Chemistry

Human Combustion



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On September 15, 1982 Jeannie Saffin’s body was found in her house. Her body from her head down to her knees had completely disintegrated into ashes. To make this situation more mysterious, nothing around her was burned. Jeannie’s house was in perfect condition. It was almost like Jeannie Saffin had burned from the inside out. Consequently, scientists have made many theories about Spontaneous Human Combustion but have not been able to clearly understand its causes.

Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is said to be when a very hot fire goes off within a body with no external flame source. It then reduces the body to ashes except for a hand or a pair of legs, which are left completely normal. An article in the Skeptical Inquirer written by Gordon Stein, tells how some scientist have tried to find a logical reasoning for SHC, but found it to be a “physiological impossibility.” The human body is made up of mostly water so for the body to make a flame from within is impossible. Scientist at one time suggested that all the SHC cases reported had the common factor of alcoholism. All the victims were said to be alcoholics and the alcohol had consumed the burning. This theory was later ignored because “modern medicine” proved that a fire could not be started within a human’s body without an initial external energy source. In 1850, Chemist Justus Von Liebig also proved that this theory was wrong. He soaked a tissue in diluted alcohol and showed that it would not burn even with an external flame.

            In Mark Benecke’s article, Spontaneous Human Combustion: Thoughts of a forensic biologist, Benecke talks about why a hand or a pair of legs will be left unburned while the rest of the body is entirely ashes. In a case of just legs being left it can be explained by the decreasing temperature from the top of a person’s head to the point just above their knees. This is actually called the temperature gradient. The fire incinerates after a while of burning. Benecke compares this process to the burning of a match.   

Another observation that was introduced by scientist was the multiple wick effect theory. In this theory a body that is covered by clothing will burn whereas body parts that are not covered by some type of clothing acts as a “support burner,” because it burns for a long period of time. It burns for such a long time because body fat in a blazon amount of layers changes into a liquid form. This liquefied body form can soak into a person’s clothing and can cause it to act like a wick which contains the fire.

Jeannie Saffin was just one out of the many unsolved cases of SHC. Although these cases are all clearly started by some type of fire forensic scientist cannot absolutely understand the mysteries of spontaneous human combustion and its real causes. 






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