There’s something uniquely terrifying about spontaneous human combustion. From our earliest childhoods we’re taught to be respectful of the dangers of fire; the medieval church (and now ISIS) knew the horror of execution by burning. The idea that we could suddenly be consumed by flames is enough to wake you in a cold sweat.
But is it a real phenomenon? There is no scientific explanation as yet for spontaneous human combustion, but as late as 2010 an Irish coroner recorded it as the cause of death of a pensioner in Galway.
It’s difficult to put a fix on the first recorded instance of spontaneous human combustion. There are plenty of examples in the Bible of “God’s Holy wrath” being delivered in the form of flames. In Numbers 16:35 God burns 250 men for using incense.
The story of a high-living Italian knight called Polonus Vorstius who reportedly burned to death in Milan in the 15th century after drinking strong wine is often reported as the first example. This is down to an unfortunate mistranslation. Polonus means Poland in Latin, and the account (originally by 17th-century Danish doctor Thomas Bartholin) is really of the death of an unnamed Polish knight who apparently burned to death after drinking brandy. The date isn’t too far out though, Bartholin reported that the incident occurred in the reign of Polish Queen Bona Sforza, who reigned from 1468-1503. Subsequent reports often date the incident to Bartholin’s lifetime, usually to 1641.
Bartholin reported other instances too, and French author, Jonas Dupont, put together a whole book of them, De Incendiis Corporis Humani Spontaneis, in 1763. Dupont’s spark of inspiration was the death of Nicole Millet in 1725. Nicole burned to death in a fire that left the chair she sat in unmarred (a commonly reported feature of spontaneous human combustion cases). The evidence of surgeon, Nicholas le Cat, managed to get her husband off the charge of her murder after he convinced a court that she had simply gone up in flames.