23/09/2011 15:59 BST | Updated 23/11/2011 05:12 GMT

Spontaneous Combustion: Fact Or Fiction?

Spontaneous combustion was the cause of death recorded for a man who died near a fire in last Christmas, according to a coroner in Ireland.

Believed to be the first recorded verdict in the country, spontaneous human combustion or SHC has been documented since the 17th century and fascinated author Charles Dickens. Cases have been recorded around the world in the last fifty years.

17th century Nicole Millet, a landlord’s wife, burnt to death in a chair in a French taverna, and only after a surgeon compelled the court to believe that the woman burst into flames of her own accord was her husband was acquitted of her murder. A heavy drinker, according to Jonas Dupont's contemporary casebook of SHC occurances, links between excessive alcohol consumption and spontaneous combustion was a myth that continued throughout the 19th century.

Charles Dickens chose this grisly death for his dipsomaniac character Krook in Bleak House, countering contemporary attacks on the reliability of Krook’s passing with assertions that he had reviewed over 30 cases and he had based the account on the spontaneous combustion of Countess Cornelia de Bandi Cesenate.

The aristocrat was reduced to cinders, although part of her head and leg were only lightly scorched, and the room was left entirely untouched, one of the many compelling riddles surrounding spontaneous combustion.

When elderly widow, Mary Reeser, was found burnt to death in 1951, her slipper and left foot were unaffected despite the smouldering ashes of the rest of her remains. Often the heat from SHC fires is so intense, victims are left with shrunken skulls, as happened in the Mary Reeser case, when her head compacted to the size of a baseball, according to reports.

Alcohol cannot cause SHC, as death from alcoholic poisoning would occur before spontaneous combustion. Liquefied fat is the reason that the body burns, according to one rather gruesome theory, ‘the wick effect’.

Once ‘the wick’ or clothes have ignited, fat from the burning body seeps out and acts as the fuel source, allowing the victim to burn further. Fat burns at a much higher temperature than other substances, and many of the victims have been overweight. Home Office pathologist Professor Michael Green told the BBC in 2005: ‘The way the body burns - the so-called wick effect - seems to me and to my colleagues to be the most scientifically credible hypothesis.’

Fatty chemicals in European diets and explosive bacterial growth have also been offered as explanations for the phenomenon. Divine intervention has also been a popularly attributed to SHC.

Spontaneous combustion is accused of being inaccurate terminology by some coroners as it is believed that there must have been an ignition source, such as a cigarette or an open hearth, but the fire wiped away all evidence that this was the cause.

Unanswered questions still shroud many recorded cases: why did the victim not stop the fire? Why was the surrounding area not damaged? What accounts for the temperature of the fire? What started the blaze? Why did it stop?

As the coroner was reported by the BBC as saying, the response is often the same: "This fire was thoroughly investigated and I'm left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation,"