"...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, September 24, 2014

Newspaper Clipping of the Day

This "extraordinary case" was reported in the "Royal Cornwall Gazette," January 22, 1820. It difficult to know for sure if the authorities were dealing with something from the Mystery Fires file, a classic "poltergeist centers destructive activity around young girl" episode, or simply a junior psychopath.

On Saturday last an investigation, which excited the greatest interest, and lasted till a very late hour, came on at this office before J. E. Conant Esq., the Sitting Magistrate.

Elizabeth Barnes, a girl 16 years of age, was brought up in the custody of Plank, the officer, charged by Mr. John Wright, linen draper, of Foley place, Mary-le-bone, on suspicion of having at several times set fire to his house and furniture. She was also charged with having, by some extraordinary means, set fire to the wearing apparel of Mrs. Wright his mother, at various times, by which her clothes were burned off her back, and injured her so dreadfully that her life is despaired of. The office was crowded to excess.

Mr. Wright stated, that the prisoner had been servant in the house for some time past but they never suspected her of any thing wrong until they were induced, from the following most extraordinary circumstances, to entertain an idea that she had intentions of destroying the house and family by fire. Wednesday morning, Jan. 5, about half past 8 o'clock, his mother was sitting in the parlour by herself, and the prisoner was in the shop alone; his mother was seriously alarmed by a fire which broke out in the shop, which did considerable injury, and it commenced by some means in one of the drawers in the counter. Friday, Jan. 7. about eleven o'clock in the morning, his mother was sitting by the fire in the kitchen, the prisoner being the only person with her, and on rising she had not gone as far as the door before all her clothes were on fire, and had it not been for speedy assistance in putting out the flames, she would have been burned to death; she was burned dreadfully. The next day (Saturday) about 12 o'clock in the morning, on witness's return home, he had not been long in the place before he was alarmed by the dreadful screams of his mother, who was in the kitchen; he proceeded there, and again found her enveloped in flames; he succeeded in putting them out: there was scarcely any fire in the grate at the time. The prisoner was the only person with her, and when her clothes caught fire his mother was more than eight feet from the grate. No suspicion was at this time formed on the prisoner, and she was ordered to protect his mother; on the Sunday he was in the parlour, and his mother and the prisoner were in the kitchen together, but being alarmed by her screams, he ran down stairs, and found her again covered with flames; he put a rug over her. and put the fire out, by which he saved her life. Part of her clothes were burned to a cinder, and, her flesh was materially injured; the prisoner had just left the kitchen at the time this happened and when his mother was crossing the kitchen she found herself again in flames; her clothes were burned off her back; she did not know by what means she caught fire, but was fully confident that no spark flew on her; she thought something supernatural attended her. She described when the flames touched her skin, that she felt it like knives crossing her. The prisoner when this happened burst out laughing, although Mrs. W.'s life was in peril; the presumption on his mind was, that the prisoner had thrown something on her to cause the burning.

On the Sunday his mother was placed under the protection of his sister, but happening to go into the kitchen, where the prisoner was, her clothes, by some unknown means, again caught fire; her violent screams alarmed Miss Wright, who went down stairs and found her mother all in flames, she tore off her clothes as well as she could, but she was injured so dreadfully by the fire, that she was put to bed; they left her apparently asleep, but in a short time after they were again alarmed by her screams, and on going up stairs they found her in bed surrounded by fire, the bed and the curtains being all in a blaze, and she attempting to extinguish them; the house and property were much injured. The prisoner was afterwards sent up stairs, and she came down again saying the room was all on fire. They went upstairs and found one of the rooms all in flames; they were with much difficulty put out; the next alarm was on Tuesday evening, at half past eight o'clock, when he returned home his sister met him and said the place had been in the utmost confusion, and again on fire; the counter (a fixture) was literally destroyed, and the place was filled with smoke and fire: there are two drawers belonging in the counter, the one marked A. and the other B.; the fire commenced in the the drawer A., which was injured, and that marked B., without the least symptoms of fire in it, was given to the prisoner to take into the coal vault; she took it down, but shortly returned, saying the vault was all on fire; on proceeding thither he found the coals all on fire; engines arrived and it was put out; the drawer was lying there; the family were now in a serious state of alarm, and Mr. Edon, a neighbour, proposed sitting up all night with Miss Wright to watch the house. The prisoner was ordered to go to bed at eleven o'clock, at which time she went, but she shortly returned, begging them to go up stairs, that Mr. Bannister's room (one of the lodgers) was on fire; they went up stairs to Mr. Bannister's room and found him going to bed, and calling out fire; they were not satisfied, as they smelt fire, and witness opened his sister's bed room door, when he was nearly knocked down by the flames and smoke rushing upon him; the room was filled with smoke, thick and dense, and the room all in a blaze. He went to a mahogany chest of drawers the day after, all of which were locked except one, on opening which the flames rushed out on him, and the drawers partly were burnt to a cinder.

