This Day In ... 1860
SPONTANEOUS HUMAN COMBUSTION MYSTERY IN ST MARTIN'S
The plot really did thicken when two of our Victorian Waterfurlong gardening families were involved in one of the most gruesome cases ever recorded in Stamford - a case that at first sight potentially involved the rare and controversial phenomenon of spontaneous human combustion.
In March 1860 concerned neighbours in High Street, St Martin's alerted the police after elderly Miss Elizabeth Pulley had not been seen for several days. Waterfurlong gardener Sergeant John Harrison gave testimony in court:
"On Monday the 19th of March, I was directed to enter the premises of Miss Elizabeth Pulley, who lived in High-street, St Martin's. I went in company with Mr George and constable Dalrymple, borrowed a ladder, and scaled the south wall adjoining Mrs Wallis's premises. I got over into the garden, and then opened the garden door, and let in Mr George and the Rev Joseph Place. Dalrymple, Mr George, and myself then went down to the house, and found the passage door wide open, then looked into a room on the left hand side, of the back entrance, and saw nothing there. We then looked into the opposite room, the door of which room was partly open, and there I saw the body lie. The body was Miss Pulley's. The body lay from three to four inches from the grate front; the grate is on the east side of the room; there was a hearth-stone. Deceased lay with her head partly on the hearth-stone, and her body lay in a slanting direction in front of the grate, and from the shoulders downwards was on the floor. The floor was an oaken one. The head was turned over left towards the fire-grate.
The body lay upon its back with the legs crossed; the body was partly dressed, and a bonnet was on the head; the bonnet was partly burned. The remains of the clothing showed that deceased had been full dressed. A candlestick (I now produce) was lying between the left arm and the body; the nozzle of the candlestick lay pointed towards the body and fire-place; I did not notice spots of grease; the clothing of deceased was burnt from both arms and partly off the body at the top part; the lower limbs were not burnt at all; the face appeared as though the ashes of some covering like a veil, lying over the lower part of the face, had been placed over it; the eyebrows were partly singed; I did not touch the body; the upper portion only of the face could be distinctly seen. A bonnet which deceased had on was partly burnt away. The right arm was partly elevated, and part the fingers, at the first joint, were burnt off; the rest of the hand as though baked; the left hand and arm was not so much burned; there were some ashes from the clothing between the left arm and the body; the body did not appear to be elevated from the floor in the least."
An inquest was held that same evening, followed a few days later by a post-mortem. It was concluded that Miss Pulley had either suffered a seizure whilst lighting her fire or been the unfortunate victim of spontaneous human combustion.
However, a few days after Miss Pulley's burial a chance discovery led to new enquiries. The Lincolnshire Chronicle picked up the story: 'Two young men, named March and Munton, in the employ of Henry Corby, carpenter, living in St Martin's, observed in his workshop a brass-bound box secreted on a ledge. Curiosity prompted them to examine its contents, and among several coins and rings which it contained was a mourning ring inscribed "Thomas and Elizabeth Pulley." Munton mentioned the discovery to his mother, who spoke of the circumstance in other quarters, and the rumour that the box had been examined reached the ears of Corby. He endeavoured to persuade Mrs Munton that there was some mistake in the report, and asserted he had no such box. The police, however, learnt what had transpired, and Superintendent Ward having consulted the Mayor, apprehended Corby, and instituted a close search of his house and workshops. The box had been removed and destroyed, and though some portions of the brass binding were discovered in a fire-grate on Corby's premises (indicating that the box had been consumed) none of its contents, nor any other of Miss Pulley's property, could then be found.'
There is no mention of Miss Pulley's body being exhumed, but the police and the coroner reconsidered the case and arrived at the fresh conclusion that Elizabeth Pulley had been strangled and her clothes set on fire by the murderer. Unsurprisingly, Corby was the main suspect.
Thomas Barnett, the father of another Waterfurlong gardener, Austin Barnett, was drawn into the proceedings when St Martin's resident John Hibbins gave evidence "I saw Henry Corby and Thomas Barnett (the wheelwright) going in the direction of the Red Cow. Corby, when opposite the premises of Miss Pulley, halted, faced the garden wall, and bowed several times. Barnett walked on. Corby was up and down the back-lane many times a day during the week. This, together with what I had seen, led me to believe Barnett had a hand in it." However, a search of Thomas Barnett's home revealed nothing and the police dropped the line of enquiry.
Having appeared in court three times Henry Corby hanged himself in his cell in Stamford gaol the morning he was due to undergo his fourth and final appearance.
Miss Pulley's murder might have faded from the town's memory but to this day is cited in jurisprudence training as a reminder that spontaneous human combustion should never be assumed and only considered as a cause of death after all other possible explanations have been eliminated.
Copyright © Karen Meadows 2019
All Newspaper quotes courtesy of The British Newspaper Archive © THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD. All Rights Reserved.