"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

via British Newspaper Archive


Here's one from our Mystery Fires file. This account of strange--and very unnerving--"spontaneous combustions" appeared in the "Cambridge Independent Press" for August 23, 1856:

Mr. Blower and Dr. Barker applied the Bench for their sanction to an inquest being held on a fire, articles having been several times on fire in an extraordinary manner in the house of Mr. Moreton, in the employ of the Messrs. Howard. The gentlemen were informed that the Coroner had of himself full powers to hold an inquest, and such course met the approval of the Bench. The following appeared on this subject in the "Times"of Thursday:—

During the last few days public curiosity has been excited to a very unusual pitch by a series of occurrences that would be by no means out of place in one of Mrs. Radcliffe's romances, but which will read strangely in the matter-of-fact columns of a newspaper. The several theories of spontaneous combustion have often been revived, and, in the opinion of most wise men, have been successively and repeatedly exploded. But just as late years have witnessed a revival of ghost stories, spirit communications, and direct demoniacal agency, it seems not a little likely that the old theories of spontaneous combustion are coming in for another day in their turn, if we are to judge from the extraordinary revelations which have been not only retailed in gossip, but most gravely and fully inquired into under the coroner's warrant, and before 13 men honest and true, and, we may add, picked men, of this highly educated borough. A sketch of the principal facts will probably answer the same end as report of the depositions taken before the coroner, for the result of this last course would probably be only the awakening of half-incredulous wonder and a wild curiosity. On Tuesday night, the 12th instant, an alarm of fire was raised, and, on proceeding to the scene of danger, a house abutting on the large storeyard belonging to Messrs. Howard, the celebrated implement makers, and tenanted by one of their servants, it appeared that the family had taken the opportunity of the master's absence from home to have a good cleaning down, with an especial view to the riddance of a certain pest better known to Londoners than the happy dwellers in the country. In furtherance of the latter part of this truly housewifery design recourse was had to fumigation. A vessel containing broken roll sulphur was placed in what was deemed a safe position— viz., in a bisinette, which was removed from its usual place and set the middle of the room. The sulphur was duly ignited, and the room of course vacated except the obnoxious vermin. In the space of two hours it was discovered that the sulphurous fluid had escaped the basinette, had burnt through the bottom, fired the floor, and eaten its way through the planks. Timely observation and alarm availed to arrest the progress of the fire. All was deemed safe. But on Saturday evening the head of the family returned, and on retiring to rest, and having innocently thrown his damp stockings on the carpet, what was his astonishment at seeing them ignited! Something like a panic seized the household, but at length their fears were pacified and they went to rest. On Sunday morning, while the master was attending Divine service at the Methodist Chapel, fire was again discovered in the house. Considerable consternation was occasioned to the assembly by the calling out of a fireman during service, and also the master's disappearance from the pew. These fires were suppressed: but in the course of the day no less than thirty fires broke out in different parts of the house—in the presence of visitors, most respectable and intelligent men.

Every part of the furniture in every room of the house appeared to be charged with some mysterious self-igniting gas. Smoke issued suddenly from cupboards, large and small, from almost every drawer, and even from boxes of linen and woollen materials which had not been opened for some length of time prior the Tuesday's fire. Some of the statements made before the coroner are so startling as to be nearly incredible. One gentleman laid his handkerchief down upon the sofa when it forthwith ignited. Another gentleman, while discussing the marvels of the day and washing his hands, discovered that the damp towels on the horse in the bedroom were on fire. A lady, anxious to prevent further mischief, had a short time previously examined a box containing articles appertaining to feminine apparel, and pronouncing it safe had shut it up, but going to remove it felt that it was hot, and on re-opening it discovered the contents in a blaze; but is impossible to enumerate all the strange fantasies played by this subtle and mysterious fire. Of course suspicion was soon awake, but the closest investigation afforded no ground on which to rest the surmise of foul play. On the Monday morning the phenomena, somewhat abated, reappeared, and it was found that the greater part of the property in the house was charred or burnt to tinder. Two medical gentlemen--Dr. Barker and Mr. Blower—visited the scene of the fiery mystery, and at noon made an application to the sitting magistrates (in the absence of the mayor), for sanction to their proposal submitting the matter to the coroner. The coroner lost no time summoning a jury, which consisted of the most respectable tradesmen of the town, and which proceeded to business at the George Inn. The inquest commenced at 3.30 p.m. Monday afternoon, and at 7 o'clock was adjourned to Tuesday morning at 10. On Tuesday it was resumed and concluded by 6 o'clock p.m.

In the course of this prolonged inquiry the whole of the incidents (some of which we have mentioned above by way of specimens), were deposed to, and every effort made to account for the singular occurrences. At one time there was some slight hope of establishing connexion between the fire Tuesday night and the numerous outbreaks of the following Sunday, but this idea was abandoned perforce—so far, least, as any ordinary connexion between the two sets of events was concerned. The medical testimony of the two gentlemen named above was by far the most important, inasmuch as it most distinctly abolished all preconceived explanations, and also because it indicated a most remarkable and important class of truths in practical chemistry. Without venturing to give a formal solution of the phenomena, these gentlemen were of opinion that the sulphurous fumes, in connexion with the gas of the charred wood, had charged the entire house with inflammable gas, which, in some cases by friction, in others electricity, had been from time to time ignited.

No suspicion of any person survived the first few hours the inquiry, although the jury felt that there was not ground for a distinct opinion of the matter. The depositions will doubtless be submitted to some eminent manipulators of chymical science, and it is to hoped that they will be able to give a more precise solution to the mystery which has filled many a wise head with misgivings as to the spiritual geography of the somewhat lonely house.

The verdict of the jury was as follows:—"The fire was accidentally caused by incautiously placing and setting fire to a quantity of brimstone in a pot, the same being placed a basinette, situate on the first floor of the said premises; but as the cause of the continuation of fires on the same premises, we have not sufficient evidence to shew."

This extraordinary occurrence will undergo a further scientific investigation.

As a footnote, I really miss the days when phrases like "misgivings as to the spiritual geography" would appear in your local newspaper.

This is the last known word on the matter. If these "eminent manipulators of chymical science" were able to devise a definitive solution to the mystery, I have found no record of it.

1 comment:

  1. This was a good read. I don't think ghosts were involved or anything supernatural, but it is an intriguing mystery just the same. The jury was intelligent and insightful, I think, and probably were right in that the episode had something to do with the sulphurous fumes. But certainly sulphur doesn't spread like this often. It must have been very worrying to the people of the house.

    I agree that journalists knew how to write in those days. Their style was a bit elaborate, but they sought to make the news informative and interesting, and tried to keep to the truth, too - a difference from today. I like the dig at the great Metropolis, too: a pest more common to London than the country...

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