"Skeptically Speaking" Column #6 -- Mar. 1992

By Gary P. Posner


"SHC," God, and Luna

A local Mensan, upon reading in this column of Tampa Bay Skeptics' "$1,000 Challenge" for scientific proof of the paranormal, has blitzed me with three claims for the prize. Although his letters were copied to others (including a newspaper columnist), I will herein refer to him only with the letter "X."

Claim #1 involved "Spontaneous Human Combustion" (SHC), and cited the 1951 case of Mary Reeser, a St. Petersburg resident who "had the gall to confound modern science by immolating herself without the use of fuel and without burning down the building." Although "X" had not seen it, the June 30, 1991, St. Pete. Times had also resurrected this case in a front-page, pro-SHC article, in which the writer defined SHC: " . . . for no known reason, the human body suddenly catches fire and burns furiously on its own juices and oils."

Curiously, the Times writer had already noted that "Reeser took two sleeping pills, put on her nightgown and settled into an easy chair for a last cigarette before bed." Reeser never made it to bed, but need we invoke the "paranormal"? The following is from the "Skeptical Inquirer" article (Summer 1987) by investigators/authors Joe Nickell and John Fischer:

"When last seen, Mary Reeser was wearing a flammable nightdress and housecoat, sitting in the overstuffed chair in which she subsequently died, and smoking a cigarette. . . . [E]arlier in the day she had told her son, a physician, that she had taken two sleeping pills and intended to take two more before retiring. . . . [W]hat probably happened was that the chair's stuffing burned slowly, fueled by the melted body fat and aided by partially opened windows."

"X" argued, however, that even if this case of "HC" was not "S," it remains "paranormal" because, by his computations, a minimum of 24.6 lbs. of fuel oil equivalent would be required to reduce a body to ashes, and the human body contains, at best, only about half that amount. In his next letter, "X" did acknowledge that Reeser's chair may have "provided 100 pounds of fuel to help her burn," but not so with J. Irving Bentley, who burned to death in 1966, says "X," "on the ceramic tiled floor of his bathroom." But Nickell informs me:

"Dr. Bentley had a habit of dropping burning pipe ashes on his clothing. The fact that he shed his robe -- found smoldering in the bathtub -- indicates an external . . . source for the ignition. Also a photograph of the death scene shows that a large hole burned through the floor and demonstrates that a considerable amount of floor covering, wood flooring, sub-flooring and supporting beams fueled the 92-year-old physician's immolation."

Claim #2 didn't even pretend to include the requisite scientific proof, but went like this: "Do you believe in God? If you do, then you believe in a [paranormal] phenomenon . . . and you should send me [the $1,000]. . . . If you do not believe in God . . . you should default to the expertise of one of your [Tampa Bay Skeptics] consultants . . . The Rev. Leckrone. . . ."

Claim #3 was contained in a five-page missive (including formulae, tables and computations). As "X" explains, at 0900 hours UT on Feb. 3, the moon (which in this context I prefer to call "Luna") "will reach new moon phase and pass, at right angles, between the earth and the sun. At that precise instant the gravitational forces . . . are easily calculated. . . . My shocking results are . . . on the worksheet. . . . [T]he sun's force [is] over 2 1/2 times the earth's. . . . Since [Luna] must obey Newton's Laws of Motion it must begin to move closer to the sun and be lost to us forever. . . . If you concede that [Luna] will stay in orbit [around the earth], negating either the Law of Gravity or the Laws of Motion, please send my thousand dollar check. . . . [Or show] your good faith in the matter by giving the check [in the interim] to [Mensa Local Secretary] Frank Clarke. . . ."

For a self-addressed return envelope I will send the non-paranormal explanation to this "Astronomy 101" trick.


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