Wednesday, 20 January 2021

Spontaneous Human Combustion

Spontaneous Human Combustion

Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC) is, well, what it says on the tin. Wikipedia sums it up as "the concept of the combustion of a living (or recently deceased) human body without an apparent external source of ignition."

Perhaps the most famous case is that of Mary Reeser, a 67-year-old woman who lived in St. Petersburg, Florida. On July 2nd 1951, at about 8am, Mary's landlady Pansy Carpenter came to her door with a telegram. The door knob was uncomfortably hot to the touch which led Carpenter to call the police. Upon entering the room they found what was left of Mary in the remains of her chair: ash, a partial left foot clad in a slipper, backbone, and her noticeably shrunken skull. The rest of the room showed little evidence of fire, though some plastic items had lost their shape after being heat softened. 

Mary Reeser

As recently as 2011 a coroner in County Galway, Ireland, ruled a death to be the result of SHC. Michael Faherty, a 76-year-old man, was found dead in the early hours of December 22nd 2010 after a neighbour called the fire brigade. The fire was completely confined to the sitting room, with the damage only to Faherty's body, chair, and the immediate surrounding area. Although the room contained an open fire, assistant chief fire officer Gerry O'Malley later told the inquest that fire officers were satisfied it was not the cause of the blaze. Dr. Ciaran McLoughlin eventually ruled: This fire was thoroughly investigated and I'm left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation.

Science, for the most part, is of the opinion that most - if not all - documented cases of SHC did have external sources of ignition, they were just overlooked by investigators. In Mary Reeser's case, for example, the standard rational explanation is that Mary took sleeping tablets which led to her falling unconscious in her chair while smoking a cigarette. The evidence was thus destroyed when her body and clothing were cremated by the resulting fire, which was confined to the immediate area by the so called 'wick effect'. While it doubtless explains some cases, it falls significantly short in others. 

Other theories include ketosis caused by alcoholism and / or low-carb diets, an overproduction of diphosphane igniting the methane in the gut, mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS), aliens, ball lightning, and poltergeist activity! I personally believe SHC is distinct from the wick effect, not least because of survivor accounts and eyewitness testimony, and is caused by some rare set of circumstances science has yet to pin down precisely.



Rassau

The Welsh connection comes with pensioner Henry Thomas, who was found partially cremated in his living room on the Rassau estate in Ebbw Vale on January 6th 1980.

It was Thomas' tale that really captured my imagination as a kid and set me off on a lifetime of Forteana. Because, for sure, there were bigger and stranger mysteries out there. But this one happened a bus ride away. It was so close to home it felt more real somehow and set me off on a lifelong obsession with the weird and wonderful!

Anyway, back to the story. 



Henry Thomas was born April 2nd 1906 and, as best as I can tell, worked as a rigger at Ebbw Vale Steelworks. In 1980 he was a 73-year-old living in Rassau, Ebbw Vale. Before his death he was sat in his living room watching television. There were two doorways in the room, both were closed and well sealed with draught excluder. The steel framed window was also closed and had a good draught-tight fit. Importantly, given what happened, Henry was a non-smoker.

On the evening of Saturday January 5th 1980 Henry's next-door neighbour went into his rear garden. There was a foul smelling smoke issuing from the chimney of Henry's house; he assumed Henry was burning rubbish on his fire grate and thought no more of it. At least until the following morning, Sunday 6th January 1980, when police were called out to the scene.

Henry Thomas SHC case
Recreated picture of the scene from John Heymer's May 1986 New Scientist article.

There was nothing left of Henry but ashes, his blackened skull, and the lower portions of both legs/feet clad in socks and the bottoms of his trouser legs. The scenes of crime officer said:
"The ashes lay on a rug and a foam-backed, fitted carpet, both of which were only burned where they were in contact with the ashes. The charred portion of the rug and carpet were saturated in melted human fat. I later discovered that on the floor under the fitted carpet were thermo-plastic tiles. A hot saucepan placed on such tiles will leave a permanent mark on the surface. When the carpet was removed and the floor washed there was no sign to be found to show that any heat had been applied to the tiles. They were all unblemished. ... The charring of the carpet extended for only an inch or so beyond the boundary of the ashes."
(The information about the tiles came from the house's next tenant, Mrs Morris. She also said that when she moved in the walls were still covered in a greasy soot which she tried to remove without success. She painted over it but it kept showing through. Finally she coated the walls with a heavy hessian-type material.)
"The only inanimate and really flammable object in the room to have actually burned, apart from the charring of the carpet, was the wooden-framed easy chair in which the victim had been sitting when he started to burn. This chair was mostly reduced to ash, with the exception of part of the right hand side of the wooden frame. [The left hand side burned through and Henry's body then fell to the floor.] Part of the fabric cushioning was also unburned.

