Archive for Journal of Forensic Sciences

“spontaneous” human combustion

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , , on March 8, 2012 by xi'an

Admittedly a weird topic for a post… However, in the fantastic (in both senses) Bleak House of Charles Dickens, the paper and rag-merchant Mr. Krook is found dead and partly burned from within. I always found this story difficult to believe but, thanks to Le Monde Science weekend leaflet (which I read once back from Roma), I stand corrected (except for the spontaneous part: an outside source of heat is necessary!). Here is the abstract of a paper in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, “So-called spontaneous human combustion” by Thierry Levi-Faict and Gérald Quatrehomme:

A well-documented case of so-called Spontaneous Human Combustion is reported. Review of the literature shows that these strange observations have been reported since the 17th century, even in famous novels. There are several main features that may lead to help the diagnosis: the vicinity of the body is intact or nearly intact, some parts of the body are turned into ashes (usually the middle third of the body), whereas other parts are intact or nearly intact, burning of the body usually occurs postmortem, the cause of death is usually natural, there is often (but not always) high concentrations of blood alcohol, there is a source of heat near the body. It is indispensable to rule out a homicide by the examination of the body in situ, the autopsy, the toxicological and histopathological samples, the arson assessment, and a thorough police inquiry.

(I however just discovered that the Guardian ran a story on the same issue as early as Friday 23 September. Not in connection with the Journal of Forensic Sciences paper, though.)