Is Spontanous Human Combustion Possible? Man Mysteriously Dies From Flames

A fire in Athens earlier this month. Some believe that spontaneous human combustion can be explained by a nearby source of heat that causes a fire. LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images

Spontaneous human combustion might seem like a silly fear, but for people living in the 1800s, it was a very real cause for concern, according to a 2013 LiveScience report. Stories during the time, like the Charles Dickens novel Bleak House, included the phenomenon, stirring the fear. Now, the case of a 70-year-old London man who mysteriously caught fire while on a street is resurfacing the curious case of whether spontaneous combustion is real.

Related: A Man Burst Into Flames on a London Street and Police Still Don't Know Why

As Newsweek previously reported on Friday, no one knows why John Nolan caught fire. His sister Mary Caffery, told Newsweek the incident occurred while her brother was on a walk.

"He was a frail, elderly man with a walking stick. He had no enemies, so we aren't sure [what could have happened]," she said. "I am surprised by the tragedy. The police are examining his clothes now, but currently they are no closer to solving anything. Everything is still up in the air."

Currently, investigators are treating the case as unexplainable.

Tales of spontaneous human combustion go back to the seventh century, but many cases were actually reported in the 19th century, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. However, a few instances have been observed in the 20th and 21st centuries. There are only a few hundred possible events that could be linked to the extremely rare phenomenon.

While mysterious, a report in the National Institutes of Health's library explained that there are a few common themes to these cases. Notably, nearby surroundings tend to hold up even though the body is destroyed entirely. But, as the report explained, the body isn't always completely eliminated and certain preserved body parts can be found. Sources of heat to explain the fire are usually missing, too.

So what accounts for these mysterious cases? Not spontaneous human combustion, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Some forensic scientists believe something called the "wick effect" is more plausible. These theorists believe that certain clothing items might act like a candle wick and cause the body to smoke for a long period of time after catching fire by a nearby source. However, any evidence of of what started the fire may be destroyed in the process. And as LiveScience points out, if spontaneous human combustion was a real occurrence, it would likely happen more often as there are billions of people in the world. Plus, other living creatures, like dogs, cows, cats, would probably be impacted, too.