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First Official Irish Spontaneous Human Combustion Case

Torso Turns to Ash, Extremities Burn Less - Minervaaa

A Galway coroner has ruled that a man died from no adequate explanation, except that he just caught fire and burned to death.

76 year old Michael Flaherty from Ballybane, Galway was found dead in December 2010, his body burned, but nothing around him damaged. Neither police nor fire officers found obvious cause of ignition. The West Galway coroner, Dr Kieran McLoughlin, said he was left with no option but to declare it (September 2011) the first case of spontaneous human combustion (SHC) in Irish history.


Fortean Times, magazine of paranormal occurrences, thought it the first time a coroner anywhere had officially declared a SHC event, as they usually liked to call it something else to avoid conceding that the phenomena exists.

BBC News explained that such deaths occur when a living human body combusts with no apparent external ignition. Typically the body is burned, the torso more than the extremes, but nothing around is, although floor beneath and ceiling above the body often are damaged a little.

The nearby fire in the grate did not cause it, although in most previous cases, bodies were near an open fireplace or chimney. No accelerant was discovered. Foul play was discounted. The coroner’s verdict was controversial but inevitable in the absence of evidence.

The BBC quoted retired pathology professor Mike Green who felt there had to be ignition somewhere. It was just not found by police, fire or rescue workers. He also personally rejected divine intervention, preferring ‘the practical, mundane explanation’.

Fiction and Fact

The Irish case is the first for some years anywhere in the world, but in 2005 it was a topical issue when the dramatisation of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House was on television. BBC Magazine ran a story following public interest in the character, Krook, who found ‘his gin warming his stomach more than usual’ and he suddenly burst into flames.

Dickens’ fictional account parallels what usually happens. ‘A small burnt patch of flooring, the tinder from a little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to be steeped in something; and here is – is it the cinder of a small charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it coal? Oh, horror, he IS here!’

On publication in 1852-53 Dickens was criticised for ‘legitimising superstitious nonsense’. He defended himself by saying he had researched thoroughly and knew ‘of about thirty cases’. He may have drawn on a collection of examples, De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis (1763) published by Jonas Dupont.

It takes temperatures of about 1600 degrees Fahrenheit over two hours to reduce a body to ashes, but that the flame does not consume the entire room is the essential core of the mystery. It’s easy to see why punishment for general sins or alcoholism would have been attributed by people in the past and why novelists relish the details.

BBC Magazine mentioned Mary Reeser, found in Florida in 1951 ‘reduced to a pile of ashes save her shrunken skull and her intact left foot’, and Jean Saffin’s inquest in north London in 1982 was offered SHC as cause of death. The coroner recorded an open verdict, saying there ‘was no such thing as SHC’.

Interest remained high and in 1998 the BBC television programme QED experimented with a dead pig to demonstrate the ‘wick effect’, where clothes are wick and fat is the fuel source. But it still needed a spark, too. Many scientists took ‘wick’, though, as the most credible solution.

Pure Fiction?

In Jules Verne’s Un Capitaine de Quinze Ans, a tribal leader combusted while drinking flaming punch. Jessica Warner in her Craze: Gin and Debauchery In an Age of Reason (2003) published a list of 19th century authors fascinated by SHC. Whisky-sodden Jimmy Flinn in Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (1883) and Antoine Macquart, a drunk with a lifetime of imbibing, in Emile Zola’s Docteur Pascal (1893), suffered their marinated bodies spontaneously erupting into flames.

Warner mentioned others: the narrator’s father in Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown (1798); William the Testy in Knickerbocker’s History Of New York by Washington Irving (1809); a woman in Jacob Faithful by Captain Marryat (1834); a blacksmith in Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842); Sir Polloxfen Tremens in The Glenmutchkin Railway by William Edmondstoune Aytoun (1845) and the sailor Miguel Saveda in Redburn by Herman Melville (1849).

Leaving novels aside, there are sceptics of the spontaneous explanation. Internal chemicals or nuclear fusion don’t satisfy many. Criminal activity may explain some, despite apparent lack of evidence. The Skeptics Dictionary – a collection of strange beliefs, amusing deceptions and dangerous delusions – debunks all theories, including microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation (maser), yoga/mystic body heating (kundalini) and stress.

While Irish folklore, legend and culture are rich in imaginative creativity, a case like that of Michael Flaherty is not something to bring the tourists in. But then again, many people have a gruesome curiosity about things, including war.

His family were reported (Daily Telegraph 24 September 2011) as ‘satisfied with the investigation’. Their views on the verdict were not stated. But Irish news website The Journal did report: ‘Spontaneous Human Combustion, was the subject of one Irish doctor’s study as far back as the early 19th century. Dr Edmond Sharkey wrote in the Dublin Journal of Medical and Chemical Science in 1833 that he was surprised his fellow physicians had not taken more note of it’.

Well, perhaps they will now.
First published on Suite 101, 26 September 2011

Image: Torso Turns to Ash, Extremities Burn Less – Minervaaa

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