November 8, 1964
Upper Darby, Pennsylvania
Helen Conway (51) dies in a fire in — what some have argued — a case of spontaneous human combustion

At the time of her death, Conway was being visited by two of her grandchildren, ages 6 and 8. At some point, a neighbor noticed smoke coming from the home and was able to rescue the children. Conway was in her bedroom, however, and the heat prevented the neighbor from entering the room. Firefighters were called and arrived to find the upper body and a portion of her armchair reduced to ashes, while the corner wall behind her had been scorched. Strangely, while her head, arms, and abdomen were completely consumed by flames, her legs and most of the bedroom had been unmarred by fire. The destruction of Conway’s body was some complete, insurance investigators sifted through her remains to find her wedding ring to confirm her identity.

The body of Helen Conway
Photo by Robert Meslin

The fire chief responding to the call estimated Conway had been on fire for 21 minutes, factoring in the time it took the firefighters to respond and the amount of time which would likely have passed before the neighbor noticed the smoke.

Often in cases of spontaneous human combustion (SHC), the so-called wick effect is cited as a probable explanation for a human body to be destroyed by fire while the surrounding area is unaffected. The wick effect involves the person’s fat acting as a candle’s wax, while their clothing, bedding, or other materials acts as a wick, pulling the fat through the fabric to the flame while the “wick” remains intact. This produces a slow, low-temperature burn which can cause the cremation of a body without scathing nearby items. However, the wick effect takes hours to reach the extent of damage Conway’s body endured.

Proponents of SHC suggested Conway’s body fats melted quickly and acted as a grease fire, pointing to a firefighter’s account who said he touched “something greasy” while examining Conway’s body. Those who are skeptical of SHC suggest the timeframe of Conway’s fire was incorrect (such as the fire happening much earlier before the neighbor noticed than what the fire chief had estimated), and noted Conway was a careless, heavy smoker (several cigarette burn marks were found throughout her home).

Officially, Conway’s death has been attributed to 3rd degree burns, and was deemed to be accidental.

Sources:
“Spontaneous human combustion (SHC).” The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Accessed: November 8, 2020. http://skepdic.com/shc.html
Traylor, Dean. “Facts About the Not-So-Spontaneous Human Combustion.” Exemplore. July 7, 2020. Accessed: November 8, 2020. https://exemplore.com/paranormal/Facts-about-the-notso-Spontaneous-Human-Combustion
Ford, Brian J. “Solving the Mystery of Spontaneous Human Combustion.” The Microscope. Vol. 60. 2012
Ouellette, Jennifer. “Burn, Baby, Burn: Understanding the Wick Effect.” Scientific American. October 12, 2011. Accessed: November 8, 2020. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/cocktail-party-physics/burn-baby-burn-understanding-the-wick-effect/
Arnold, Larry E. Ablaze! The Mysterious Fires of Spontaneous Human Combustion. New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc., 1995
Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Department of Health Vital Statistics. Coroner’s Certificate of Death. 105845-64 (digitized: https://www.ancestry.com/imageviewer/collections/5164/images/46628_520306900_0048-00567?pId=14722881)
“U. Darby Woman Dies in Fire.” The Morning Call [Allentown, Pennsylvania]. November 9, 1964
“Woman Suffocates.” Tyrone Daily Herald. November 9, 1964

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