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A Case of ‘SHC’ Demystified

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 22.2, March / April 1998

A case of March 4, 1980, in Chorley, England, mystifies paranormalists who invoke spontaneous human combustion (SHC). Where is the mystery? Tony McMunn, a fireman who encountered the case and became an SHC enthusiast as a result, insists "there is not a lot of flesh or fat on the head, and the fire should have gone out.” He and others are also impressed by the severe destruction of the body in which some of the bones were reportedly calcined (reduced to ash). However, the following investigative chronology, keyed to the pen-and-ink drawing and based on a published photograph, easily resolved the mystery.

  1. Bucket indicated to investigators that the victim, an elderly lady, was in the process of relieving herself when she fell.
  2. The missing shoe is consistent with this or other possible scenarios. Apparently it came off during fall — or her taking it off caused the fall — and is out of view.
  3. In falling, the victim obviously hit her head on the fireplace, knocking her unconscious or possibly killing her outright.
  4. Her head struck the iron grate, which has been sharply displaced to the left.
  5. The fall caused flaming embers from the now-exposed “open coal fire” to shower upon the body.
  6. The victim’s clothing ignited and, as the fire progressed, her own melting body fat contributed to the overall destruction.
  7. The rug beneath the body may have retained melted body fat to aid in the severe destruction — a process known in the forensic literature as the wick effect.
  8. The fire was probably further aided by the chimney effect — a “drawing” of the flame and venting of smoke — in this case by the chimney itself. At about 9:30 on the previous evening, when it is believed the fire took place, neighbors saw a great amount of smoke and sparks issuing from the chimney.
  9. Heavy deposits of soot above the fireplace, tapering toward the chimney opening, are consistent with the chimney effect and the venting of considerable organic material.
  10. The destruction of the body was in approximate proportion to its proximity to the fire source, the torso — which contains a large amount of fat — being most severely destroyed, while the lower legs and feet have remained intact.
  11. As in many other such cases, the lower extremities were spared because fire burns laterally with difficulty.
  12. Nearby objects failed to burn for the same reason. Only radiant heat, and not flame, reached these objects.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.