“Dishonest” is the opposite of “honest,” right? So does that mean the opposite of “disgruntled” is “gruntled”? –D.J., Atlanta

You must have been a great trial to your mother, D. Dis- isn’t always used to negate; sometimes it’s an intensifier. “Gruntle” is an old dialect word meaning “to grumble.” So “disgruntled” means you’re really grumbling. There are times when I can definitely relate.


Longtime readers of this column may remember our discussion a while back of spontaneous human combustion (SHC), a mysterious phenomenon blamed for hundreds of gruesome fire deaths. The victims typically are found burnt to a crisp for no apparent reason, often leaving nothing but ashes. Yet other flammable objects nearby are undamaged.

The classic case involved Mary Reeser of Saint Petersburg, Florida. On the morning of July 2, 1951, her landlady attempted to deliver a telegram but found the doorknob too hot to touch. When rescuers finally entered the smoke-filled apartment, they found only a blackened circle where Mrs. Reeser’s easy chair had been, along with some blackened seat springs, a portion of her backbone, a shrunken skull, some ashes, and one foot encased in a black satin slipper. Little else in the apartment was damaged.

What happened in this case and others like it? Past researchers have blamed everything from excessive alcohol consumption to “geomagnetic fluctuations.” Now Joe Nickell and John Fischer, the former a well-known investigator of the paranormal, have analyzed the evidence in 30 cases and concluded that SHC may not be so inexplicable after all. Here’s a quick rundown of their findings, recently published in the Skeptical Inquirer:

In most cases combustion probably wasn’t spontaneous. Candlesticks, oil lamps, pipes, and the like were often found near the victims. Mrs. Reeser when last seen alive was smoking a cigarette.

The victims tended to be slow to react. Many were alcoholics; others were elderly, overweight, or handicapped in some way. Mrs. Reeser was 67, weighed 175 pounds, and had a bad leg. The evening before her demise she told her son she had taken two sleeping pills and expected to take two more.

Bodies can be totally consumed at temperatures much lower than previously believed. Proponents of paranormal explanations for SHC often point out that crematoriums use temperatures of 2,000 degrees or more, much hotter than the usual household fire. But experts say high temps are necessary only if the body must be destroyed in a short time. Smoldering fires can consume an entire piece of furniture (and presumably the body within it) if given long enough. Yet they often leave nearby objects undamaged. Twelve hours passed between the time Mrs. Reeser was last seen alive and the time her remains were discovered.

In cases where the body was completely destroyed, there was often a nearby source of combustible material to feed the fire. The floorboards beneath a number of victims were found burnt through; Mrs. Reeser was wearing a flammable nightgown and housecoat and was sitting in an overstuffed chair.

In addition–this gets pretty gross–the fuel sources may have served to catch melting body fat which then added to the flames: the “candle effect.” A quantity of “grease,” Nickell and Fischer note, was found where Mrs. Reeser’s chair had stood.

“In the Reeser case, what probably happened was that the chair’s stuffing burned slowly, fueled by the melted body fat and aided by partially open windows,” Nickell and Fischer conclude. “What has been described as ‘probably the best-documented case’ of alleged spontaneous human combustion is actually attributable to the deadly combination of a lit cigarette, flammable nightclothes, and sleeping pills.” Grisly stuff, but I thought you’d want to know.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.