Spontaneous human combustion (SHC) is a phenomenon that has fascinated and terrified people for centuries. It is the alleged burning of a living human body without an apparent external source of ignition. Typically, police or fire investigators find burned corpses but no burned furniture or other nearby objects. Some cases of SHC have been attributed to divine intervention, paranormal activity, or supernatural forces.

But is there a scientific explanation for this mysterious phenomenon? And what happened in the case of Michael Faherty, a 76-year-old man who died in his home in Galway City in 2010, and whose death was ruled as a result of SHC by an Irish coroner?

According to a BBC report, Dr Ciaran McLoughlin, the West Galway coroner, said it was the first time in his 25 years of investigating deaths that he had recorded such a verdict. He said he had consulted medical textbooks and carried out other research in an attempt to find an explanation.

The inquest heard that Mr Faherty had been found lying on his back with his head closest to an open fireplace in his sitting room on 22 December 2010. 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.

Forensic experts found that a fire in the fireplace of the sitting room had not been the cause of the blaze that killed Mr Faherty. No trace of an accelerant had been found and there was no sign of foul play. The smoke alarm in the home of Mr Faherty’s neighbour had gone off at about 3am, but no one had seen any flames or smoke coming from Mr Faherty’s house.

Dr McLoughlin said: “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.”

However, not everyone agrees with this verdict. Some experts have suggested alternative theories for the cause of death, such as the “wick effect” or the “candle effect”. These hypotheses propose that a small external flame, such as a cigarette or a match, could ignite the clothing of a person, and then the body fat could act as a fuel for a slow and smouldering combustion. The clothing would act as a wick, drawing the melted fat into the flame and keeping it burning for hours.

This could explain why the body is consumed by fire but not the surroundings, as the heat would be insulated by the clothing and the fat. It could also explain why most victims of SHC are elderly, obese, or suffer from chronic diseases that impair their mobility or consciousness, making them unable to escape or extinguish the fire.

Professor Mike Green, a retired professor of pathology, said he had examined one suspected case of SHC 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 also 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.

Another possible explanation is that some people have a rare genetic disorder that causes them to produce abnormally high levels of flammable gases in their intestines, such as methane or hydrogen. These gases could accumulate in their bodies and ignite spontaneously when exposed to oxygen or sparks.

However, there is no conclusive evidence for this theory either, and it does not account for why only some parts of the body are affected by the fire.

The case of Michael Faherty remains unsolved and controversial. It raises questions about the validity and reliability of coroner’s verdicts, as well as the scientific understanding of human combustion.


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Spontaneous Combustion



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