On Whit Monday 1725, in Rheims, Nicole Millet was found burnt to death in an unburnt chair. Nicole was the wife of the landlord of the Lion d’Or, and her husband, quite naturally, was accused of murdering her and arrested. He was acquitted at his trial when a young surgeon named Nicholas Le Cat convinced the court that not only did Spontaneous Human Combustion occur, but that the Nicole Millet case was a fine example. The final verdict in the case was that Nicole Millet had died ‘by a visitation of God.’
It is said that this case inspired Frenchman Jonas Dupont to publish his groundbreaking collection on SHC in 1763, De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis.
‘Whit Monday’ is a legal holiday in England, Wales, and Ireland. It’s the Monday after ‘Whit Sunday,’ which is another name for Pentecost, a Christian church festival held on the 7th Sunday after Easter. As to what date this is in 1725, I presently have no idea… but I will find out.
Variations & Theories
The earliest mention of this occurrence I have found so far is in an 1853 printing of Charles Dickens’s novel, Bleak House. In the preface to this book, Dickens defends his belief in Spontaneous Human Combustion by citing details from three different cases, the Nicole Millet case being one of them. Here’s his account of the event:
“The next most famous instance happened at Rheims, six years earlier [than the case of Countess Cornelia de Bandi’s Fiery Death]; and the historian, in that case, is LE CAT, one of the most renowned surgeons produced by France. The subject was a woman, whose husband was ignorantly convicted of having murdered her; but, on solemn appeal to a higher court, he was acquitted, because it was shown upon the evidence that she had died the death to which this name of Spontaneous Combustion is given.”
As you can see, Dickens does not give the victim’s name, and only mentions the surgeon Le Cat as being the recorder of the case rather than as a key character in the defense.
In Secrets of the Supernatural, Joe Nickell states that the event happened in February of 1725, and doesn’t give Mrs. Millet’s first name, instead referring to her instead as ‘Madame Millet.’ According to Nickell, the remains were not found in an unburnt chair; rather, a portion of her head, a few of her vertebrae, and her lower extremities (I’m not sure how much of her lower body this means) were found on a portion of floor in the kitchen which had also been burned.
Also, he says that the arrest of her husband was with the alleged motive of “an intrigue with a female servant,” and that the husband was convicted of his wife’s murder, but the decision was later reversed by a higher court which attributed her death to SHC. Also, he makes no mention of Le Cat.
Nickell sites three sources for his account of the event: Theodric and John Becks’ Elements of Medical Jurisprudence (1835), George Henry Lewes’ “Spontaneous Combustion” from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine #89 (April, 1861)
[I don’t know if this is the same George Henry Lewes that derided Charles Dickens’ use of SHC in Bleak House, but I will find out], and Thomas Stevenson’s Principals and Practice of Medical Jurisprudence (1883)… and, of course, I will try to locate copies of these sources.
Nickell presents several intriguing bits of information from these documents: that Mrs. Millet “got intoxicated every day,” was last seen when, unable to sleep, she went to the kitchen “to warm herself,” and that her remains were found only “a foot and a half’s distance” from the fire on the kitchen hearth… all of which leads Nickell to the conclusion that Mrs. Millet got drunk, passed out on or near the hearth, and died because her clothes caught fire while she was unconscious. Even one of his sources (Stevenson, 1883) came to the conclusion that her clothing had been “accidentally ignited.”
- Bleak House, Charles Dickens, 1853 Bradbury & Evans [London], 1972 Everyman’s Library, pg. xvi.
- The Encyclopedia of Unsolved Mysteries, Colin and Damon Wilson, 1988 Contemporary Books, Inc., pg. 250.
- Secrets of the Supernatural, Joe Nickell (with John F. Fischer), 1988 Prometheus Books, pg. 151,161.