In the fire grate lay the dead ashes of a coal fire containing a quantity of partially burnt coals. On the hearth lay a bundle of sticks ready for the laying of a fresh fire. On the front of the hearth lay Thomas's plastic-framed spectacles - they were undamaged. The front edge of the tiled hearth, a few inches from the ashes, was blackened with smoke. The surface of the hearth was clean and tidy. There was no sign of any coals having fallen from the fire. It had apparently gone out through lack of attention, though there were plenty of unburned coals in the grate."
P.C. Terry Russell, the coroner's officer for the incident, and a uniformed sergeant attended the scene. A number of other officers were at the scene at one time or other, including Superintendent Bob Haines. The control room officer at Ebbw Vale police station rang P.C. John Heymer, a scenes of crime officer for the western half of Gwent, to attend. Heymer recalled that when he asked for particulars he was told: "We think you had better see for yourself." The absence of the fire brigade and the lack of typical signs of a house fire - there was no smoke seepage even around the frame of the closed living room door - had Heymer initially suspecting he was the victim of a practical joke. 

1911 Census Record Henry Thomas
After some browsing I think this is probably Henry on the 1911 census record. It's sad that though the account of his death is repeated again and again, the net is devoid of any pics or info about who he was in life. If I'm following the right Henry Thomas he attended Willowtown Infants from 1910 and Pontygof Boys School from 1913 to 1919, before going on to marry and have children.

What was noticeable was a strange yeasty smell, and an unseasonable warmth within the house. The front door had been left open since the initial discovery, at least three hours earlier by this point, and it was a very cold day. Heymer said: "Hours after the body had been reduced to ash the room was still radiating heat. The amount of heat released in that room must have been terrific. The walls were still radiating sufficient heat to make the house comfortably warm even though it had no insulation or double-glazing [or central heating] and was situated near a mountain top."
 
Heymer photographed the scene and took note of the particulars. 

Afterwards Heymer went to Ebbw Vale police station to arrange the attendance of forensic scientists from the Home Office Forensic Laboratory at Chepstow. While there a young police constable told Heymer he was convinced it was a case of SHC, and showed him a copy of Worldwide Mysteries (possibly Francis Hitching's The World Atlas of Mysteries) he had received for Christmas which had a photograph of the 1966 case of Dr J. Irving Bentley. Heymer went on to say:
"Everyone who attended at that incident either believes it to have been SHC, or in the very least does not believe it to have resulted from the ordinary processes of combustion. ... It is my contention that Spontaneous Human Combustion is an umbrella term covering four different and separate phenomena of which two are different types of Spontaneous Human Combustion: one which is always fatal and one which the victim can survive. The four separate phenomena are briefly: the 'wick effect'; SHC where the victim is reduced to ashes; the flameless type of SHC which seems to attack only parts of the body; and static electric flash burns."
Although not quite everyone was convinced. The forensic scientists from Chepstow declared that SHC was a proven impossibility. Their explanation was that Henry had fallen and landed headfirst in the fire, as evidenced by "a small scrap of charred fibrous material adhering to top fire bar of the grate." He must have then got up, sat down in his armchair, then proceeded to burn to death... There was no disturbance to the grate or hearth, and later testing revealed the tissue to be bovine, i.e. the remains of some leather item burned on the fire.

Henry's remains were investigated by Home Office pathologist Dr G.S. Andrews. His post mortem revealed carbon monoxide in the blood of the remaining muscle tissue, suggesting Henry inhaled smoke from the fire - aka he was alive when he began burning. Andrews ascribed the cause of death to 'burning'. None of the unusual aspects of the case were presented to the inquest. Instead told Henry had probably fallen and set himself on fire, at which point he sat back in his chair and burned in a fire confined mostly to the body as a result of the wick effect, the inquest returned a verdict of accidental death.

