The mystery of spontaneous human combustion

Fuel for the political fire

If you haven’t noticed by now, alcohol plays a big role in spontaneous human combustion. It’s not hard to see why. Not only does booze make you clumsy, which makes you much more likely to mishandle that cigarette, lighter, or matchstick, but too much alcohol makes a person fall asleep or, in extreme cases, fall unconscious.

In fact, the link between drinking and supposed cases of spontaneous human combustion was so well documented that, in the 18th and 19th century, doctors and scientists considered alcohol to be one of the primary causes of SHC. According to the so-called experts, alcohol transformed into flammable gas inside the body, which led to certain people catching aflame. In 1799, a physician even listed which spirits were most likely to cause SHC: gin was the worst, followed by brandy, whiskey, and finally, rum.

Bad science or not, the public association between alcohol and SHC provided a boon to the moral crusaders who led the temperance movement. Throughout the 1800s, prohibitionists used anecdotal accounts of spontaneous combustion in their anti-alcohol screeds. Claiming that the easiest way to avoid exploding is to simply stop drinking is a pretty compelling argument, after all. Spontaneous human combustion became one of the main arguments for temperance arguments until roughly 1928.