The case of Robert Francis Bailey

Early in the morning of 13 September 1967, some people walking to work in Lambeth, South London, noticed a bright light inside a derelict house at 49 Auckland Street.

At 5:19 AM, one of them telephoned the emergency services. At 5:24, the Lambeth Fire Brigade arrived with Brigade Commander John Stacey.

The crew entered the building and discovered the bright light was the burning body of a local alcoholic, Robert Bailey, who had sought shelter in the abandoned house overnight. Strangely, though, neither the fabric of the house itself, nor its internal fittings was damaged. The only thing on fire was Bailey himself.

"When we entered the building," said Stacey, "he was lying on the bottom of the stairs half-turned onto his left side and his knees were drawn up as though he was trying to bend the pain from his stomach."

Stacey said, 'There was about a four inch slit in his stomach and the flame was emanating from that four-inch slit like a blow-torch. It was a blue flame.'

Thinking the man might possibly still be alive, Stacey and his men emptied several fire extinguishers over the body, putting out the flame but with difficulty.

"The flame was actually coming from the body itself," said Stacey, "from inside the body. He was burning literally from the inside out. And it was definitely under pressure. And it was impinging on the timber flooring below the body, so much so that the heat from the flame was charred into the woodwork."

One especially bizarre feature of the case was that Bailey, while still alive and apparently convulsed in agony, had bitten deeply into the solid mahogany newel post of the stairs. His body remained with its teeth locked into the wood and had to be prised open by the firemen.

Bailey's clothing was undamaged except in the area of his abdomen. The area around him was largely undamaged except for the wooden planking immediately under his abdomen where a hole had been burnt. Combustible material only inches away was unburnt.

An inquest sat under coroner Dr Gavin Thurston, who initially wished to list the death as "asphyxia due to inhalation of fire fumes". However a second hearing found that Bailey's death was due to "unknown causes".

Subsequent investigation by fire and police disclosed no source of ignition. The mains supply of gas and electricity had been cut off in the house and no matches were found.

Even if the unfortunate Bailey had fallen asleep and dropped a cigarette on himself, the kind of burning seen at first hand and extinguished by the fireman on the scene cannot be accounted for by the 'wick effect'. It was a rapid, acute burning episode, highly localised in the victim's abdomen, producing a flame 'like a blow torch' that an experienced professional fire fighter found difficult to extinguish immediately.

Importantly, too, the firemen were on the scene within 5 minutes of being called, and the body they found had no fire damage apart from the small area in the abdomen, showing that it had only recently begun to burn. The flame was a "bright" blue flame -- bright enough to attract the attention of passers-by in the street. This, too, is not characteristic of a 'wick-effect' fire.

Source: Fire Brigade Commander John Stacey, interviewed by Larry Arnold and quoted in Ablaze! P 202.

The case of Jean Lucille Saffin

In September 1982, a mentally handicapped London woman, Jeannie Saffin aged 61, burst into flames while sitting on a wooden Windsor chair in the kitchen of her home in Edmonton. Her father, who was seated at a nearby table, said he saw a flash of light out of the corner of his eye and turned to Jeannie to ask if she had seen it. He was astonished to find that she was enveloped in flames, mainly around her face and hands.

Mr. Saffin said Jeannie did not cry out or move, but merely sat there with her hands in her lap. He pulled her over to the sink, starting trying to douse the flames with water and called to his son-in-law, Donald Carroll. The younger man ran into the kitchen to see Jeannie standing with flames 'roaring' from her face and abdomen. The two men managed to douse the flames with pans of water and called the emergency services.

According to the ambulance men who took Jeannie to hospital, the kitchen itself was undamaged by smoke or flame and her clothing was undamaged except for a part of her red nylon cardigan which had melted.

Both Donald Carroll, the son-in-law and Mr. Saffin (a First World War veteran) spoke of the flames coming from Jeannie as making a 'roaring noise'.

Jeannie appeared to be conscious and aware in hospital but did not speak. The third degree burns on her body covered only the parts of her that had been unclothed, her face and hands, apart from her abdomen, where she had held her hands clasped while sitting. She lapsed into a coma and died after 8 days.

