One persistent feature of the world of the weird is the phenomenon known as “spontaneous human combustion,” which is when a human being is immolated by fire that seems to have no discernible cause or eternal source of ignition. In most cases there are strange details surrounding these cases, such as bodies that were charred by extremely high temperatures, yet left the surroundings or even clothing untouched, or of cases in which certain body parts have somehow managed to remain unscathed while everything else is ash. It is a phenomenon that had been written of in literature for centuries, and one mostly stable feature of these cases is that the victim does not survive the ordeal. Indeed, most cases are known from their violent aftermath, in which the corpse or parts of the corpse are burned beyond recognition, and survivors are scarce. Yet, although rare, there are a few people who have been the victim of apparent spontaneous human combustion who have lived to tell the tale, and here are some of them.
Many of these reports come from pretty far back in time, and the earliest we will look at here is from 1776. It all revolves around an Italian friar by the name of Don Gio Maria Bertholi, who seems to have somehow drawn fire to him to spontaneously combust, and yet live to tell the tale. In October of that year he was in the small town of Filetto, and after conducting some business in town he retired for the evening at his brother-in-law’s house. Not long after he closed himself into his room for the night, the other residents were alarmed to hear Bertholi screaming loudly as if in great pain, and when they rushed to his aid, they found the friar surrounded by an aura of blue flame. Oddly, as the relatives approached the flames are said to have actually cringed away from them as if aware of their presence, before dissipating completely, leaving Betholi moaning in agony. One report of the odd event reads:
Perceiving the cries of the priest, they repaired instantly to the apartment; and, on entering it, found him extended on the paved floor, and enveloped in a thin flame, which receded as they approached him, and at length entirely vanished. They placed him, as soon as possible, upon his bed, and administered to him every kind of aid that was at hand.
Although the friar had survived the incident, he was suffering serious burns, and when he was able to articulate what had happened, he explained that it felt as if an unseen hand had struck him, after which he had erupted in flames. Oddly, it was found that although his body was burned and his silk cap had been burned to a crisp, his shirt and trousers were undamaged, and his hair had remained unscathed too despite burns on his face. Making it stranger still was that, although there had been quite a bit of fire, the room had no smoke or odor of the fire, and nothing in the vicinity had been damaged. When Bertholi was brought to a physician for an examination, he was found to be in quite a rough state. The French physician François-Emmanuel Fodéré would describe it in excruciating detail, writing:
On the following morning, the patient was examined by M. Battaglia, who found the integuments of the right arm almost entirely detached and pendant from the flesh; from the shoulders to the thighs the integuments were equally injured; and on the right hand, the part most injured, mortification had already commenced, which notwithstanding immediate scarification rapidly extended itself. The patient complained of burning thirst, and was horribly convulsed, he passed by stool putrid and bilious matter, and was exhausted by continual vomiting accompanied by fever and delirium. On the fourth day, after two hours of comatose insensibility, he expired; during the whole period of his suffering, it was impossible to trace any symptomatic affection. A short time previous to his decease, M. Battaglia observed, with astonishment that putrefaction had made so much progress that the body already exhaled an insufferable odor, worms crawled from it on the bed, and the nails had become detached from the left hand.
In the end it has never been ascertained exactly what happened to Bertholi, and no explanation offered that really explains the entirety of the very bizarre phenomenon that he experienced. It remains a historical oddity, and a curious case of a person who survived what certainly at least appears to be spontaneous human combustion. Our next weird case comes from 1822, in the countryside of France. One summer day a local man called Renateau was out in the countryside of the village of Loignan when he allegedly felt a sudden, sharp pain in his right index finger. He casually glanced to it and his eyes widened in terror as he realized that his finger was actually on fire, and when he waved his fingers around the whole hand ignited. He wildly batted his hand at his pants, setting them on fire as well, and his left hand erupted into flames when he clapped his hands together.
