Usually kept in the company of the Bermuda Triangle, the Chupacabra, and other inspirations for episodes of the X-Files, spontaneous human combustion – when a living human burns without an external ignition source – is assumed by most to not actually exist.
But an Irish coroner declared just that this week as the cause of death for 76-year-old Michael Faherty, who died in December 2010. The BBC reports that the finding is the first reported case of spontaneous human combustion in Ireland’s history.
Forensic experts originally attributed the blaze that killed Faherty to a fire in the fireplace of the sitting room where his body was found. But after a closer investigation, the coroner ruled otherwise. “The fire had been confined to the sitting room,” the BBC reports. “The only damage was to the body, which was totally burnt, the ceiling above him and the floor underneath him.” No accelerant was found nor any signs of foul play.
Coroner Kieran McLoughlin explains: "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."
The Guardian looked into the history of spontaneous human combustion cases as published in their archives. The paper reported on the phenomenon as early as 1825, with the findings of a Dr. Trail:
Spontaneous Combustion – Dr. Trail has recently discovered a peculiar kind of oil in the human blood, which is highly inflammable – this oil is chiefly observed in the blood of persons who have been addicted to drinking ardent spirits. It is probably that this discovery may tend to elucidate the hitherto inexplicable phenomenon of the spontaneous combustion of human bodies.
Meanwhile, NPR looked into the scientific plausibility of the determined cause of death:
Though [Stephen Cina, a forensic pathologist] has written on thermal injuries and has more than 20 years in the field, he says he's never come across a single case of spontaneous combustion as a cause of thermal injury or death. The problem he says, is that "it's not well-documented that you could generate enough focal energy inside the body and burst into flame. It would have to start at some focus point, somewhere."
The notion has been posited by U.S. coroners before, he says, but usually when fully investigated, these cases turn out to be caused by cigarettes.