Spontaneous Human Combustion? Coroner Solves London Mystery

February 15, 2019

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Under the heading, “Man spontaneously combusts in streets of London,” Fate magazine in late 2018 resurrected the fiery bogeyman of spontaneous human combustion. That is a pseudoscientific term for an unexplained fire injury or death. I have since followed the case to its final resolution at a coroner’s inquest, and have here placed it in perspective.

The occurrence drew little attention at first, but its genuine mystery prompted police to later issue an “Appeal for Information.” That resulted in an extensive report in the London Daily Mail (which had done a lengthy photo-illustrated profile on me and my paranormal investigations just a month before the tragic incident [Gass-Poore 2017]).

The Daily Mail account related how a 70-year-old Irish pensioner, John Nolan, was seen ablaze on Sunday, September 17, 2017, just after 1:00 p.m., on a North London street. Horrified onlookers tried to assist, but the badly burned victim—though soon air-lifted to a hospital—died the next day. The fact that “His body was 65 percent covered in third-degree burns” was a strong indication that he was burned externally—not from some imagined internal combustion. Nevertheless, police investigators lacked any clue as to how the fire did originate. A post-mortem examination revealed only that the cause of death was “severe burns,” and a formal inquest was set for the following March 13.

I have had experience investigating such cases from 1982 to present. In 1984 forensic analyst John F. Fischer and I reported the results of our two-and-a-half-year study of thirty historic cases of alleged spontaneous human combustion, from 1725 to 1982. Publishing in the forensic journal The Fire and Arson Investigator, we found no credible evidence for such a phenomenon. Except in cases in which crucial data was woefully lacking, we determined that plausible, naturalistic explanations could easily be provided (Nickell and Fischer 1984; Nickell 1988 149–157, 161–171). To draw a conclusion (i.e.,  that the cause was “SHC”) from an occurrence being unexplained is to engage in a logical fallacy known as “an argument from ignorance.”

Therefore, I was not surprised by the investigative outcome of the Nolan case. The coroner first concluded that Nolan’s death was not a deliberate act by himself or anyone else, and that a flammable liquid did not aid the fire. Coroner Andrew Walker then told the North London Coroner’s Court, “It’s likely that Mr. Nolan set his clothes on fire whilst lighting a cigarette.” Nolan was, in fact, found in possession of a pack of cigarettes and two lighters (Blewett 2018).

In our historic study, we had encountered similar cases. For instance a woman in 1744 was found partially “incinerated.” She had reportedly been intoxicated, and left her bedroom, wearing a cotton gown, to smoke a pipe. Her gown probably ignited, and her own body fat appears to have aided the burning since a fatty stain was reported (Nickell 1988, 162). This occurrence went uninterrupted, unlike that of Mr. Nolan, resulting in further destruction of the body.

Clothing can be quite susceptible to fire. While wool is the least flammable natural fiber, cotton is “highly flammable,” catching fire easily and burning quickly. Silk and linen are almost as flammable, as are cellulose-based manmade fibers like rayon and acetate. Loose-textured fabrics will catch fire and burn more easily than tighter woven ones (Speece 1974). Although information is not given on Nolan’s clothing, the postulated scenario given by the coroner seems the most likely one based on all the evidence.

Certainly, the notion of spontaneous human combustion is once again vanquished, as it must eternally be, once essential facts are learned or can be reasonably postulated.

References

Blewett, Sam. 2018. “Mayo-born pensioner died after accidentally igniting his clothes.” Irish Times, May 22.

Gass-Poore, Jordan. 2017. “The Loch Ness Monster?” DailyMail.com, August 4.

Keay, Lara. 2017. “Mystery as OAP, 70, spontaneously combusts. . . .” DailyMail.com, Dec. 15.

“Man spontaneously combusts. . . .” 2018. Fate issue 733 (otherwise undated. 2018), 5.

Nickell, Joe, and John F. Fischer. 1984. “Spontaneous Human Combustion,” The Fire and Arson Investigator 34, no. 3 (March), 4–11; no. 4 (June), 3–8. Cited at length in Nickell 1988.

Nickell, Joe. 1988. Secrets of the Supernatural. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books.

Speece, Jane. 1974. “Fabric Flammability and Clothing.” University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Agriculture Extension Service.