Original Air Date: April 7, 2002
Spontaneous human combustion has baffled man for centuries. Volumes have been written about the phenomenon and books on the subject abound. They almost always cite a 1964 case in Dallas.
One example: "Mysteries of the Unexplained." On page 92 a story, reading in part: "Horrified witnesses saw Mrs. Olga Stephens suddenly ignite into a 'human torch' while sitting in her parked automobile. The car was not damaged by the flames."
The scientific community has long scoffed at the notion but cases of suspected spontaneous human combustion appear in medical reports as far back as the 17th century. A character in Charles Dickens' novel "Bleak House" -- an alcoholic old merchant -- dies a gruesome death after bursting into flames.
The classic real-life cases involve bodies that seemed to have ignited without any external source of fire -- the torso of the body is reduced to ashes and only the skull and portions of arms or legs remain. Yet almost nothing around it is burned. (Keep in mind that the heat of a raging house fire will turn the structure to ashes but leave charred human bodies inside that are basically intact.)
"Just think back a hundred years. There's this body only burned in the middle. My goodness, how would you explain it? That's why it's a mystery," said Dallas forensic scientist Patrick Besant-Matthews.
Besant-Matthews thinks there is finally an answer to the age old mystery -- a theory that would explain how a human body once set afire can be turned to ashes while the area around it remains largely untouched. It's called the wick effect.
"It's just like the candle on your table. As the flame moves downward, it melts the candle grease underneath. That goes up the wick. That generates a little bit more heat that melts a little more wax. Although in this case it's not wax. It's body fat," he said.
Besant-Matthews said a friend has experimentally recreated the effect with pigs.
"He's clothed pigs, burned them away at surprising speed," he said. "Seventy-percent of body weight of a large pig in 5 to 6 hours."
"The fire at this point is largely supported by the pig fat rendering down into the porous char of the blanket and supporting a very steady, though not very large, fire," said Dr. John DeHaan, of Fire-Ex Forensics, Inc.
Besant-Matthews said there's proof now outside the laboratory, from a police officer in Oregon who found a murder victim on fire.
"Saw a flickering flame in a somewhat wooded area and there was this body burning just as described -- the fat melting, this sort of thing … He went back to his car and grabbed his camera, and took a picture," he said. "That's so helpful because the people who do fire dynamics can tell from the height of the flame how much heat is being generated."
There is a growing body of scientific evidence and published material that indicate the wick effect is extremely rare but real.
"I think it's basically the answer to all but a few cases," Besant-Matthews said.
So what about the Dallas case -- Mrs. Olga Stephens?
Old newspaper accounts tell of "mysterious circumstances" in which she was suddenly turned "into a torch" as she sat in a parked car on East Grand.
However, official documents tell a much less mysterious story. One concludes the victim's "clothing was probably ignited from a match as she attempted to light a cigarette. She had paper matches and cigarettes in her purse."
A Capt. Stark signed the initial fire report. His nephew, Jim Stark, would later become fire chief in Mesquite. Like most longtime fire investigators, Jim Stark has at least a passing interest in cases labeled spontaneous human combustion.
"They're obviously strange and infrequent. I've never witnessed one," Stark said.
Stark has seen the photograph from Oregon. He's familiar with the wick effect theory and impressed by it.
"It is an interesting theory and there's some rationale to it," he said. "It certainly on the surface makes some sense, but you still have to question how the body ever gets heated enough for the effect to get started."
Besant-Matthews contends that while there may be human combustion, it's not spontaneous.
"If you look hard enough, in the majority of cases you'll find an ignition source," he said.
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