New Designation for an Overlooked Phenomenon

Larry E. Arnold



Controversial Phenomena Define a New Designation

Copyright 1998 by Larry E. Arnold; all rights reserved  (Adapted from the "Pennsylvania Association of Arson Investigators  Newsletter," XXI-2, January 1998)


What one, three-word phrase is guaranteed to spark instant controversy, disbelief, and rejection (yes,  even fear) in the fire service professions?

Answer: Spontaneous Human Combustion

You have been taught about spontaneous combustion  as, most often, "a slow oxidation of organic substances" involving fabrics  and ester-rich chemicals ("The Fire Scene," Fall 1997). Insertion of the  word human is quite another matter, though.   Before proceeding further,  let's define just what that answer represents. Spontaneous human  combustion: the phenomenon and process whereby a person can blister,  smoke, or otherwise burn without contacting a known, identifiable external  ignition source.  SHC is popularly depicted as a body almost wholly  transformed, skeleton included, to dry powder amid a fire scene exhibiting  otherwise minimal heat or flame damage.

Though SHC was hotly debated in  the medical community from the 16th through the early 18th centuries, the  idea of a human suddenly bursting into flame by its own accord lost favor in 1850 when the premier German chemist Baron Justus Von Liebig declared,  after his experiment to burn liquor-soaked flesh failed to transform it to a powdery ash, that SHC is impossible.   Nonetheless, two years later the English novelist Charles Dickens invoked as apocalyptic symbology the  specter of SHC to rid his "Bleak House" of its immoral villain Mr. Krook.    But even as fiction, SHC was not welcomed.  Nor would it be tolerated. "It is sad to think," bemoaned Johann Ludwig Casper when he wrote A Handbook of the Practice of Forensic Medicine, "that in an earnest scientific work, in the year of grace 1861, we must still treat of the fable of 'spontaneous  combustion,' a thing that no one has ever seen or examined, the very proofs of whose existence rest upon the testimony of perfectly untrustworthy non- professionals, upon newspaper paragraphs, all of which in their statements laugh to scorn every known physical law."   (Nevermind that many physicians  during the previous one hundred years found reasons to believe in SHC,  rare though they found it to be.)   The paired denunciation by Liebig and Casper extinguished SHC as a consideration for medicine; for science; and, a century later, for arson investigators today.   "Spontaneous combustion of the human body cannot occur," declared toxicologists S. A. Smith and  F. S. Fiddes in their landmark book 'Forensic Medicine: A Textbook for  Students and Practitioners' (1955), "and no good purpose can be served by  discussing it."  

Patrick M. Kennedy, former NAFI president, declared no less when he wrote in "The National Fire Investigator" (December 1986):  "Spontaneous Human Combustion is a myth, a theory without facts. Its  perpetuation is a stain on the science and professionalism of the fire  analysis community."   And as recently as June 1997, esteemed IAAI member John DeHann dismissed SHC in "Fire & Arson Investigator" when he discussed  an intriguing anger-retaliation type of arson murder of a young woman near Medford, Oregon, in 1991.  "Many features of this incident parallel reported incidents of so-called spontaneous human combustion," he noted in referring to extensive burning of her torso, remains of extremities,  and no fire involvement of nearby combustible.  (Due to an acknowledged  outside accelerant and ignition source, however, what DeHann described  was by definition NOT SHC at all but a corollary phenomenon termed  Preternatural Combustibility the inordinate destruction of a body by  burning after it's been externally ignited.)  

Given the preponderance  of testimony against SHC, why then should a discussion of it interest the modern arson investigator beyond its curiosity as an historical oddity?   Consider that a century's worth of expert opinion against SHC  is wrong.  Would that interest you?   Yes, that's a big consideration to ask. But it was only very recently that the strategy of positive pressure ventilation, now adopted as a successful fire-control tactic by progressive fire departments, was thought to exacerbate rather than help to control an inferno. Similarly, can consensus against SHC be in error? Might (extra)ordinary circumstances kindle extraordinary blazes that require extraordinary investigation and rethinking about what is commonly ascribed to the behavior and pattern and capability of fire?

