The mystery of spontaneous human combustion

Getting away with murder

Spontaneous human combustion may not be real, but it does have real-life consequences — including, in at least one case, keeping a suspected murderer out of jail.

According to a Doctor’s Review article, The Nicole Millet case first appeared in French author Jonas Dupont’s tome De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis, one of the first pieces of known literature about spontaneous human combustion. As the story goes, an innkeeper named Jean Millet went to bed one evening in 1725, while his wife — a notorious drunk — stayed in the kitchen, claiming she couldn’t sleep. At around two in the morning, a strange smell woke Millet up. He rushed downstairs and discovered his wife’s charred remains scattered across the kitchen. Allegedly, only her skull and and a few other bones remained. The floor underneath the woman burned away, but nearby objects, including a straw bed and a wooden tub, were fine.

Millet was tried and convicted of murder and given a death sentence, but a physician named Claude-Nicolas Le Cat intervened. Le Cat, who had been staying at Millet’s inn when Nicole met her fiery fate, convinced the court that Nicole spontaneously combusted. The court changed Nicole’s cause of death to “Act of God” and let MIllet go — not that it did him much good. As forensic medicine expert Theodric Romeyn Beck noted, the murder conviction ruined Millet’s reputation and his health, and he died shortly thereafter.