Perhaps the most important fact that the eyewitness testimony provides is that the burning episode in the kitchen lasted at most a minute or two before the flames were doused, rather than hours.

An inquest was held into Ms. Saffin's death and police enquiries were ordered by the coroner, Dr. J. Burton to determine how she caught fire. The policeman who conducted the enquiry reported to the coroner's court that no cause could be found. He told Ms. Saffin's relatives that he believed her to be a victim of Spontaneous Human Combustion.

In his evidence to the inquest, Ms. Saffin's brother-in-law, Donald Carrol, said that she had died as a result of SHC. 'The flames were coming from her mouth like a dragon and they were making a roaring noise.' He told the coroner.

However, the coroner reached a verdict of misadventure. To the family the coroner, Dr. Burton, said, 'I sympathise with you but I cannot put down SHC because there is no such thing. I will have to put down misadventure or open verdict.'

Source: Larry Arnold, quoted in Ablaze! P208.

The case of Helen Conway

The case of Helen Conway was referred to in the BBC TV film Spontaneous Human Combustion but only as evidence rebutting the reality of such cases.

The unrecognisably charred remains of Mrs Conway were discovered in her bedroom on 8 November 1964 in Upper Darby Township, Pennsylvania. Her case has been widely debated as possibly due to spontaneous human combustion -- a conclusion hotly denied by skeptics.

At the beginning of the film, the fire chief who had attended the scene, Paul Haggarty, spoke on camera telling how he believed it must have been a case of SHC.

At the end of the film, however, the narrator said, "Similarly, in the Conway case, the cause of the fire is known. Shortly before Mrs Conway's death, her grandaughter brought her a new book of matches."

Mrs Conway is acknowledged to have been a careless smoker whose room contained evidence of many cigarette burns. Thus the Conway case was dismissed without further comment.

What the film makers neglected to say, however, is that the time that elapsed between the grand-daughter handing Mrs Conway the matches and the firemen arriving to discover her completely consumed remains, was at most about 20 minutes and could have been as little as 6 minutes.

This information comes from Robert Meslin, a volunteer fireman (later Fire Marshall) in Upper Darby Township at the time of the fire, and one of the first on the scene. (It was Meslin who took the famous photographs of Mrs Conway's charred remains.)

"The amazing part of the incident in my opinion", says Meslin, "is the time element." Meslin said that the grand-daughter made the fire alarm call within "three minutes" of having last spoken to her grandmother. That meant Mrs Conway was alive at 8:42 AM. The firemen arrived to find her remains at 8:48 AM.

Once again, the "wick effect" can be completely ruled out. It is absolutely inexplicable that the makers of the BBC TV QED film should have stated that the "cause of the fire is known" when they must also have known that the fire that consumed Helen Conway did so in a time interval of not more than 20 and not less than 6 minutes. The film maker's own experiment showed them conclusively that the 'wick effect' would have taken a minimum of 7 hours to consume Mrs Conway.

Source: Fire Marshall Robert Meslin, interviewed by Larry Arnold and quoted in Ablaze!

The case of Agnes Phillips

Probably the most recent case where a victim has caught fire, lived for a short time and where the event was witnessed by more than one person, happened on 24 August 1998 in Sydney, Australia.

Jackie Park collected her mother, Agnes Phillips, from a nursing home in a Sydney Suburb on this day. Mrs Park liked to take her mother, an Alzheimer's sufferer, out for the day. About an hour later, she parked in front of the 4-Square Store in Balgownie Road and left her mother asleep in the car while she went to the shop.

Minutes later Mrs Park saw smoke coming from the car, followed by an explosion of flames and ran back. A passer-by, Bradley Silva, managed to drag Mrs Phillips from the car and put out the flames. The old lady was reported as remaining remarkably calm throughout the ordeal, only muttering 'It's too hot, it's too hot' as her daughter held her at the side of the road.

Mrs Phillips suffered burns to her chest, abdomen, neck, arms and legs that were described as 'severe and extreme'. She was taken to hospital where she died just over a week later.

