OAP dies of 'spontaneous human combustion' in his sitting room:
  • Coroner records first ever case in Ireland
  • Only scorch marks on ceiling and floor where he was standing
  • Mysterious death mirrored Krook's in Bleak House

23rd September 2011

A baffled coroner has ruled that a man who burned to death in his home died as a result of spontaneous human combustion.

Dr Ciaran McLoughlin, the coroner for West Galway in Ireland, said that although Michael Faherty, 76, had been found lying on his back close to a fire in an open fireplace, that blaze had NOT caused his death.

He said a detailed investigation into all other possibilities had offered no other explanation, so he was delivering such a verdict for the first time in his 25 years as a coroner.


The home in Ballybane, Galway, where Michael Faherty spontaneously combusted in his sitting room in front of an open fire.

It is believed to be the first case of its kind in Ireland, although a number of unexplained cases are reported each year around the world.

The term spontaneous human combustion (SHC) describes alleged cases of the burning of a living human body without an apparent external source of ignition.

Mr Faherty, of Ballybane, Galway, died on 22 December 2010. The inquest was told that forensic experts were certain that a fire in the fireplace of the sitting room where the badly burnt body was found had not been the cause of the blaze that killed him.


Wife Maureen Faherty, right, arrives at Galway Coroner Court today with Assistant Chief Fire Office Gerard O Malley

There had been no trace of an accelerant, such as petrol or alcohol, and there had been nothing to suggest foul play.

While his body was totally destroyed by fire, it had not spread and the only minor damage in the sitting room was to the ceiling above him and the floor beneath him.

Dr McLoughlin said he had consulted medical textbooks and carried out other research in an attempt to find an explanation.

'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 said.

Mr Faherty's daughter Mairin said her family was satisfied with the investigation and they accepted the inquest's findings. However, she added: 'Unfortunately, it doesn't provide us with any real explanation.'

Claims about SHC have been made for centuries. The gin-drinking character Krook the alcoholic in the Charles Dickens novel Bleak House is said to spontaneously combust.

Relatives of a British woman who died in 1982 said 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.

The human body is mostly water and its only properties which burn readily are fat tissue and methane gas.

Temperatures of nearly 2,000F are required to reduce a body to near ashes.

Many experts believe there is no such thing as SHC. Retired professor of pathology Mike Green said he believed there always had to be some source of ignition, such as a lit match or cigarette.

'There is a source of ignition somewhere, but because the body is so badly destroyed the source can't be found,' he said.

He said the circumstances in the Galway case were very similar to other possible cases.


Truth stranger than fiction: An illustration from Charles Dickens' Bleak House of the moment Krook dies from spontaneous combustion - the fate which befell Michael Faherty in West Galway.

'This is the picture which is described time and time again,' he said. Mr Green said he doubted explanations centred on divine intervention. 'I think if the heavens were striking in cases of spontaneous combustion then there would be a lot more cases. I go for the practical, the mundane explanation,' he said.