Now in a panic, the man dashed as fast as he could to his house and screamed at his wife to bring him a bucket of cold water in which to douse the fire, but plunging his hands into the water failed to stop the flames. He then tried shoving his hands into wet mud and even tried milk, but this didn’t work either, and by this time he had attracted a crowd of curious onlookers milling about. One of these gawking spectators then brought him some holy water, and this seemed to do the trick. Oddly, although his clothes where he had touched them were burned, his hands were remarkably intact, suffering only minor burns considering how long them had been ablaze. This curious case appears in 1822 in the French medical journal Nouveau journal de médecine, chirurgie, pharmacie, Volume 15 and is an odd historical account that doesn’t seem to have ever been solved.
While these cases so far have mostly been met with horror and desperate panic, there is another case from 1835 that appeared in The American Journal of the Medical Sciences, Volume 17, and is notable for just how calm the victim was. In January of that year, a professor at the University of Nashville by the name of James Hamilton was doing an experiment in which he was outside making atmospheric measurements. As he went about checking his barometer, thermometer, and hygrometer, he felt a sudden acute pain in the thigh of his left leg. At first, he tried to ignore it, but it got steadily more intense until the pain was nearly unbearable. When he examined his leg, he then noticed that there was a flame emanating from the point of pain, right above the cloth of his pants. Perhaps it was his scientific inquisitiveness that guided his actions then, because he calmly cupped his hands around the flame in order to cut off its oxygen supply and it went out and the pain subsided greatly. He then went about inspecting his leg.
He found upon the skin a dry spot about the size of a dime, that seemed more like a scrape than a burn. Curiously, a hole was found to have been burned through his drawers in a perfect circle where the pain had been, yet the underwear between the skin and the outer clothing remained strangely untouched. It was all very weird, but the professor could see no need for medical attention, and calmly went back to his experiment just as calmly as he had dealt with the spontaneous flame that had spewed from his leg. The strange wound would take longer to heal than would be expected, but the professor made a full recovery, and it was considered by the journal to be a reliable case of “partial spontaneous combustion.”
There have been more modern cases of this as well. In 1974 a door to door salesman by the name of Jack Angel allegedly woke up at his mobile home in Savannah, Georgia, in the United States to find his hands, arms, back, and chest covered with burns. This was very odd, as he was not a smoker, there was no source of flame, and nothing around him was burned, including his clothes, which were unscathed. He claims that doctors told him that whatever had happened did so “internally,” and had originated from his left arm. The case gets a little suspicious when in later years he changed the story to say that he had been sprayed by scalding hot water as he was fixing the mobile home’s water pressure, but then in an episode of the TV series That’s Incredible he reverted back to his original tale of spontaneous human combustion. What is going on here?
In 1985 we also have the case of decorated Vietnam War veteran Frank Baker, who says he had his strange experience while on a fishing trip with some buddies. He says that as he was just sitting there on the sofa chatting away in their cabin his body suddenly burst into flames for no reason at all. They were able to put the flames out, and Baker said, “I had no idea what was taking place on my body — none. We were getting ready for fishing and sitting on the couch. Everything was great. Pete was sitting next to me — we were having a helluva time.” Making it even stranger is that when doctors examined him he was informed that the fire seemed to have burned from the inside out. The case was featured on an episode of the Science Channel’s Unexplained Files, and is pretty strange, indeed.
As of yet there is no real consensus on what causes the human spontaneous combustion phenomenon, and it has long remained a fixture of the world of the paranormal. However, while there is usually no one left to give a first hand account of what it was like to experience it, these cases that we have looked at here are very intriguing, indeed. What can we learn from such stories? Do they provide any insight into what is going on or do they merely take the mystery deeper? Whatever the case may be, they certainly do provide a different spin on the mystery of spontaneous human combustion, and it seems to be an enigma that will be talked about for some time to come.
Brent Swancer April 25, 2020 Mysterious Universe