Is it possible for someone to spontaneously burst into flames?

All that was left were ashes

Mr. George Mott

CASE DETAILS

For Kay and Mike Fletcher, February 11, 1996, was a morning they’ll never forget.
Out of nowhere, a cloud of smoke suddenly erupted from Kay’s body. According to Kay, she thought her sweater had caught fire:

“I said, ‘Take a look at my back,’ because I’m thinking, do I have blisters or what? And he said, ‘No, it’s just red.’ We really were frantically looking through the clothing, you know, arm and back, and just looking it over very carefully and we found absolutely no discoloration, we found no sign of any kind of fire damage.”

Michael Fletcher claimed the source of the smoke was Amy’s body itself:

“It was actually coming off of her skin. But there was no flame. The smoke was so thick that we had to turn on the fan and open the window, just to get the smoke out of there. Now, earlier in my life, I had worked at a crematorium and the smell was that of burnt flesh.”

Irving’s walker and leg bone remained

For the Fletchers, the entire episode was hard to comprehend. Had Kay survived the bizarre phenomenon known as spontaneous human combustion?  If so, she was one of the lucky ones. Most cases end in death.

On March 26, 1986, Kendall Mott hadn’t heard from his father George, all day. A retired fireman, George had serious lung problems and needed an air pump and face mask just to help him breathe. Even before he went inside George’s home, Kendall knew something was wrong:

“The windows were all brown and I noticed that the door handle was warm when I grabbed it. It was real dark inside the house and it smelled like it had been burnt.” 

According to Kendall, when he found his father, all that was left was a scattering of ashes, a few splinters of bone, and a fragment of skull:

“It’s scary to find somebody like that, to walk in and find somebody that you love all burnt like that, with no explanation as to why, or what happened.”

Irving Bentley had turned to a pile of ashes

Larry Arnold is the author of a book about spontaneous human combustion entitled Ablaze:

“There was incredible localized damage done to the body. George Mott was incinerated to an extent that, we have been told by forensic experts, could only be replicated inside a crematorium operating at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit or more, for twelve long hours.”

The Mott burn area had all the weird inconsistencies of a classic combustion case. The TV had melted, but much of the bedding was undamaged. Nearby, a box of wooden matches was still intact. And air was still pumping through George’s face mask.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that non-believers, like Joe Nickell of Skeptical Inquirer Magazine, say there’s a rational explanation:

“Now, do I know exactly what happened? I don’t. But let me reconstruct a little bit.  We’re told that Mr. Mott was a former drinker, and a former smoker, but that he had reformed. He was depressed. Just suppose that he said, ‘What the heck, I think I’ll have a cigarette.’ This would explain him taking off the oxygen mask, while the unit would still be left running, and it would explain why the matches were there. Now, if that’s the case, then this is just another case of smoking in bed, and is not mysterious, and is a rather mundane case.”

But even a confirmed skeptic would not use the word mundane to describe the next incident. In December of 1966, gas company meter man Don Gosnell made an unpleasant discovery at the home of Irving Bentley, a 92-year old retired physician. As he always did, Gosnell had let himself into Irving’s basement:

“When I got to the bottom of the steps, there was a pile of ashes on the floor and there was an odor, something I’ve never encountered before, it’s kind of a sickening, sweet odor. And then I looked up and here there was a hole burnt through the floor right above me. And I stood there and I looked at that hole and there were little red embers all around the hole, still yet.”

Gosnell rushed upstairs, but nothing could have prepared him for the gruesome scene in the bathroom:

“All there was was part of one leg.  It was so discolored, I couldn’t tell if it was a human being or a mannequin until I got right down close and looked at it. And when I got the picture, I left, right then.”

Such scenes are nothing new to Larry Arnold:

“What is so profoundly perplexing to mainstream science about the scene that Dr. Bentley left behind is the incredibly intense fire that consumed his body, quite literally, to powder, leaving behind only his head, a knee bone, and a lower left leg as mute testimony that this had once been a human being. The rest of his body was ash in the basement below. We believe that Dr. Bentley answered a call of nature. While standing in front of the toilet, suddenly, spontaneously, he became a human fireball. The nature of the fire, and we kind of use fire in quotes, here, failed to produce enough thermal energy to melt the aluminum walker, failed to produce enough heat to blister paint on the bathtub inches away. And yet was quite capable of directing its energy downward, through the oak beams, through the flooring, and into the sub floor beneath, into the basement.”

Where Larry Arnold sees a paranormal mystery, skeptic Joe Nickell sees an unusual, yet possible, solution:

“The case of someone like Dr. Bentley is very understandable, in the sense of him being infirm; he had a history of setting his clothes on fire, from his pipe. His clothing was pockmarked with burns from his pipe. In many of the cases, the person’s own body fat can contribute to the fire. If we imagined Dr. Bentley with his body on fire, he falls to the floor, there is linoleum on that floor, and linoleum, once it catches fire, is a very powerful flammable material. The flooring burned. The subflooring burned. And beams—there’s beams underneath. There’s a tremendous amount of wood underneath his body to act as a funeral pyre. Mysterious? Not really, not scientifically mysterious. Unusual, yes.”

Larry Arnold says that debunkers could perform a very simple experiment:

“Take a cadaver, put it on a tar-based linoleum flooring, put an aluminum walker over the top of it and drop a cigarette on it. If it burns to powder, we’re gonna be real impressed, and that person deserves a Nobel prize in physics. But I’ll wager money, that experiment’s gonna fail.”

Arnold theorizes that some cases of spontaneous human combustion may be an explosive aberration of the electrical current flows naturally present in the body:

We have the potential of hundreds of thousands of volts of electricity coursing through the body.  Instantaneously.  If the amperage is sufficiently high, then the body would literally become its own electrocution mechanism.  It would fry itself out from the inside, electrically.”

Not in the world Joe Nickell lives in:

“This is crackpottery of a very high order. There is not a single reasonable theory for spontaneous human combustion. There is no convincing scientific evidence of it.  And so the mystery mongers ought to shut up and get a life.”

Is spontaneous human combustion real or can every case be explained away?  The jury is still out. Unless, of course, it happens to you.


Watch this case now on Amazon Prime in season nine with Robert Stack and in season one with Dennis Farina. Also available on YouTube with Dennis Farina. Various seasons available now on Hulu.

 

6 Comments

  1. DoraMem

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  3. Kate Mccarthy

    The combustion case of the Doctor,could have been caused by a lightening strike which grounded through the metal frames the Doctor was holding on to.The lightening came down through the roof and hit the Doctor grounding its self at the same time.

    Reply

  4. Anonymous

    WOW

    Reply

  5. Johnny

    Enjoyed the episode of spontaneous combustion. Remember it from the late 80’s or early 90’s. I think I lean towards believing in spontaneous combustion. Unsolved Mysteries remains 1 of my FAV shows. Wonder if anybody took Larry Arnold’s challenge and tried to duplicate this experiment. A medical class or scientist or funeral place.

    Reply