In 1966, quite ordinary circumstances produced a quite extraordinary fire scene, though  at the time its investigation was anything but extraordinary.   Monday  morning of December 5 was bitterly cold that year in Coudersport,  Pennsylvania, as volunteer fireman Don Gosnell entered the home of  Dr. John Irving Bentley on North Main Street. Amid a light haze and oddly sweet smell in the hallway, Gosnell descended into the basement not to battle a fire but to read the gas meter. There, he noticed on the  earthen floor a small mound of ash measuring about 14 inches across and 5 inches high. He instinctively scattered the ashes with his workboot. The ashes were cold. He looked up. Overhead, he saw above three burned oak joists a small hole, a few cherry-red embers rimming its circumference.  Whatever its origin, this fire self-extinguished, he thought to himself.  Still, he wondered why no fire alarm had been turned in during the night. Gosnell climbed the stairs to exit the old clapboard-sided house, but before leaving he knocked on Dr. Bentley's first-floor door. No answer.  The door was unlocked. Gosnell entered, expecting to find the 92-year-old  physician sitting in the chair in his two-room apartment. The chair was empty. So too, the room. More curious now, and a bit concerned, Gosnell  walked into the apartment and peered into Dr. Bentley's bathroom ... and  forever after wishes he had not.   He first noticed the physician's aluminum walker, atop the hole and fallen against the bathtub. Then, the  unexpected. On the tar-based linoleum flooring lay, said Gosnell, "a browned leg from the knee down. I thought it was a mannequin. I had to bend over and look really close to tell the difference. I realized it was a human leg. I didn't look further!" The leg belonged to Dr.  Bentley. It along with a knee cap, a head unrecognizable as such to  several responding firemen, plus that pile of powder-ash in the basement  below was the doctor's legacy to the annals of fire history (though  ten years would pass before the circumstances of his death publicly came to light).

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At the time, no earnest investigation resulted. The coroner declared the cause 
of death "asphyxiation." After a quiet burial of both body and facts, the 
episode was forgotten. Until I learned about it. 
My interviews with many of the firemen who had been at the scene, plus the 
coroner, the deputy coroner, the undertaker, and the physician's care-takers raised 
questions without easy answers. Save the one rumored to be offered by an unknown 
Pennsylvania State Police fire marshal: spontaneous human combustion. 
Could this "myth" so vigorously denied and itself long buried have blazed forth to 
confound in the northern tier of Pennsylvania? Or does a prosaic conventional 
explanation await? 
Arson instructors Howard "Buzz" Triebold and retired PSP fire marshal Fred Klages 
taught me to Keep an open mind. ALWAYS look for the unusual. Heeding their 
advice, this is what I have learned about the event depicted in what is now arguably 
history's most famous fire fatality photograph (that of Dr. Bentley's lone leg and walker). 






was an accelerant used to fuel this fearsome combustion? No. None was ever 
identified at the scene. Any suggestion this death was foul play by an undetected 
arsonist or suicide by the doctor's own hand is unsupportable. No evidence indicates 
Dr. Bentley's fiery death was anything but accidental. Besides: to explain the 
disintegration of a body to this extent normally requires a retort to sear a cadaver 
at 3000 degrees for 12 hours, I was told by forensic anthropologist Dr. Wilton 
Krogman, an authority on the effect of fire upon a human body. Unless someone 
wants to implicate an overlooked HTA of the type that confounded Seattle Fire 
Department arson investigator Richard Gehlausen in a series of structure fires there 
in the 1980s, one must look elsewhere for the cause of this intense and localized 
inferno in downtown Coudersport. 






did an external ignition source exist? Possibly. Dr. Bentley did smoke a 
pipe and was known to carry old-fashioned matches in his pocket. However, after 
his death his pipe was found setting in its holder next to the chair where he was 
last seen alive. Had he dropped his lit pipe and ignited his clothing as has been argued, 
it is quite improbable that he would have reached into his blazing lap to retrieve and 
properly store his pipe before getting up to go to the bathroom in search of water 
(a journey that required under the best conditions a full five minutes for him to 
complete with his walker). 
So it would seem the fire began in the bathroom where he stood before burning 
himself (not up but) down. But there was no heater gas or electric in the bathroom. 
Perhaps, then, had matches in his pocket somehow ignited and caught his clothing 
aflame while he stood before his toilet? 




allowing that Dr. Bentley's clothing MAY accidentally have ignited in this way, 
did sufficient fuel loading exist to cremate his body? He wore a mere house robe and 
undergarments. Every fire investigator I have interviewed about this case tells me this is 
FAR TOO LITTLE fuel to burn a body so thoroughly. And although rendering of human 
fat in a slow smoldering fire the so-called human candle effect has been invoked 
innumerable times to explain away such fire scenes, it would seem that von Liebig's 
experiment put the lie to this option. 