John Heymer began looking into the case again in 1985 when he was contacted by Colin Durham, a former Inspector with Gwent Police. Durham had been in touch with Bill Treharne-Jones, then a producer for BBC 'Newsnight', on the topic of SHC and asked Heymer if he would be willing to be interviewed regarding the Thomas case. Heymer went on to write an entire book on the phenomenon, The Entrancing Flame, in 1996.

Heymer recounted his experience of the Thomas case in chapter one:

I stepped through the door into another dimension - momentarily thrust down into Dante's Inferno. The room was as hot and steamy as a sauna. It was bathed in a hellish orange/red glow. There was a not unpleasant sweetish, yeasty smell to the atmosphere, reminiscent of an old-fashioned bakehouse. The walls, ceiling and every surface were coated with a strangely greasy black soot. The density of the soot increased with its height up the walls. Immediately inside the door stood a television set. It appeared to have been designed by Salvador Dali. The plastic control knobs on the front of the set had been melted and reformed into surrealistic shapes - arrested in mid-flow as they cooled while slowly oozing lava-like down the control panel of the set. The valves of the set were still glowing with power but no picture showed on the tube. 

A single light bulb emitted an orange glow as it hung down, naked, from its holder in the centre of the soot-blackened ceiling. On the floor, immediately below the bulb, lay a pair of men's shoes upon which lay the misshapen remains of a plastic lightshade. The heat in the room had softened the shade until it drifted from its fixings, sliding down over the bulb to fall onto the shoes below where it lay, a shapeless, colourless blob that somehow brought about in me a heightened sense of unease. 

Both the light bulb and the window panes were coated in an orange sticky substance which filtered the light thus causing the unholy glow. One pane of window glass was cracked, presumably by the strange heat source that had melted the lightshade and the knobs of the television set. It was a nightmarish experience. To step from a pleasant, bright, clean and neatly furnished room into this steaming, garish orange glow was so totally unexpected that the effect was disorientating in the extreme. However, there was much worse to come.

The room was furnished with a table, chairs, a settee and an armchair. Both settee and armchair were fitted with loose covers. A rug lay on the fitted carpet in front of an open coal-fire hearth. On the carpet, in front of the hearth and partly on the rug, lay a mass of ashes. At one edge of the ashes, furthest from the fireplace, was a partially burnt wooden-framed armchair. 

During the course of my twenty-four years' service in the police up to that time I had witnessed more than a few truly horrific sights. But this was the first time that I actually felt my hackles rise. Lying on the carpet between the ashes and the shoes was a pair of male human feet clothed in socks. The undamaged feet protruded from short lengths of trouser-leg bottoms. From the upper, burned, edges of the trouser legs emerged blackened leg bones which progressed to white, calcined bones, disintegrating at mid-thigh. The collapsed powdery bones merged into an amorphous mass of ash where the torso should have been. The remains of the trouser legs had a thin, charred edge, as if cut by a laser beam. The transition from undamaged cloth to ash was immediate, with only the thinnest line of scorching to show that the trousers had been burned. Beyond the burn line on the trousers the remaining material was in perfect condition. At the opposite end of the ashes lay a blackened, featureless skull, which appeared to have been shrunken. [Autopsy later confirmed this was not the case, it simply looked shrunken to eyewitnesses because of loss of features, skin, etc.]

Although the sight of the extremely sparse remaining portions of a human being was in itself horrific there was something about the socks and remaining portions of trousers that particularly troubled my mind. I could not say why, in the context of such a totally bizarre scene, those items should prey on my mind to the extent that they did. For years to come, whenever the scene came to mind, it was the sock-clothed feet and the portions of trousers that always figured largely in my mind's eye. I was constantly aware there was something incongruous about the pieces of clothing. Fifteen years passed before I realised why the trouser legs bothered me so. The reason will be revealed at the appropriate stage of this book. [Later Heymer argues that fatal SHC is most fierce in the abdomen outwards with the extremities often spared if held away from the torso. The undamaged clothing casts doubt on the wick effect explanation which relies on spread of melted body fat.]

