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A flash and the baffling smell of grammybacon

March 2, 2011 Leave a comment

How could I pass up a story that leads with “Spontaneous human combustion has baffled man for centuries” where the local Fox affiliate in Dallas/Ft. Worth brings us a baffling 50 year-old tale of a smoldering corpse.

But first, a reading from chapter XXXII of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House:

Here is a small burnt patch of flooring; here is the tinder from a
little bundle of burnt paper, but not so light as usual, seeming to
be steeped in something; and here is–is it the cinder of a small
charred and broken log of wood sprinkled with white ashes, or is it
coal? Oh, horror, he IS here! And this from which we run away,
striking out the light and overturning one another into the street,
is all that represents him.

Help, help, help! Come into this house for heaven’s sake! Plenty
will come in, but none can help. The Lord Chancellor of that
court, true to his title in his last act, has died the death of all
lord chancellors in all courts and of all authorities in all places
under all names soever, where false pretences are made, and where
injustice is done. Call the death by any name your Highness will,
attribute it to whom you will, or say it might have been prevented
how you will, it is the same death eternally–inborn, inbred,
engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself, and
that only–spontaneous combustion, and none other of all the deaths
that can be died.

Yes, indeed, Dickens killed off a wicked character named Krook (subtle, Chuck, subtle) by spontaneous human combustion, a phenomena that strained scientific credulity even in the 19th century. (I admit, the news article linked above beat me to the Dickens reference, but it is a classic anecdote of the genre.) To put it in terms modern readers may better grasp, its like when they killed James off-screen on Good Times, but Bleak House was written before car crashes, so I guess Dickens wins this round (*shakes fist*).

Spontaneous human combustion, or SHC, as the hip kids say, is thought to occur as the human body catches fire from some internal chemical processes. The story often reads the same: Checking in on Grammy, you find her remains on and around her favorite easy chair. While the chair–and even her bedclothes–may remain intact, all that’s left of Grammy are charred bones, her lower limbs, and that locket with your baby picture in it.  You should have called more.

What could have done it? Did she, like Krook, succumb to a mixture of heavy drinking and the overwhelming power of her own innate evil? Did the devil finally come a-calling? Did her pacemaker short circuit? Did she divide by zero while drinking her evening tea?Was she ignited by that smoldering fireplace nearby? Oh, heavens no, any mortician will tell you that to get Grammy to ashes, you need a good solid fire of about 1,500 to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. And, by the way, you can get a good discount if you want to finish the job on the legs.

But you see, who is to say that Grammy went up all at once? I know, most folks on fire tend to make a fuss, but Grammy hits the sauce pretty hard, and she was taking all of those pills for that whole litany of ailments that you tuned out each (rare) visit. There’s a thing called the wick effect, described in this BBC article with a lovely composite image of a burning codger for effect. Grammy, who wasn’t one of those light grannies you see on TV, was of the heftier sort. A slow burn, as her body fat melted into that greasy, waxy substance you found beneath her chair, could have taken hours.

Ah, you say. How can you dismiss the great body of evidence — hundreds of stories collected over the last two or three centuries! — on SHC? That’s a toughie, I’d admit gentle fictional questioner, but its hard to assess anecdotal evidence–even good, carefully catalogued descriptions of incidents from 100 years ago. More  recent stories have a lot of similarities, usually involving infirmed smokers with a tendency to sleep soundly or with limited mobility. “The weight of evidence” here is built on the accumulation of different cases, most exaggerated or selective in how the present the evidence. In  some cases we’ll never know the exact causes, but in others it will be quite obvious…but still very much bizarre. Life is like that.

Take a look at the links below for more reading.

The obvious lesson is call your mom from time to time that one need not invoke the paranormal or cite fringe science for things that cannot be explained.

Source:
The Tex Files: Spontaneous Human Combustion

Further Reading:
The Skeptic’s Dictionary (always a good starting place)
Not-So-Spontaneous Human Combustion (more skeptical reading)
Bleak House (Ugh. It didn’t age well)
A description of SHC at a place called Crystalinks.com, which offers up some “alternative” theories of SHC and the bizarre claim that “No satisfactory explanation of Spontaneous Human Combustion has ever been given.”

Baffleometer Reading:

A solid two, because sometimes you just don’t have an explanation.

 

 

 

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