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Spontaneous human combustion: A fire in the belly

Colin Dickey

In 1725, a tavern owner in Rheims, France named Jean Millet was accused of the murder of his wife. Millet’s wife was overweight, past her prime, and Millet, an otherwise upstanding member of the community, was reputed to be interested in a young servant girl from Lorraine. When Mme Millet’s remains were found smoldering in the kitchen one night—with only her legs, part of her head, a few large bones and some vertebrae identifiable—suspicion quickly fell to her husband, who was quickly tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Luckily for the tavern owner, he was saved at the last minute by one of his lodgers, a young and promising surgeon named Nicholas Le Cat, who argued that because Mme Millet was a known alcoholic, the likely cause of her death was not murder, but spontaneous human combustion. Millet was ultimately acquitted, though the ordeal left him destroyed, and he lived out the remainder of his life in a mental institution—haunted, perhaps, either by the fact that he had gotten away with murder, or that his wife really had, suddenly and without warning, burst into flames from too much drinking.

The evils of alcohol abuse have long been known and preached against by the more sober-minded, but for a period of about two hundred years imbibers had a particularly dire consequence to fear: that too much drinking would cause them to catch fire and be reduced to a small pile of greasy ash. A few decades after the Millet trial, on the evening of June 20, 1745, Countess Cornelia Zangari de Bandi of Cesena, of Verona, also burned to death. She was sixty-two years old; she went to bed at a normal hour, but when the maid came in the following morning, she found the Countess’s “corpse on the floor in the most dreadful condition. At the distance of four feet from the bed there was a heap of ashes. Her legs with the stockings on remained untouched and the head half-burned lay between them. Nearly all the rest of the body was reduced to ashes.” The scene was noteworthy in that it many details defied conventional understandings of pyrotechnics: “A small oil lamp on the floor was covered with ashes, but had no oil in it, and, in two candlesticks which stood upright upon a table, the cotton wick of both the candles was left, and the tallow of both had disappeared.” The bed was disturbed as if she had just risen from bed, but neither it, nor any other item in the room, showed any trace of fire. As with Millet’s wife, the Countess was a known drinker.

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