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The Curious Combustion of Mary Clues: Coventry 1774
The Mark of Lucifer?
In the Warwickshire town of Coventry in the Spring of 1774, wild rumours began to circulate, following the gruesome discovery of a woman’s body that had been almost entirely incinerated by fire inside a locked room which was left virtually untouched by the mysterious inferno. In a society which was still strongly influenced by superstition, the townsfolk came to the supernatural conclusion that Lucifer had struck a match in the middle of the night and consumed the body of Mary Clues, a well-known local figure.
The circumstances of her death were indeed strange. Strange enough to warrant a full investigation by the town's leading physician and eminent surgeon Mr. Bradford Wilmer. His findings were so extraordinary that they prompted intense discussion not only across the county but within the highest scientific circles in the land.
The tragic victim was Mary Clues aged 52, a widow who lived in a house on Gosford Street which was the historical main coaching route out of Coventry towards Leicester and London. She was well known as a jolly and even tempered old soul who liked a drink or two. She was particularly fond of a tot of rum or aniseed water which today we would recognise as pastis or Pernod.
In September 1772, her beloved husband died unexpectedly and in her grief, Mary Clues sought solace in the demon drink. Over the subsequent 18 months her drinking increased to such an extent that her neighbours began to worry that she would soon follow her husband to the grave. In a bizarre twist of fate, they were to be proved right. Mary regularly drank between a half pint and two pints of undiluted spirits every day and this soon began to take its toll of her health. From a corpulent and healthy woman she began to lose weight drastically and her skin became aged and dry. By February 1774, she became jaundiced as liver disease started to drain the vitality from her and she became bed-ridden and unable to function except at the most basic level . Although she lived alone in her house in Gosford Street, her neighbours continued to rally round to support her but could not dissuade her from drinking and smoking. She was particularly fond of smoking a pipe-full of tobacco in bed every night.
On most nights a neighbour would stay with here in her bedroom throughout the night to help her with her nocturnal needs. On several occasions Mary Clues woke up suddenly in the middle of the night screaming at the top of her voice that she could see a Devil lurking in the shadows who had come to drag her to Hell. This struck terror into the hearts of the attending neighbours who witnessed this disturbing behaviour, although they themselves could see nothing.
Mary Clues’ bedroom was on the ground floor next to the street. The walls were roughly plastered and the floor was made of bricks. There was a small fireplace which could only accommodate a very small fire but was sufficient to take the chill off the room. The bedstead stood parallel to and three feet from the chimney. Behind the bed opposite the fireplace was a window which opened onto the street, from which hung a curtain which she used to block out the light. She was known to lie on the edge of the bed with her back to the fire.
A Horrible Discovery
On Sunday morning 1st March 1774, Mary Hollyer a neighbour called in to see her and found that she had fallen out of the bed during the night and had lain on the stone floor for several hours. With difficulty she struggled to get her back into bed. That evening Mary Hollyer again called in to see her friend and offered to stay the night in case she again fell out of bed. Mary Clues however declined the offer and at 11.30pm she bade farewell to another neighbour William Brooks who had sat with her for several hours, saying she would like to be alone. Before he left William Brooks placed two lumps of coal on the back of the fire and put a small rush light in a candlestick which he was careful to position on a chair at the head of the bed far away from the curtain. Little did he realise at the time that his friend would never be seen alive again.
Six hours later at 5.30 am there was an almighty hue and cry, smoke was seen billowing out of Mary Clues’ bedroom window. Neighbours ran to the house and broke in through the front door armed with buckets of water. The room was filled with foul smelling smoke and they could see nothing in the fetid inky blackness as they frantically called out Mary’s name. It took just five or six buckets to extinguish the flames but there was no sign of Mary Clues. Then as the smoke dissipated out through the door and window, the neighbours saw a shape lying on the floor between the bed and the fireplace. It was all that remained of their friend.
The neighbours were shocked to discover that the body of Mary Clues had been cremated but this was no ordinary house fire. As they looked around they realised that very little damage had been done to the rest of the room and yet Mary’s body had been virtually reduced to ashes. There was nothing burning in the fire grate and no evidence of fire damage anywhere else in the room. All that had been burnt was Mary’s fragile frame.
The scene soon became a magnet for the curious, anxious to view the ghoulish remains. Given the unusual circumstances of death, a doctor was summoned and it was fortunate that the attending physician was Dr. Bradford Wilmer (1737-1813) an eminent Coventry surgeon and a doctor very much ahead of his time in terms of his forensic approach to post-mortem examination. He was a well-respected surgeon in the town for over 40 years and often provided his services free of charge for the local poor. His pioneering approach helped to lay down the foundations for what was to become forensic pathology.
Dr. Wilmer soon realised that this was no run of the mill fatality and in an age when it was not unusual for a death certificate to be issued without the body being even seen by a doctor, let alone examined, he spent two hours painstakingly examining the scene of dreadful carnage
Dr. Wilmer's Findings
Dr. Wilmer made meticulous notes of the state of the body. He observed that: “Both lower legs and one thigh were untouched but the remainder of her body had been reduced to ash. What remained was entirely skeletal. The skull, thorax, spine and upper limbs were totally devoid of flesh and calcined with a whitish efflorescence. The skull lay near the head of the bed and the legs towards the bottom. The curve of her spine suggested she had been lying in her customary position with her back to the grate and appeared to have been burnt from her right side.”
He continued; “The right femur was separated from the acetabulum [or ball socket] and separated from the rest of the body and the left was also broken off about three inches below the great trochanter. The connection of the sacrum with the offa innominata and the anterior vertebrae of the loins was destroyed. The intervening ligaments kept the vertebrae of the loins, back and skull together and the skull was still resting on the atlas.
He observed that the side of the bed nearest the fire had sustained some damage but much less that would have been expected. The outer bed cover was superficially singed but the feather bed, sheets and blankets were entirely undamaged. The curtain on the far side of the bed was untouched and a wooden door made of cheap deal was not even scorched.
The walls however were entirely blackened as was everything in the room and there was the residue of ‘a very disagreeable vapour’.
Dr Wilmer could not explain how the body of Mary Clue had been destroyed with such little fire damage elsewhere in the bedroom. In the absence of any other explanation, he was forced to conclude that she must have fallen out of bed and that her cotton nightdress must have caught light, either from the candle or by way of a piece of lighted coal tumbling from the fire. He surmised that the poor woman was rendered particularly flammable by the vast quantity of liquor that she had drunk which reduced her body to ashes.
Nevertheless Dr. Wilmer was intrigued by this remarkable phenomenon for the rest of his career and wrote up the remarkable case study for the prestigious journal of the Royal Society, 'Philosophical Transactions’ sending a detailed letter accompanied by a piece of portion of Mary Clues’ sacrum as evidence.
In the centuries which followed many other similar cases were recorded which became known as Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC). Almost 250 years later scientist are still divided on the exact cause of this phenomenon, with many arguing that it does not exist at all.
What would Mary Hollyer have seen that night, had she spent the night with her friend? A visit from Beelzebub or a rare and extreme chemical and physical reaction which even today remains a mystery to modern science?....and would she have lived to tell the tale?