At the inquest in April 1999, New South Wales Fire Brigade Inspector Donald Walshe said he could not determine where the fire originated. The car engine was not running; there was no trace of liquid accelerants and no faulty wiring. Neither Mrs Phillips nor Mrs Park were smokers and the maximum temperature in Wollongong on the day of the fire was 16┬║ Celsius. The coroner, recorded an open verdict.

Inspector Walshe illogically commented that spontaneous human combustion was ruled out 'because of evidence from previous cases and experience over the years. This fire took place over a very short period of time and it does take a lot of time for that scenario (SHC) to take place.'

Presumably, Inspector Walshe was thinking of the 'wick effect', which does indeed take many hours. But Mrs Phillips, like the other victims described here, caught fire and burned in a matter of minutes, not the hours required by the 'wick effect'.

Sources: Sydney Daily Telegraph, Brisbane Courier Mail, 9 April, South China Morning Post, 10 April 1999. See Fortean Times web site.

The case of Agnes Phillips may sound unique, yet there are other strikingly similar cases.

The case of Olga Worth Stephens

On 16 October 1964, Mrs. Olga Worth Stephens, age 75, was driven into Dallas, Texas, by her nephew. Her nephew parked the car and went to buy a cold drink leaving his aunt in the car. A few minutes later Mrs Stephens burst into flames. She was pulled from the car badly burned and taken to hospital where she died eight days later. According to the Dallas Morning News, reporting her death, she was treated for 'burns received in mysterious circumstances.'

Homicide detectives and firemen investigated the incident and found that the car itself had not burnt, only Mrs Stephens. They also found no evidence of combustible materials in the car and ruled out the (somewhat bizarre) possibility of suicide by self-immolation.

Sources: Dallas Morning News, 24 October 1964, Mysteries of the unexplained, Reader's Digest. 1982, p. 92, Larry Arnold, Ablaze!, 1995.

The case of Jeanna Winchester

On 9 October 1980, Jeanna Winchester, a naval airwoman, burst into flames while sitting in a car next to Leslie Scott, a friend. They were driving along Seaboard Avenue in Jacksonville, Florida, when flames suddenly appeared around Winchester who screamed "Get me out of here!" Scott tried to beat out the flames with her hands, and the car ran into a telephone pole.

Miss Winchester was taken to hospital and survived the experience, although 20 percent of her body was covered by burns, comprising her right shoulder and arm, neck, side and back.

Police patrolman T.G. Hendrix who investigated said he found no spilled petrol or other accelerant in the car. "The white leather she was sitting on was a little browned and the door panel had a little black on it. Otherwise there was no fire damage."

Miss Winchester told the local newspaper that she couldn't remember anything between riding uneventfully in the car and waking up in hospital. 'At first I thought there had to be a logical explanation,' she said, 'but I couldn't find any. I wasn't smoking anything. The window was up, so somebody couldn't have thrown anything in. The car didn't burn. I finally thought about spontaneous human combustion when I couldn't find anything else.'

Sources: The Light (San Antonio newspaper) 16 November 1980. Colin Wilson, The Encyclopaedia of Unsolved Mysteries, 1988. Larry Arnold, Ablaze! 1995.

Conclusions

None of these cases is conclusive evidence for the existence of 'Spontaneous Human Combustion', but they do show three important things.

First, that the 'wick effect' often proposed by 'skeptics' for apparent cases of SHC, and the primary conclusion offered by the 'QED' film, is not only an inadequate explanation, it is conclusively ruled out in every single case for which there are surviving witnesses -- the only cases that matter as far as evidence of cause is concerned.

Second, that there are some members of the scientific community and the media, who regard themselves as 'skeptics', but who are more interested in debunking what they regard as paranormal nonsense than they are in determining the true facts.

And third, that the statements of such scientists and reporters should be treated with the deepest skepticism (of the true kind) even when they are given a platform by an organisation as authoritative as BBC TV.

The lesson of this case is the same as that of every case described on this web site. Insist on consulting primary sources of evidence for yourself. Do not let anyone purporting to be a scientific expert tell you what the facts mean. Decide for yourself what conclusion the primary evidence supports.