I was looking down on the scarce remains of Henry Thomas, a seventy-three-year-old man who had, for the most part, been incinerated far more effectively than can be achieved in a crematorium. The complete torso and arms, including the bones, had been reduced to ash. This horrendous incineration had taken place on the carpet of the victim's living-room floor.

Nothing else, other than the armchair in which he had apparently been sitting, had suffered any fire damage. The flounced loose covers of the settee, situated less than two feet away from the ashes, were not even slightly scorched. While trying to equate the impossibility of the scene with the undeniable fact of its reality, the reason for the weird lighting effects dawned upon me. The light, transmitted by both the window and the light bulb, was being filtered through a deposited layer of condensed, vaporised flesh. It was the same glutinous substance that gradually builds up on the inner surfaces of the domestic oven in which meat is regularly roasted.

As I struggled to maintain my grasp on reality I felt much like Alice having stepped through the looking-glass. Familiar frames of reference were suddenly missing. I now understood why my colleagues in the adjoining room, who had summoned me to the scene, were so subdued and non-committal on my arrival. It was a truly awe-inspiring situation. I was instantly and absolutely convinced that the scene I beheld was the aftermath of Spontaneous Human Combustion.

Until that day my only knowledge of the phenomenon had been largely obtained from reading Bleak House by Charles Dickens, which I read with more than a little scepticism. The scene I was viewing coincided so exactly with Dickens' description of the death of Mr Krook by Spontaneous Human Combustion that it was obvious he knew what he was writing about. This mind-blowing experience was to be responsible for permanently altering my mind-set. I would no longer so easily dismiss reports of unusual phenomena solely on the grounds of their seeming impossibility. I was immediately converted into an 'asceptic', with regard to Spontaneous Human Combustion. I have coined the term 'asceptic' in the sense of 'not sceptic' as it befits my state of mind better than 'believer'. The term 'asceptic' is less dogmatic than 'believer'. 

I did not instantly become so amenable to reason with regard to other disputed phenomena. My conversion to a fully open mind came about gradually and was largely occasioned by the constant refusal of some sceptical (especially forensic) scientists to recognise any facts which tended to support the Spontaneous Human Combustion hypothesis. Over the next fifteen years I was able to discover that some scientists are capable of the utmost folly when it comes to providing 'explanations' for facts that refuse to conform to the presently accepted interpretation of the physical 'laws'. Unfortunately it is the scientists with negative views of SHC that mostly express opinions on the subject. The more open-minded scientists tend to keep their opinions to themselves for reasons which will be examined in this book. 



Heymer's book also contained an account of the suspected SHC case of Annie Gertrude Webb, worked by Colin Durham. Rather than attempt to put words in his mouth, I've simply typed up chapter four of The Entrancing Flame:

Annie Gertrude Webb was a spinster, aged seventy-five. She was an epileptic and lived alone in Corporation Street, Newport, Gwent. On Sunday 2 February 1980, she had only returned home a couple of days previously from a short a stay in hospital. Shortly after nine o'clock that morning, a life-long friend of Annie, living nearby, was alerted by Annie's next door neighbour. The neighbour had noticed that the windows of Annie's living room were blackened with smoke on the inside and he was unable to get any response from knocking on the door. He knew that Annie had given her friend a key to her house.

On entering the ground-floor living-room they found the room full of smoke and in total darkness because of the soot-coated window glass. Their nostrils were assailed by a strange, foul stench which was overlaid by a strong smell of gas. The room contained a gas fire. The fire switch was later to be found to be in the 'on' position yet the fire was unlit and there was no gas escaping from it. The neighbour immediately turned off the gas supply at the main, fearing an explosion. He was unaware that the gas meter, which was coin operated, had run out.

They then opened the kitchen door to let out the gas and to let in some daylight. On examining the scene they were confronted with the horrific sight of Annie Webb reduced to a pile of ashes, two lower legs, half a bare right arm and a blackened skull. That the remains were those of Annie was obvious from the plastic hospital name tag on the wrist of her surviving arm. Just as Henry Thomas's surviving lower legs were clothed in the lower portions of his trouser legs so Annie Webb's lower legs were clothed in stockings. They were of a substantial nature and somewhat loose on her legs. She was of a slim build. Her stockings were only burned as far as her legs were burned. The burning pattern was an exact parallel to that of Henry Thomas.