consider the time element. How long could this blaze have flared or smoldered? 
Not more than 10 hours, according to the victim's daughter-in-law. It would have taken 
about this long for the nine-inch-thick oak beams under his walker to burn nearly 
through in a hot, open flame fire. But 




one has to account for the localization of a seemingly intense blaze and its 
failure to ignite aged brittle linoleum beyond a radius of 2 feet around the doctor's 
burning body for the failure of the walker atop his body to melt at 1200 degrees 
and rubber tips on its legs to liquefy at even lower temperature for the failure of the 
bathtub's enamel paint to blister above the char hole for the fire scene's atypical smell, 
a strange, sickening sweet odor, Gosnell called it and, finally, for the complete 
absence of flame or heat damage overhead.
As I said, Dr. Bentley burned down not up literally.If you find  this to be a normal fire death, you are at variance with every fire  investigator with whom I have discussed this case, including USFA fire  specialist Ken Kuntz who told me in his Emmittsburg office after examining  this photograph:  This certainly fits the definition of spontaneous human combustion. This is the kind of stuff that leaves us scratching  our heads.  Not a clue.   If YOU have a clue to explain these facts,  you know something that I have not learned in a quarter century of  documenting such fire scenes and I want to hear from you. Otherwise,  there seems but one conclusion: Dr. Bentley died either by preternatural  combustibility or as that unidentified PSP fire marshal is said to have  murmured at the scene in 1966 by spontaneous human combustion. Yet both  PC at least until DeHaan's historic case from Oregon and SHC are  reviled as impossible.    So where do we go from here?    The broad answer to the first question is, wherever best evidence by good investigation takes one.  For now, though, let's stay in my home state of Pennsylvania,  which for reasons unfathomed is truly a commonwealth of combustion conundrums. 
Prior to my research that documented the burning of Dr.  Bentley, the world's best known case said to be SHC was the demise of  Pennsylvania native Mary Hardy Reeser. During the night of July 1-2, 1951,  fire reduced this 67-year-old large, robust widow and an end table  and the chair in which she sat to less than ten pounds of ashen rubble in her otherwise largely undamaged apartment in St. Petersburg, Florida.  "I never saw anything like this in the 48 years I have been investigating fires," conceded a stumped Edward Davies, arson investigator for Tampa's  National Board of Underwriters. "We do not know that it was a fire," he  cogently added.  Mrs. Reeser's remains listed as one foot, bits of calcined vertebrae, tissue identified as liver, and a skull shrunk uniformly to the size of an orange were shoveled up and buried at  the Chestnut Hill Cemetery outside Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. The case remains open to this day, I am told.  
During the night of January 27,  1907, neighbors noticed a bright light inside the Houck home in  Pittsburgh. Two hours later, Mr. Houck arrived home to discover the  cremated body of his wife, Kate, 52, in a sitting position against  the wall.  Police faced a mystery due to a peculiar circumstance,  reported The Pittsburgh Post (January 28): nothing but her body and a  waste paper basket had burned up.    On January 23, 1955, a ball of  fire swooped from the sky to burn the hand of William C. Cunningham in  Philadelphia. Is, then, a literal fire-from-heaven a place to which  arson investigators must sometimes turn their attention in the pursuit  of identifying sources for burn injury? 

Back down to earth, for one  month in 1965 at sunset several small fires with no apparent source plagued an amusement concession at the Gateway Shopping Center in  Edwardsville. An eyewitness told me that miraculously no one was injured.  Nor was a cause determined.   A newspaper reporter has told me that  witnesses won't talk about a woman seen walking past a diner in the  1970s who suddenly caught fire along U.S. 30 between Chambersburg and  Gettysburg in southcentral Pennsylvania.    There's even a Keystone State  literary connection, predating Dickens' Bleak House.  In his 1798 novel,  Wieland, Charles Brockden Brown the Father of American literature set his classic scene of SHC near Philadelphia. While the fiery cloud which  Brown devised to suddenly vaporize his character Herr Wieland may be  wholly fiction, two events occurred in southeast Pennsylvania almost 17  decades later that are decidedly nonfiction.   On May 18, 1957, West  Philadelphia fireman Samuel Martin discovered his 68-year-old mother,  Anna, lying face down on the basement floor of her 5061 Reno Street home  (now demolished). Her torso had fearsomely burned, but not to ash; her  legs were ashes, but not her shoes. Newspapers stacked two feet away were not scorched. Chief Inspector John J. Kelly declared simply: "It's one of  our most mysterious cases."  

