Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC)
Books (e.g., "Spontaneous Human Combustion") and TV shows on SHC have given a couple of new meanings to the term "heartburn". The aura of mystery artificially placed around these cases can definitely inflame the stomach linings of any professional fire investigator.

In the SHC book, the two authors mention 111 cases of mysterious fires over the centuries believed to be examples of SHC - 54 cases have been documented within the past 50 years. The early cases which occurred in the 1600's and 1700's are difficult to analyze given the time element and the anecdotal evidence available. Later fires, in this century, also tend to be poorly documented as to the technical aspects of the fires, with only the more sensational information surviving. Incredibly, the book offers photographic evidence of a couple of fire death cases attributed to SHC where it can be clearly seen that the victims had fallen partially into fireplaces!

Then there's the case of Mary Reeser - a rather plump 170 pound lady who expired, in July of 1951, in her apartment in St. Petersburg, Florida. Mrs. Reeser had reportedly been taking sedatives (four Seconals) and smoking cigarettes the night before her body was found. The "overstuffed easy chair" in which she had reportedly been sitting was completely consumed by the fire; Mrs. Reeser was nearly completely consumed, too. Her son, a doctor, reasoned that it was a simple case of a woman on sedatives falling asleep on an overstuffed chair while smoking, and related these thoughts to investigators. Under the right conditions, with her clothing acting like a wick for her body fat, a smoldering fire ignited by a cigarette in an overstuffed chair can do exactly what it did to Mrs. Reeser. Yet the "mystery" of how this woman died endures.

Another believed example of SHC occurred decades ago in Kentucky. Five men were found burned to death in the countryside beside an automobile which had apparently run over an embankment off the road. Blood, too, was found at the scene. Because autopsies showed that the men were breathing during the fire, the case made the book's list; however, it is not unusual for fire victims to be breathing during a fire which ultimately will kill them. Important clues were obviously missing here.

In a third example, a man was found burned to death in his bed in New York, with matches noted within a few feet of the body. The report was that some of the matches were not burned; the idea that matches so close to the victim were not burned by the fire so intrigued the authors that they ignored the significance of the matches being there in the first place! Smoldering fires do not transmit heat into their surroundings in the same manner as open flames. They burn at a much lower rate of combustion and distribute heat mainly by convection, which slowly and more evenly spreads the heat throughout the room.