Weird Norfolk: Spontaneous Human Combustion in Breckland
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Peering into the smoke-filled room, the policeman saw what looked like a heap of burnt clothes on the floor…and then he noticed it was topped with a skull.
The curious case of Sarah Morley is one that has fascinated medics for years and which led a Norfolk jury to suggest that she had fallen victim to Spontaneous Human Combustion.
Sarah’s remains were found in her bedroom in May 1902: she had been burnt to ashes, but the furniture around her in her Hockwold cum Wilton cottage was untouched by flame.
A passing policeman had noticed the blackened windows and curtains as he passed by the house and then noticed a front room full of smoke – he entered the house and at first thought the room was empty before finding human remains in front of a chair.
On further investigation, PC Albert Barrett – who found the strange scene at 7.15am – discovered that passing workmen had “smelled a strange smell” as they passed the house earlier that morning and that Sarah had last been seen alive late the night before.
A neighbour had noted that Sarah, as usual, was reading late at night by the light of a candle.
In the Norwich Mercury of May 31 1902, there was an article entitled: Woman Burnt to Death at Wilton.
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“A painful sensation was caused in Wilton on Saturday morning when it was discovered that a woman had been burned to death in her house,” it read.
“Mrs. Sarah Morley was the widow of the late Mr. William Morley, and seems to have lived a most unhappy life. She was strongly addicted to drink.”
Having broken a window in order to enter the house, PC Barrett was accompanied by neighbours on a tour of the house which led upstairs to the discovery of the grisly scene.
A witness, Mrs Fred Brown, said that she had visited Sarah the night before and that the old lady had told her she had “pains in her body” and had asked for gin.
She had returned just before 10pm to find Sarah reading a book.
“The foreman of the jury, Mr Henry Bell, remarked that it was a distressing case and there was a certain amount of mystery about it, for no one knew how the body was burned,” the Mercury article continued.
In The British Medical Journal of August 1905, an article appeared by Ernest George Archer, a Feltwell doctor who had been practising at the time of Sarah’s death. It referred to a previous piece published earlier in the month.
“SIR, – The article in the BRITISH MEDICAL JOURNAL of August 12th on spontaneous combustion recalls to my mind a case which occurred in my practice a year or two ago, which in the olden time would certainly have been classed as one of these cases, and which certainly presented many features difficult of explanation,” he wrote.
“The facts were these: an elderly woman, living in a small house by herself, very intemperate, and a large consumer of spirits of all kinds, was last seen alive in the evening, as was often her habit, reading a magazine by candle light.
“The following morning early a policeman passing noticed smoke issuing from the closed shutters of the sitting-room window, and the house was broken into.
“The upper part of the walls and the ceiling of the room were much scorched, but the furniture in the room was intact.
“No trace of the occupant was found at first, but a small heap of black débris was noticed on the floor in front of a chair, which was an iron one, and the chintz cover of which was destroyed.
“I was sent for, and found this small heap to consist of the broken calcined bones of a human body. They were lying in a small pyramid, on top of which lay the skull. All the bones were completely bleached and brittle, every particle of soft tissue had been consumed.
“A table covered with a baize cloth within three feet of the remains was not even scorched.”
Dr Archer added that he had not been called to give evidence at the inquest, but that the jury had been very concerned by the case and there had been “…a decided opinion that this was a case of ‘spontaneous combustion’”.
While he put forward the opinion that Sarah’s clothes had caught fire and caused her death, he remained open-minded about the possibility of spontaneous human combustion.
“It seems probable that the woman’s clothes caught fire,” he wrote, “but how is one to account for the absolute cremation of a body in the midst of a sitting room filled with furniture?
“I may say the remains were seen with me by a brother practitioner, and we were both agreed that several features of the case were beyond comprehension…”
The first known accounts of spontaneous human combustion date back to 1641 and in the 19th century, Charles Dickens used it as a method of killing off a character in his novel Bleak House, pointing critics to research showing 30 historical cases.
In 2010, an Irish coroner ruled that spontaneous combustion caused the 2010 death of 75-year-old Michael Faherty, whose badly burned body was discovered in a room with virtually no fire damage.
Those that believe in spontaneous human combustion point to the fact that the human body has to reach a temperature of roughly 3,000 degrees in order to be reduced to ashes and unless SHC was a factor, it seems impossible that furniture would remain untouched.
In 2012, British biologist Brian J Ford shared his theory that a build-up of acetone in the body which can result from alcoholism, diabetes or specific kinds of diet can lead to spontaneous combustion. You have been warned.