At four o'clock in the afternoon of the same day, another fire broke out in the same room, although firemen were employed to stay in the house, and had stopped up the preceding night.

The following morning, about eleven o'clock, another fire broke out in an apartment up stairs, and did considerable injury. The prisoner, on the discovery of the fire, was seen close by the door, under very suspicious circumstances, and he ordered her instantly to quit the house. He spoke to Mr. Lockin of the Fire Office. The officers of this establishment were employed to make every inquiry, and since the prisoner had quitted the house they had not undergone the least alarm. His mother was confined to her bed, and was under the care of a surgeon, without the least hopes of recovery.

Miss Wright attended in a very weak condition, and corroborated every thing her brother had stated.

Plank, the officer, here stated that he had made every inquiry into the characters of the lodgers, which were very good.

Mr. Bannister, one of the lodgers, said he was porter in the employ of Mr. Irwin, hatter, of Oxford street. On the night of the fire be heard some person walking in the apartment over him, and afterwards heard them come down and heard them enter Miss Wright's chamber. He thought it was the prisoner. Shortly after he was alarmed by hearing the chamber was on fire, it was adjoining his apartment.

Mrs. Bannister corroborated the above.

The prisoner, in her defence, denied the charge, and said her mistress's clothes caught fire accidentally. She knew nothing of the other accidents.

Mr. Conant said, of all the cases he had ever heard of, he never knew of one to equal the above in atrocity, and he had no doubt but the prisoner was guilty of something which he was afraid could not he brought home against her, without the attendance of Mrs. Wright; the evidence was defective, unless it came from her own mouth. She being unable to attend, and taking the prisoner's youth into consideration, he would order her to find bail to keep the peace towards her until Mrs. Wright was able to attend herself. Mr. W. assured the Magistrate that he would use every entreaty to make her come forward, but her situation at present was most dangerous.

I have been unable to find anything further about this case. I assume poor Mrs. Wright died before she was able to give her testimony, which might--or might not--have helped cleared the matter up. If this was the case, presumably Elizabeth Barnes was released for lack of evidence, leaving the mystery of what happened in the Wright home forever unsolved.


  1. It sounds more like a human pyromaniac was at work than a supernatural one. Frightening for the family, even so. The mother, Mrs Wright, though she did likely die of her injuries, was a tough old bird. After being "burned dreadfully", she was up and about again. That couldn't last through sustained attacks, though.

  2. This is a wacky one. After the first couple of times I really would've left the house and everyone in it for a while! Definitely one of those tantalising cases you wish there was more about though.

  3. I wonder if this wasn't just a lack of understanding of chemistry? A popular dye of the 18th-19th C. was picric acid. It gave a lovely yellow-green color. A draper might very well have used picric acid or had materials dyed with it in stock. His mother could well have had clothing so dyed, too.

    The problem is that when picric acid-dyed cloth dries, it becomes extremely flammable, at times capable of spontaneous combustion. Salts of picric acid were among the main explosives used in WWI.


  4. I never knew that about picric acid being used in old dyes. The things one learns...


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