that human feces contains both phosphate and diphosphane. In incredibly rare cases, diphosphane levels could build up in a person overtime and if it were to encounter oxygen in the body, could ignite a pocket of methane and phosphate causing a person to burst into flames from the inside out. This corroborates with convincing accounts of supposed SHC in which the fire appears to originate in the stomach area. Of course, it would be incredibly rare that this would occur; Brian J. Ford’s theory of what may cause spontaneous combustion is certainly more likely. Humans naturally produce acetone, a highly flammable substance. It is used to break down fat in the body and will evaporate into the air as a person naturally burns fat through exercise or other means. It has a very distinct smell, usually sweet and fruity as was described by Don Gosnell who discovered the remains of Dr. John Irving Bentley. One major fact used by skeptics when attempting to explain away possible cases of spontaneous human combustion is that the body could not burn internally when the human body contains so much fluid; Acetone, however, mixes well with water. Brian J. Ford explains, “There is one highly flammable constituent of the body that can greatly increase in concentration… If the body’s cells are starved (which can occur during chronic illness and even during a workout at the gym), acetyl-CoA in the liver is converted into acetoacetate, which can decarboxylate into acetone. And acetone in highly flammable. A wide range of conditions can produce ketosis, in which acetone is formed, including alcoholism, high-fat low-carbohydrate dieting, diabetes and even teething.”. This makes sense considering most who supposedly parish through spontaneous combustion are alcoholics, seniors and/or over-weight. In order to prove his theory, Ford conducted an experiment in which he created scale models of humans out of pork tissue, marinated them in acetone and clothed them before igniting the models which, “Burned to ash within half an hour.”. Ford went on to describe, “The remains- a pile of smoking cinders with protruding limbs- were exactly like the photographs of human victims.”.
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