A bizarre case has become even more bizarre as burns from alleged “spontaneous human combustion” (SHC)—inflicted on a baby boy from rural India in 2013—have now been followed by similar burns on his newly born brother!
News reports (e.g., “Human Torch” 2013) had noted that the first child—whose parents lived in a village in Tami Nadu—had “caught fire” on four different occasions. I received a plea to “please help this child” from a young Indian man, and then was interviewed on August 14 by a reporter from MSN.com, Dustin Seibert (2013). I explained that SHC does not exist, that the human body is mostly water, that there is no credible mechanism for spontaneous ignition, and that the baby boy’s burns had originated from outside the body. (See Nickell 1988; 2013.) I recommended the child be placed in protective custody.
In my blog of August 15, I elaborated, discounting both sibling rivalry (the only other child in the home was a two-year-old girl) and abuse by grandparents (the incidents happened in the homes of both pairs of grandparents). I did suggest the possibilities of postpartum depression of the mother, resentment of the child by the father, or even Munchausen Syndrome by proxy (causing illness in another to gain attention).
Subsequently (as reported in The New Indian Express of August 23), the dean of Kilpauk Medical College and Hospital where the boy was treated issued an update. He stressed that over thirty medical tests had ruled out so-called SHC, and he reported petitioning the police in a formal complaint to protect the child, citing inconsistencies in statements of the parents and maternal grandmother as pointing to possible abuse.
Nevertheless, at least one skeptic passed along an alternate explanation offered by The Hindu: The mother came from a village where, in 2004, some huts had spontaneously combusted after phosphorous-containing cow dung therein had dried up, causing the phosphorous to ignite due to its low ignition point (Radford 2013).
However, the evidence regarding the child’s burns shows that the dung notion smells. The boy’s paternal grandfather stated that the first two burning incidents occurred when the family was staying with the wife’s parents, the remainder when they were with him and his wife (“Human Torch” 2013). It would be remarkable indeed that fires at separate locations would invariably target people and always the same one of several persons. Nevertheless, the government provided the parents with a new home and all seemed well.
Then came a new baby boy, followed by a repeat of the burn injuries that had happened to his older brother (Radford 2015). So much for the dung hypothesis in this case. Now the possibility of child abuse—even Munchausen’s by proxy—is being considered with fewer distractions.
‘Human Torch’ Baby Tests Normal, Doctors Stumped. 2013. The Times of India, August 13.
Nickell, Joe. 1988. Secrets of the Supernatural. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 149–157, 161–171.
Radford, Benjamin. 2013. Indian Baby Suffers ‘Mysterious’ Burns Claimed as SHC, Skeptical Briefs, 24:4 (Fall), 13.
———. 2015. Indian Boy’s ‘Spontaneous Combustion’ May Be Child Abuse. Skeptical Inquirer 39:3 (May/June), 7.
Siebert, Dustin. 2013. Rumor: Baby suffers from spontaneous combustion. Online at news.msn.com/rumors/rumor-baby-suffers-from-spontaneous-combustion; accessed August 14, 2013.