On Monday, February 18, 2013, 65-year-old Danny Vanzandt burned to death in his home in Muldrow, Oklahoma. Although his head and legs were intact, the rest of his body was reduced to ashes. Yet surrounding furniture was undamaged. According to Sequoyah County Sheriff Ron Lockhart, a former arson investigator, “You could pour gasoline on somebody and he wouldn’t be as badly incinerated.” A lighter was found near his body but no accelerant. There was no suggestion of foul play. What happened?

Where is Mr. Krook?

Where is Mr. Krook?

In Chapter 32 of Bleak House, Dickens described a similar mysterious death. Krook, an alcoholic rag-and bottle dealer, is alone in his shop at night, imbibing freely. Soon after, Mr. Snagsby, strolling past, scents a greasy flavor in the air but supposes it’s due to not-quite-fresh chops being grilled at the tavern next door. Two young men, Guppy and Weevil, are in the apartment above Krook’s shop. “See how the soot’s falling,” Mr. Guppy remarks to his friend.

“See here, on my arm! See again, on the table here! Confound the stuff, it won’t blow off–smears like black fat!”

Mr. Guppy pulls his hand from the windowsill.

“What, in the devil’s name,” he says, is this! Look at my fingers!” A thick, yellow liquor defiles them, which is offensive to the touch and sight and more offensive to the smell. a stagnant, sickening oil with some natural repulsion in it that makes them both shudder.

They go down to the shop. Krook has vanished, but his cat is snarling at something near the fireplace.

Hold up 
the light. 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!

All that remains of Mr. Krook is a foul smell, greasy soot, a pool of oil, and a chunk of burnt thigh.

Krook’s death is attributed to spontaneous combustion, an iffy supposition, as Dickens  knew. In the Preface to Bleak House he assured his readers, “before I wrote that description I took pains to 
investigate the subject” and cited the well-known 1731 case of an Italian countess’s puzzling death. “The appearances, beyond all 
rational doubt, observed in that case are the appearances observed 
in Mr. Krook’s case.” Dickens claimed to know dozens of documented examples of such deaths.

In this 1951 death, nothing is left but a leg.

In this 1951 death, nothing is left but a leg.

Similar cases have been reported in modern times. In each case the body is burned to cinders but the surrounding area—and sometimes the victim’s extremities—remain intact. As in Mr. Krook’s case, greasy residue from the body may adhere to floor and walls. Like both Mr. Krook and Mr. Vanzandt, the victim is often a smoker and/or a drinker, and the body is found near a fireplace. In each case, the question arises: Did the victim, like a heap of oily rags in a bucket, spontaneously combust?

The issue resolves into two questions:

  1. How can a body catch fire without being ignited?
  2. How can a body burn so completely that even its bones are cremated and yet not burn anything around it, even its own limbs?

Technically, the term spontaneous human combustion (SHC) applies only to the first question and the answer to it is: it can’t. Dickens thought the alcohol inside Krook’s body caused him to explode, but scientists say no inner chemical reaction can cause a body to burst into flames. Something must ignite it, such as a smoldering ember, lit cigarette, or match. (A lighter was found near Vanzandt’s body.)

But why does the body burn from within? Why is surrounding furniture left untouched? The answer may lie in what scientists call the “wick effect.” The spark burns through clothing and skin to reach the fat beneath. The victim is already dead, perhaps from a heart attack, or drunk, or—gruesome thought—too disabled to douse the flame. Clothing absorbs the fat as it melts, fueling the flames as a candle’s wick fuels its wax, until all the fat has burned away. The fire is confined to the fat-rich torso, leaving the extremities intact.

Pig in a blanket

Pig in a blanket

Dr John DeHaan of the California Criminalistic Institute used a dead pig to demonstrate. (Something to think about: the fat content of a pig’s body is similar to yours.) The pig was wrapped in a blanket, a small amount of gasoline poured on, and a spark applied. Once the flames caught, the pig burned for over five hours. In human crematoria, with temperatures as high as 1600-1800F, bone fragments remain. Here, the heat was so intense even the bones were pulverized to ash.