Late one night in February 1725, innkeeper Jean Millet of Rheims, France, woke to the smell of fire. He rushed through the hallways to warn his guests, who followed him downstairs and came upon a horrifying sight – parts of the head, backbone and legs of the innkeeper’s wife lay smoldering on the kitchen floor. The rest of her was reduced to ash. Her chair by the fireplace was only slightly scorched, and there were burn marks under her remains.
Madame Miller’s death is a classic case of spontaneous human combustion (SHC), in which a fire, seemingly generated within the body, burns flesh and bone but leaves surrounding materials almost intact. Many cases have been reported. Most modern scientists insist they must have natural causes – perhaps lightning or static electricity – but nothing known can fully account for the phenomenon.
Early investigators of the SHC reported that the victims were generally elderly, overweight, slovenly women – often living alone. A popular theory was that drunkards were especially susceptible, because alcohol made their bodies combustible. Madame Millet was certainly known to drink heavily. Skeptics today believe that intoxication makes people careless in the presence of fire and more likely to have an accident. Spontaneous combustion proponents contend that ordinary fires cannot produce such fierce, localized burning, and point to instances of combustion where neither alcohol nor external fire was present. In 1776 Don Gio Maria Bertholi, a priest in Florence, Italy, spontaneously ignited while in prayer. In 1835 in Tennessee, USA, university professor James Hamilton’s thigh burst into flame outdoors in freezing conditions, and in 1939, 11-month-old Peter Seaton of London was incinerated in his cot, with no signs of fire nearby.
There have been witnesses to apparent spontaneous combustion in action. In 1967 a London fire brigade responding to a house fire saw a light flickering in an upstairs window. On the stairs lay the body of a tramp. According to firefighter Jack Stacey, “There was a 10-centimeter slit in his abdomen from which was issuing, at force, a blue flame which was beginning to burn the wooden stairs. We extinguished the flames by playing a hose into the abdominal cavity.” Like Madame Millet, the man had suffered the most inexplicable of deaths.