Jeannie Saffin

Jeannie Saffin was an alleged victim of spontaneous human combustion.

The case of Jeannie Saffin is one of the rare examples of someone allegedly spontaneously combusting in front of witnesses, surviving for a brief period, and the case being investigated by ambulance staff and the law enforcement officers (in this case, the Metropolitan Police). In addition, the case is very well-documented, with statements from all parties involved (except Jeannie herself) and a full inquest.


Although Jeannie Saffin was 61 years old at the time of her death, she had a mental age of approximately six, due to a bungled forceps delivery at her birth. She was, like many small children, terrified of naked flames and could not (according to her family) even be induced to hold a box of matches.

Combustion event

At approximately 4 p.m. on Wednesday, September 15, 1982, Ms. Saffin aged 61, burst into flames while sitting on a wooden Windsor chair in the kitchen of her home in Edmonton, London, England. Her father, eighty-two-year-old Jack Saffin, was seated at a nearby table and said he saw a flash of light out of the corner of his eye and turned to Jeannie to ask if she had seen it. He was astonished to find that she was enveloped in flames, mainly around her face and hands. Mr. Saffin said Jeannie did not cry out or move, but merely sat there with her hands in her lap.

Her father pulled her over to the sink, badly burning his own hands, and started trying to douse the flames with water, at the same time calling to his son-in-law, Donald Carroll: "Quick! Jeannie's burning!"Fact|date=December 2006 The younger man ran into the kitchen to see Jeannie standing with flames 'roaring' from her face and abdomen. The two men managed to douse the flames with pans of water and called the emergency services.

After the flames were extinguished, Jeannie "whimpered,"Fact|date=December 2006 according to her father's evidence at the subsequent inquest. Jeannie's mental condition, her body's production of endorphins, the subsequent shock, and her eventual semi-conscious state may all have played a part in minimizing her response to pain.

Medical witnesses

According to the ambulance men who took Jeannie to hospital, the kitchen itself was undamaged by smoke or flame.

The hospital notes of Jeannie's treatment begin with her transfer from North Middlesex Hospital to Mount Vernon hospital, at 7 p.m. on the day she burned. The first entry reads:

"Approximately 4pm today thought to have burned herself? How? Found by ambulance men in kitchen, wearing nylon clothes, not on fire. Not in smoke-filled room."Fact|date=December 2006

Both Donald Carroll, the son-in-law and Mr. Saffin (a First World War veteran) spoke of the flames coming from Jeannie as making a 'roaring noise'.

Mr Saffin was registered deaf due to his experiences in the First World War, and Joe Nickell (see below) suggests that this undermines his testimony. Heymer puts forward the idea that the alleged 'roaring' noise may have been due to the rapid evaporation of water from Jeannie's body, likening it to a 'scaled-up' version of the hissing and screeching noise made when drops of water fall into hot cooking fat.

Jeannie appeared to be conscious and aware in hospital but did not speak. The third degree burns on her body covered only the parts of her that had been unclothed, her face and hands, apart from her abdomen, where she had held her hands clasped while sitting.

Her injuries were listed as follows:

"Mainly full thickness burns of face. Burns to the neck, shoulders, chest, left arm, abdomen, thighs and left buttock - mixed full thickness and deep dermal with superficial patches on abdomen. Hands: mainly full thickness burns, both surfaces. Total: 30 per cent."Fact|date=December 2006

A full thickness burn is one in which the flesh is destroyed down to the subcutaneous fat.

This means that Ms Saffin's face was totally destroyed (her family described her burns as 'terrible' and her head 'like a football'). Her hands were essentially burned down to the bone.

She lapsed into a coma and died nearly eight days later, at 8:10 a.m. on September 23, 1982.

The cause of death was listed as "bronchopneumonia due to burns."Fact|date=December 2006

An inquest was held into Ms. Saffin's death and police enquiries were ordered by the coroner, Dr. J. Burton, to determine how she caught fire.

A letter to the coroner's office from a locum registrar in plastic surgery stated that Jeannie's injuries had been caused by a flame burn.

Perhaps the most important fact that the eyewitness testimony from the inquest provides is that the burning episode in the kitchen lasted at most a minute or two -- and probably less -- before the flames were doused, rather than hours. Thus, this case can in no way be explained by the wick effect.

Ms. Saffin's brother-in-law Donald Carrol told the coroner that: "I made a point of checking on the gas cooker and saw that it was not on and saw that my father-in-law had his pipe in his hand and I checked it and saw that it was fresh tobacco which had not been lit."Fact|date=December 2006

Investigation by Joe Nickell

The skeptical author Joe Nickell (see link, below) interprets this as a confession that Mr Saffin had been recently smoking and that this may indicate that an ember had smouldered on Jeannie's clothes, only bursting into flame some time later when fanned by a sudden draught from the open kitchen door.

Police witness

Nevertheless, the police officer who conducted the investigation into possible murder -- PC Leigh Marsden of Edmonton Police Station -- reported to the coroner's court that no cause for Jeannie's combustion could be found.

PC Marsden's report stated the following facts:

* That the wooden Windsor chair in which Jeannie had been sitting when she caught fire was situated in a corner of the Saffins' kitchen, about two inches from two adjacent walls forming a corner.
* That both chair and walls were unmarked and undamaged.
* That the nearest source of ignition was a small pilot light on the overhead grill of a gas-cooker some four to five feet away from the chair.
* That the pilot light was protected by a grill hood and was unable to set anyone alight even if they were in contact with the cooker.
* That the nearest gas point and electrical point were sited next to the cooker, four or five feet away from the chair.
* That Jeannie's clothes "were still burning when I [Marsden] got there. I pulled off the rest of her clothes. She and her clothes were burning. I put it out with a towel"Fact|date=December 2006

PC Marsden told Ms. Saffin's relatives that he believed her to be a victim of spontaneous human combustion, which they accepted and put to the coroner.

However, Dr. Burton told the family: 'I sympathise with you but I cannot put down SHC because there is no such thing. I will have to put down misadventure or open verdict.'Fact|date=December 2006

In fact the verdict was misadventure.

On Monday February 13 1995, PC Marsden reiterated his faith that the death was due to SHC, during a phonecall with John E Heymer. Marsden added that some years after the event, he had been interviewed about the death by a senior fire brigade officer (name unknown to Marsden).

ee also

*The Entrancing Flame by John E Heymer
*Skeptical Inquirer
*Joe Nickell

External links

* [ Fiery tales that spontaneously destruct - reports on spontaneous human combustion - includes an investigative chronology based on a published photograph] by Joe Nickell, Skeptical Inquirer March-April, 1998, retrieved September 21, 2006

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