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Spontaneous Human Combustion

The question of whether or not spontaneous human combustion happens is a very old one, dating to Biblical times. Hollywood has shown people bursting into flames as a consequence of God’s wrath on sinners; Charles Dickens killed off one of his villains in this mystical way; and many scholars have witnessed or described dramatic, though perhaps less supernatural, examples of this phenomenon. Scientists still debate whether or not a living human being can suddenly burst into flames. Well, wouldn’t you know it: Washington has had at least one instance of what might have been spontaneous human combustion – with a twist. The victim was already dead.

In December 1973, Betty Satlow and her husband Sam were members of the “singing” Satlow family. They owned a bar in Hoquiam, where Sam used to entertain customers with a medley of songs.

On the night of December 6, 1973, Betty and Sam were closing up the tavern. After an hour, Sam told Betty he would finish closing and she could go home, maybe because she had been drinking heavily and was not much help. Around 5:00 a.m. the next morning, Sam went home, where he found Betty unconscious at the wheel of her car, which was parked in the garage. He called the paramedics, who tried unsuccessfully to revive her. An autopsy showed that she died of carbon monoxide poisoning, with a fifty-three percent saturation in her blood.

The logical assumption was that Mrs. Satlow had committed suicide, but there was no evidence that she had hooked a hose from her exhaust to the inside of her car. The autopsy also showed that she had a blood alcohol level of .26 percent, so the police suggested that she fell asleep in her car and simply did not wake up. The coroner found the answer to the question of suicide was indeterminate, and left it at that.

After the autopsy, Betty’s body was taken to the Coleman Funeral home, where she was embalmed. On the evening of the ninth, the Satlow family and their friends gathered at Coleman’s to conduct Catholic Rosary services over her body. After the services, the funeral director closed and sealed the lower half of the casket before going home for the night. Around 1:00 a.m., a tenant living in an apartment above the chapel woke up smelling smoke and called the fire department.

When the firemen arrived, they entered the chapel and found that Betty’s coffin was at the center of a tremendously hot fire. Once they put the flames out, they examined the metal coffin, which seemed to have acted like an oven. They found that Mrs. Satler’s upper body was reduced to ashes and a few bone fragments. Her lower body was more or less intact below the hips. This might have been because there was less oxygen inside the sealed coffin lid.

At first, they thought the fire was a bizarre case of vandalism. However, the fire department could not find any evidence of arson. There was no lighter fluid or accelerant, and no sign of a break in. Ruling out vandalism, there was no rational explain as to how the fire started. The police turned over portions of the metal and wood coffin to the U.S. Treasury Department laboratory, which examined the materials. The lab technicians could not explain how the fire started, either.

Cases of alleged spontaneous human combustion are mysterious. Most of the time, there are no witnesses. Friends or family members usually find a handful of burned bones and ashes. The victim is usually at rest, either sleeping or sitting in a chair, though some have been engaged in vigorous exercise when they caught fire. The fire usually leaves the flesh, blood, and most of the bone from the victim’s body was completely burned. This would only happen if the temperature were several thousand degrees, yet nearby furniture is often unburned, or barely singed.

Another gruesome element of so-called spontaneous human combustion is that even though the victim’s torso and head might be cremated, extremities like lower arms and feet are often untouched. Autopsies usually reveal that the victim’s body seemed to have burned from the inside out.

In one case, a scientist suggested that a victim had fallen into a fire and died. Her head and upper body caught fire, and as she burned, her body fat melted into a wool carpet. The wool fibers acted like a wick, allowing the fat to catch fire, which burned her body.

Other examples of supposed spontaneous human combustion seem to involve matches, cigarettes, electrical wiring shorts, or static electricity, lending a little less credibility to the “spontaneous” part of the description.

Weird Washington


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