Annie Gertrude Webb, spontaneous human combustion

The room was quite small and cluttered. The gas fire was situated on one wall. Along the wall on the right of the fire (when facing the fire) stood a dining chair and a stuffed armchair. Immediately in front of the fire about five feet away was a table set with a cup and saucer, a teapot with cosy and some bottles of sauce and milk. The items on the table could have been placed there in preparation for an evening meal or breakfast. The table was covered with a plastic table cloth under which there was a conventional cloth of some woven material such as cotton. A further dining chair lay on the floor between the table and the fire and to the left of the fire. The remains of Annie Webb were encompassed by the gas fire, the chairs and table. Her feet were just under the table.

The dining chair and armchair to the right of the fire were in contact with the ashes of Annie Webb and were both partially burned. The dining chair was lying at an angle with its top supported by the wall bearing the gas fire. The edge of the plastic cloth, nearest to the burned armchair, was burned slightly and scorched. The remaining dining chair, though in contact with her lower right leg just below the burn line was undamaged.

Police Constable 201 Wheatstone was the investigating officer for HM coroner. He was an observant officer and noticed that Annie had plugged practically every gap around the window and door through which draughts could enter the room. As in the case of Henry Thomas, she had virtually hermetically sealed the room. P.C. Wheatstone said in his statement, relating to the sealed door and window, 'I have been told that the fire was therefore starved of oxygen and prevented from spreading'.

Once again we are faced with the paradox of a grossly incombustible human corpse being reduced to ashes in conditions so devoid of oxygen that a fiercely burning wood and plastic foam-filled armchair and dining chair cease to burn. When the room was first entered even above the smell of the incinerated body there was a strong smell of gas. As I mentioned earlier the gas supply was by way of a coin-operated meter and it had run out. Had the fire been extinguished in the normal manner when the gas ran out there would have been no great smell of gas. Certainly not strong enough to be instantly recognisable over the smell of the incinerated corpse. I strongly suspect that the gas fire was extinguished during the incineration of the corpse because of the lack of oxygen. Gas requires oxygen to burn just as any other fuel does. There can be no combustion without oxygen and the same rule applies to SHC.

Corporation Road, Newport
Not sure if it was still the same house in 1980, but the 1939 register lists Annie at 323 Corporation Road.

If the gas had run out before or during the conflagration then surely there would not have been a noticeably strong smell of gas. To leave such an amount of gas in the fetid atmosphere of the sealed room that it was still strongly present, when all had ceased to burn, then a considerable amount of unburned gas must have been released into the atmosphere of the room. This could only have occurred by the gas going out, because of the lack of oxygen, and continuing to flow until the coin ran out.

The victim's epilepsy and the proximity of a lighted gas fire gave rise to the obvious, yet erroneous, conclusion that she had suffered an epileptic fit and fallen headfirst on to the gas fire and so burned to death. This would be the second person to be incinerated in their living-room after being assumed to have fallen headfirst into/on to a fire in the county of Gwent in just over three weeks.

The gas fire was a standard three-burner type with a fixed guard to prevent clothing, etc, from coming into contact with the flames. The middle ceramic burner was blackened and broken. These facts were taken as evidence that the head of the deceased had struck the fire, catching fire and breaking the ceramic burner. As the head burned so the ceramic middle burner was supposed to have become blackened by the proximity of the burning head. No traces of skin or hair were found on the protective grille, which was neither bent nor damaged in any way. A tea cloth (clearly visible in the photograph) remained, neither burned nor even scorched, about a foot above the burners. Had Annie's burning head been lying against the grille then the cloth would have caught fire or at the very least have been plainly scorched and soot coated.

Six years after this incident I went the home of ex-Police Inspector Colin Durham in Newport, Gwent. He had visited the scene of Annie Webb's incineration and was convinced that the cause of ignition was not the gas fire. He was convinced for the same reasons that I have described above. Colin took me into a room of his house in which there was installed a gas fire similar to the one in Annie Webb's room. I saw that the centre ceramic burner was broken in two and blackened. Colin explained to me that when the fire is set on low heat (which is how the fire is mostly used) it is only the centre ceramic block that is lighted. That block gets nearly all the use. Consequently it is the one that is blackened and also the first one to break with the constant expansion and contraction of normal use. 

