When an inquest verdict ruled last Thursday that the death of a 76-year-old Galway man was the result of spontaneous human combustion, only more questions were raised.
Michael Faherty died in his Galway home just before last Christmas. A fire in the grate of the room where his body was found was discounted by forensic experts as the the cause of the blaze that killed Faherty.
"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," said West Galway coroner Dr Dr Ciarán McLoughlin, who had never encountered such a case in his 25 years on the job.
His daughter Maureen said that her family was satisfied with the investigation and accept the inquests findings, but still have a lot of questions.
"Unfortunately, it doesn't provide us with any real explanation," she told the Irish Examiner.
Spontaneous human combustion, in which a living person catches fire without any external source of fire has long been a matter of debate. The strange phenomenon is mentioned in the Bible, as well as in works of writers such as Charles Dickens, Mark Twain and Herman Melville.
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The book 'De Incendis Corporiss Humani Spontaneis,' which was published in 1763 by the French writer Jonas Dupont, contains the first reliable collection of evidence on SHC.
Dupont became interested in the phenomenon after reviewing the 1725 trial of the husband of Nicole Millet who was accused of burning her to death. He was acquitted after a surgeon convinced the court that her death had been caused by SHC.
One notable modern cases concern the death of American Mary Reeser, whose charred body was found in her Florida apartment in 1951. Her corpse was reduced mostly to ashes, but her home remained intact. The police report claimed the 67-year-old widow’s dressing gown had caught fire but no flame source or accelerant was ever found.
In 1982, SHC was suggested as a cause of death of Jean Saffin, 62. Relatives claim they saw her burst into flames in her north London home but coroner Dr John Burton said there was "no such thing" as SHC and recorded an open verdict.
There have been more than 200 reported cased in the past 300 years.
One possible scientific explanation, the ‘wick effect,’ suggests that a person's clothes are the wick and the fat surrounding a person is the fuel source which burns slowly for hours, like a candle.
However, forensic scientists fail to agree on whether there is any such thing as the "wick effect."