Notes: A Blaze of Glory

“A LREADY THE SNOWS have scattered and fled,” the poet Horace wrote in one of his odes, “already the grass comes again in the fields and the leaves on the trees.” What Horace neglected to mention, though he was probably as relieved about it as I always am at this time of year, is that the advent of spring also marks the end of the traditional peak season for spontaneous human combustion.

I am your average sensible, nonsmoking, appropriately insured sort of fellow, who nonetheless is drawn to headlines in the tabloids like “PREACHER EXPLODES DURING SERMON: The most bizarre case of spontaneous combustion ever!” and feels compelled to glance through any illustrated book with a title like Unsolved Mysteries of Science. I was sixteen years old when, flipping through such a volume, I first encountered the case of Dr. J. Irving Bentley, ninety-two, of Coudersport, Pennsylvania, who was found (actually, whose unburned slippered foot was found) by a gas-meter reader in December of 1966. The balance of Dr. Bentley had apparently been reduced to cinders, after burning a hole in a bathroom floor and falling into the basement. Nothing else in the house was harmed. Photographs were taken of the bathroom scene—the hole, the foot, the metal walker resting askew against the bathtub—and they remain seared, so to speak, in my memory.

Some three hundred instances of alleged spontaneous human combustion have been reported during the past three hundred years, and the consequences if not the causes have in many of these cases been reliably described. The distinguished Dutch surgeon D. De Moulin noted several years ago, in the medical journal Archivum Chirurgicum Neerlandicum, that many of the accounts handed down through the centuries were written by reputable physicians of unquestioned veracity— indeed, by physicians “well known for their scientific contributions to medicine.” These include, for example, Claude Nicholas Le Cat (d. 1768, “in his day the most renowned lithotomist in France”) and Bradford Wilmer (fl. 17791802, “who at the time enjoyed a reputation for his treatment of goitre with burnt sponge”)—men, in other words, in whom one is inclined to place implicit trust. The first instance of spontaneous human combustion that survives in the professional literature was discussed by the Danish anatomist Thomas Bartholin in 1663, in Acta medica et philosophica Hafniensia. Bartholin reported the case of a woman in Paris, who had long enjoyed her brandy, and who one night “went up in ashes and smoke” as she slept, apparently achieving an extreme temperature, yet doing little damage to any part of the adjacent domestic environment, including the straw mattress upon which she slept.

Subsequent accounts of spontaneous human combustion are more or less consistent with that one. A few stray extremities aside, the victim is always totally consumed, flesh and frame. The coroner usually remarks a sweetly fuliginous smell at the scene and is utterly baffled by what has occurred, having never seen anything like it in all his years as a medical examiner. The setting is usually somewhere inside a house, often the bedroom, but spontaneous combustion has reportedly claimed victims in cars and on boats and city streets; one woman, after dancing all night with her fiancé, “suddenly glowed with blue flames and was reduced to ashes,” according to a newspaper account. The most typical casualty, students of such incidents contend, is elderly, overweight, and female; the victim’s typical vice is a taste for alcohol; and the time of death is typically during the holiday season. While this does not exactly place me, or others similarly situated, in an atrisk group, enough exceptions have been documented to suggest that none of us is necessarily apyrous.

Spontaneous human combustion used to be accorded the respect it clearly deserves. It was the wrath-of-God affliction during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—meted out, some believed, to punish intemperance—and accounts of its visitation advance the plots of many old novels, most famously Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. A lot of ingenuity has been invested over the years in possible explanations. I favor the eighteenth-century idea, which is that the friction caused by particles in the bloodstream bumping into one another creates a certain animal heat, or ignis elernentaris, which, upon surpassing a certain threshold, requires only a causa occasionalism such as bourbon, to touch off a conflagration—highly localized, to be sure, but fraught, potentially, with extreme personal significance. Other explanations have implicated a buildup of combustible gases, the explosive properties of human emotion, the influence of geomagnetic fluctuations, and the presence of a subatomic particle, yet to be validated, called the pyrotron. Despite a diminished measure of public concern about the issue, there are still quite a few theorists out there (prey, of course, to factionalism) subjecting SHC, as they call it, to serious, or at least sincere, scrutiny. Like other covens of specialists, they have their own newsletters and magazines, their own guerres de plume, and their own repertoire of terrible puns.

Is there really such a thing as spontaneous human combustion? I have consulted doctors at several leading burn centers around the country, and their reactions amount, in effect, to “Pshaw” (a word that, by the way, I have only seen in print and have never in all my life heard spoken). I received such responses as “I have no knowledge of a valid basis for the concept of spontaneous human combustion” and “Based on my own experience as a burn surgeon, I think it is highly unlikely that this is a reliable phenomenon.” Question these men and women more closely, however, and you will discover that their real quarrel is with the word spontaneous, in the discredited sense associated with “spontaneous generation” (remember Needham and Spallanzani?). Yes, they say, bizarre, inexplicable, radically selfcontained immolations do, from time to time, occur. But no, there exists no rogue chromosome or genetically transmitted pyrotron; nothing inherent in the constitution of any representative of Homo sapiens can cause him, without provocation, to burst unilaterally into flames. Rather, SHC is simply the capricious consequence of various combinations of rationally explainable if unpredictable exogenous events, one of which happens, sometimes mysteriously and unaccountably, to provide ignition—the strike of an errant bolt of lightning, say, or a wafting ember from the hearth, or a brush with a sweater that went through the dryer without StaPuf. Instead of something that could happen to anyone for a very specific reason (a reason, perhaps, that might one day be vitiated through genetic counseling), human combustion is actually something that could happen to anyone at any time for any reason under the sun.

But not usually, it seems, from April to October. It was, I suspect, this benign interval to which Horace was referring when he advised, “Now is the time for drinking, now the time to beat the earth with unfettered foot.”

—Cullen Murphy