Spontaneous combustion killed pensioner, rules coroner


Matt Blake
Saturday 24 September 2011 00:00 BST

A coroner in Ireland has ruled that a pensioner found dead at home perished as a result of spontaneous human combustion, in what is believed to be the first such case in the country's history.

Michael Faherty's charred remains were discovered in his living room in Ballybane, Galway, three days before Christmas last year.

The 76-year-old was found lying on his back with his head near an open fireplace. But forensic experts concluded that the fire was not the cause of the blaze that killed him. Nor did they find any accelerants at the scene and there was no evidence that anybody had entered or left.

Baffled detectives said the only clues they could find were a scorched ceiling and floor around the badly burnt corpse, while the rest of the house had sustained only smoke damage.

At an inquest into the death, the coroner, Dr Ciaran McLoughlin, said he had never encountered such a case in his 25-year career. He said he had scoured medical books as well as other research but could find no reasonable explanation for Mr Flaherty's death other than spontaneous human combustion. He said his suspicions were bolstered after stumbling across one textbook by the forensic pathologist Professor Bernard Knight who claimed such cases were almost always found near a fireplace or chimney.

"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," he told the inquest. Spontaneous human combustion describes the burning of a living body with no apparent external source of ignition.

There have been only a handful of cases recorded worldwide over the past 300 years.

Victims of the phenomenon are said to have died appalling deaths – burnt alive, wreathed in a mysterious blue flame.

They are often followed by all manner of bizarre explanation including witches, lightening, psychic suicide, electrical surges ... and the wrath of God. Scientists, however, believe there is always a rational explanation, usually the result of a misplaced cigarette end or flammable clothing.

The last suspected case in the UK was in 1982 when Jeannie Saffin was said to have spontaneously combusted at her kitchen table in front of shocked family members in Edmonton, north London.

The 61-year-old's brother-in-law Don Carroll described in 1998 how blue flames suddenly began shooting from Ms Saffin's mouth and midriff.

"She was roaring like a dragon," he said. "The kitchen wasn't damaged, but her cardigan melted. The inquest was never sorted it out, but I know what I saw."

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