So, Annie Webb's fire showed only signs of normal use. There was not one shred of evidence to prove that she fell against the fire and thus ignited it. In the normal course of events the results of the examination of the fire would be taken as proof positive that she had not been in contact with it. However, when the spectre of SHC looms then the normal rules of common sense do not apply. Any vague possibility (and some not so possible) is dragged in to 'explain' the death and 'prove' that SHC was not the cause. The object of the exercise at inquests held into these cases of SHC is to explain away rather than to explain. 

Like Henry Thomas, Annie Webb was alive when she started to burn. The pathologist's report stated that the cause of death was yet again - 1a. Burning. Analysis of a blood specimen revealed a carbon monoxide content of 15.5 per cent. Miss Webb was teetotal and a non-smoker. She had inhaled a significant amount of smoke before she died.

The pathologist stated in his post mortem report that the body had been almost completely destroyed and reduced to ashes. All that remained that was recognisable was as follows: the left leg below the knee and the right leg to above the knee; the right arm; and the blackened skull containing a very heat-shrunken brain. All internal organs were destroyed except for the left lung which was heat contracted and charred. The right arm only survived because when she fell to the floor her right arm was flung out and away from her torso. This differs from Henry Thomas's case - he burned while sitting in an armchair with both his arms in contact with his burning torso, so both his arms were destroyed. For the record Annie Webb was not obese; she was not even fat. In fact she was quite slim - this is quite obvious from the photo showing her remaining right arm and legs.

Once again, as in the Henry Thomas case, we are faced with the puzzling fact of the unburnt stockings on the remaining portions of Annie Webb's legs. With the exception of the surviving right arm, the remaining skull, ashes and lower limbs are exactly the same as Henry Thomas's remains.



For more like this please click the image below:
Weird Wales


4 comments:

  1. I remember seeing the case of Annie Webb as a child in 1980 and it really horrified me seeing the photo of that awful scene. The image was stuck in my conscious and I would never forget it. This case provoked a life long fascination with the subject for me. Whilst the wick effect does neatly explain how this phenomena can occur whereby bodies are reduced to ashes by intense slow burning fire over hours, that leaves nearby objects not even touched, there's still a lot of questions in some cases.

    In the case of Annie Webb her close proximity to the open gas fire and the fact the fire was on but not emitting gas, suggests to the cause of her combustion was probably from lighting the fire with a match. Being elderly, it may well have been that she let the gas run too long before lighting it causing it a mini explosion in the air which ignited her clothing causing her to fall over.

    I once had my own accident which nearly caused myself to become a SHC case and this shows how easy it is and possible..

    I was working on some electrical repair work using a soldering iron of the type which used a heated element (no naked flame). I was wearing a nylon jumper and the sleeve accidentally touched the soldering iron. I didn't notice until I felt something hot on my arm and noticed half my sleeve was suddenly on fire. I quickly put it out using my hand. I was lucky because it had already started to burn the top layer of my skin on forearm (still have the scar) a few seconds more it would have been burning into fat below and the fire would have probably engulfed my entire top. Nylon burns incredibly fast which is why you always see fire hazard warnings and do not tumble dry.

    In many of these SHC cases, it's possible even a small piece of cigarette ash still burning or a dropped match coming into contact with nylon clothing would be enough to start a rapid burning fire.

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  2. Btw, thanks for documenting these two cases so brilliantly. I was looking for a proper account of Annie Webb's case, it appears you're the only source on the entire Web!

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    1. Thanks :) - basically the whole point of this post was to get a couple of chapters of Heymer's online as he always seemed to be forgotten!

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  3. I agree with Paul's comments about Annie Webb and I believe something similar could have happened to Henry Thomas, he could have lit the fire and suffered a stroke that left him incapaciated and he collapsed onto the chair where he died of smoke imhalation before his body was consumed.

    It is a shame how there aren't any photos of Henry or Annie when they were alive. I have found a similar photo of an alleged spontaneous human combustion case online. The victim is said to be Michael Faherty, but this photo is old and was in a BBC documentary long before Michael's death in 2010. The scene of this unknown victim's death looks so similar to Henry Thomas's living room and the photo also looks like it is from the 70s or early 80s.
    https://alchetron.com/Death-of-Michael-Faherty

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