Spontaneous human combustion is one of those weird fringe phenomena that you don’t hear about too often anymore, except perhaps in encyclopedias of the weird and unexplained (which I love, by the way). Most cases I’ve heard about it were from a century ago or more, and with the occasional occurrence in the ’50s or ’60s. But then I came across this story about SHC in Ireland, and apparently the first case they’ve had over there.
A man who burned to death in his home died as a result of spontaneous combustion, an Irish coroner has ruled.
West Galway coroner Dr Ciaran McLoughlin said it was the first time in 25 years of investigating deaths that he had recorded such a verdict.
Michael Faherty, 76, died at his home in Galway on 22 December 2010.
Deaths attributed by some to “spontaneous combustion” occur when a living human body is burned without an apparent external source of ignition.
Typically police or fire investigators find burned corpses but no burned furniture.
An inquest in Galway on Thursday heard how investigators had been baffled as to the cause of Mr Faherty’s death at his home at Clareview Park, Ballybane.
Forensic experts found that a fire in the fireplace of the sitting room where the badly burnt body was found, had not been the cause of the blaze that killed Mr Faherty.
The court was told that no trace of an accelerant had been found and there had been nothing to suggest foul play.
The court heard Mr Faherty had been found lying on his back with his head closest to an open fireplace.
The fire had been confined to the sitting room. The only damage was to the body, which was totally burnt, the ceiling above him and the floor underneath him.
Dr McLoughlin said he had consulted medical textbooks and carried out other research in an attempt to find an explanation.
He said Professor Bernard Knight, in his book on forensic pathology, had written about spontaneous combustion and noted that such reported cases were almost always near an open fireplace or chimney.
“This fire was thoroughly investigated and I’m left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation,” he said.
‘Sharp intake of breath’
Retired professor of pathology Mike Green said he had examined one suspected case in his career.
He said he would not use the term spontaneous combustion, as there had to be some source of ignition, possibly a lit match or cigarette.
“There is a source of ignition somewhere, but because the body is so badly destroyed the source can’t be found,” he said.
He said the circumstances in the Galway case were very similar to other possible cases.
“This is the picture which is described time and time again,” he said.
“Even the most experienced rescue worker or forensic scientist takes a sharp intake of breath (when they come across the scene).”
Mr Green said he doubted explanations centred on divine intervention.
“I think if the heavens were striking in cases of spontaneous combustion then there would be a lot more cases. I go for the practical, the mundane explanation,” he said.
Personally, I’m not sure what to make of SHC. Sure it’s bizarre, but so was magnetism before we understood what it was. Just because we can’t explain something doesn’t necessarily make it paranormal or supernatural. Perhaps it’s just preternatural, something that occurs naturally, with no intervention (divine, paranormal, or otherwise) and one day we will understand it.