The mystery of spontaneous human combustion

The Sole Survivor

Aside from the fires, there’s one trait that every case of spontaneous human combustion has in common: they’re all fatal. That changed in 1974, when a travelling salesman named Jack Angel claimed that he spontaneously combusted one night — and actually survived to tell the tale.

As reported by Larry E. Arnold (the pyrotron guy) in Ablaze!, Angel woke up one morning with a burn on his hand so bad that he needed an amputation. In addition, he found a hole in his chest and various burns scattered across his groin, back, and legs. His clothes, however, were unaffected, as was his motor home. According to Arnold, Angel said that a doctor told him that the fire started “internally,” and claimed to be the only person in history to survive SHC.

But was he really? Joe Nickell, author of Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal doesn’t think so — and if anyone would know, it’s Nickell. As one of America’s only professional paranormal researchers, a senior research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and a self-described skeptic, Nickell helped expose hoaxes like the infamous Patterson Bigfoot tape, a forged diary that supposedly revealed Jack the Ripper’s identity, and the popular television personality and alleged psychic John Edward.

Nickell says that, before Angel claimed to be a SHC survivor, he went to court with a very different story. After the water pressure in Angel’s motor home went out, Angel began tinkering with the water heater, which resulted in a torrent of hot water and led to the burns. According to Nickell, Angel tried to sue the RV manufacturer, but the case was dismissed in federal court. Only then did the SHC story begin to circulate.