No less (and perhaps quite a bit more)  mysterious is the fate that consumed Helen A. Conway in a second floor  sitting room in Upper Darby Township on Sunday, November 8, 1964. Here,  the victim left behind a pair of lower legs propped against the front of  an easy chair. Deep heat fractures lacerated her upper legs; her right  thigh appeared to have disintegrated. Two large pieces of her chest and  sternum lay charred and curled away from the organs beneath, fused together.  Flesh on her left arm had burned away to expose bones from which dangled  her metal bracelet, intact. A telephone next to her had partly melted. No  flame damage overhead. No noxious odor of burned flesh. Mrs. Conway did smoke, though whether she dropped a lit cigarette or match onto herself  is unknown.   What is known is one crucial fact, especially important  since DeHaan argues on the basis of his Oregon arson-murder case that an extended period (five hours) is prerequisite to producing SHC-style  damage. The fact is that based on my interviews with Upper Darby fire  marshal Robert C. Meslin and assistant fire marshal Harry Lott the maximum burn time for this blaze was SIX MINUTES. "I've never seen a  case like this since," Lott said to me in 1994 of his 30-year career,  "and I never saw one before like it."   Clearly these are atypical events,  would you not agree? I hope that by knowing aforehand about such anomalies  you will be better prepared for the day you may be called to investigate  a fire scene like one you've never seen before.    

"While fire is a  good example of scientifically-defined chaos," observes Dr. L. Mifsud in  his laudable PAAI Newsletter article supporting NFPA 921 (October 1997),  "our only chance of obtaining even the slightest understanding of this  chaos phenomenon is through the ordered and systematic reasoning afforded  to us by science."  I agree.
It will take good science and good  investigation plus open minds to understand and better defend against this type of fire.  Spinning on your heels and fleeing as if to escape a  rolling flashover, as did one USFA fire instructor when I offered him the  Bentley photo to examine, is neither defensible nor scientific.   At all  fire scenes, but especially at the kind under discussion here, take samples  of everything you can. You may recover the unique evidence to unlock the  cause(s) of these rare and atypical events. I urge you to include in your survey work a scintillator, both to quantify low-level radiation that may  be present at these fires and to protect firefighters (and yourself) if it  is.  

In my database of 400-plus cases that are suggestive of SHC what  I prefer to term
SuperHyperthermic Carbonization victims are equally divided by gender. Not surprisingly, the elderly are more often victims,  though the youngest was a six-week-old toddler. Many of these blazes site upon straight lines, sometimes hundreds of miles long and provocatively hinting at a cartography for combustion. It is a global phenomenon, with examples from every continent except (not surprising) Antarctica.  Great Britain seems to have the most examples per capita. It appears to be  cyclical, with peak occurrences about every 33 years and secondary cycles  of eleven years. (The next peak is projected for circa 2004. We'll have  to wait and see, yes?)  

There is so much more than can be said about  the vagaries of fire than space permits here. I look forward to thoughtful  exchanges with anyone in the fire services community about these cases and  my conclusions.    If there is a conventional explanation for all these  incidents, it has escaped the understanding of some very savvy fire  fighters and arson investigators who over the years have graciously  shared their expertise with me in researching fantastic fires. If as  often alleged either asphyxiation or a slow smoldering fire is to  explain away these deaths, why are powder-ash corpses not found at  many of the five thousand fatal fires annually in the USA?  What special  biological, incendiary or environmental conditions will produce these  infrequent infernos so different from the norm and so unforgettable in  the minds of first-responders?   As many arson investigators have instructed me, an
"I don't know" can be the best answer. It is both  intellectually honest and allows room for new insights and understanding and we all know fire is a capricious, sometimes  enigmatic entity.  

In summary and without equivocation, these cases  represent a new burn injury classification. To label these episodes a  third-degree (scarring, loss of skin, nerve damage) or fourth- degree (deep char to underlying skin and muscles) burn is  tantamount to equating sunburn to a ground-zero A-bomb radiation  burn. As I state in my book, "ABLAZE!" (Evans, 1995):  I propose  that superhyperthermic carbonization injuries exemplified by Dr.  Bentley et al. be classified as
5th-degree burn injury. Because these cases fall well beyond the criteria for the present four categories of  burn description.   On this point now, at least, there should be no  disagreement.

Larry E. Arnold has a background in mechanical engineering  at Lafayette College, and has devoted 25 years to the pursuit  of natural anomalies that challenge the limitations of current  knowledge. He has co-produced or appeared on numerous television  programs, including NBC's Unsolved Mysteries, A&E's The Unexplained, and numerous programs for The Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel.  He is the author of "ABLAZE!" (hb, 512 pages, $24.95pp; available through  PSI Press, 1025 Miller Lane, Harrisburg, PA 17110-2899). E-mail the author at

AUTHOR:  Larry E. Arnold
DATE:  September 30, 1999 The 5th Degree Burn: New Designation for an Overlooked Phenomenon  Larry E. Arnold





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