Monday, November 28, 2011
This letter appears in an English journal in 1800 relating to events on 10 April 1744. It is an interesting document because it combines two paranormal facts typically kept apart: witchcraft and spontaneous human combustion.
The following narrative will probably amuse some of your readers: though many may think it is a falsehood, it is an absolute fact and there are still living, in this town [Ipswich, Suffolk], witnesses to the truth of it… Grace Pett, about 60 years of age, the wife of a fisherman, at Ipswich was burnt, in a supernatural or miraculous manner, to ashes. When her husband was at sea, one of her daughters used to sleep with her: the mother had a custom for several years of going down stairs every night when she was half undrest, on some private occasion; and on the night preceding the above day she went down as usual, and her daughters fell asleep. When she awoke it [sic] the morning, finding her mother was not come down to bed, she ran down in a fright, and found her, about half on the hearth, and half on the deal floor: the floor was not hurt by the fire, nor were her feet and ankles burnt; neither did they appear to be hurt by the fire. Her daughter said she had no other apparel on her beside her cap, shift, a cotton gown, an upper petticoat, stockings and shoes which certainly could not be thought sufficient fuel to reduce a human body to ashes in a natural way. Mrs Pett had a daughter who came home from Gibraltar on the preceding day. They had been making merry on the occasion, drank plentifully of gin, and sat up late; which accounts for her daughter’s sleepiness.
The gin might account for more than her daughter’s failure to wake up! However, what is really extraordinary here is the way that witchcraft now threads into this already curious tale.
The poor old woman had the reputation of being a witch among some of her ignorant neighbours; and at that time a neighbouring farmer, one Garnnham, had some of his sheep taken in an odd way: they were supposed to be betwitched, and he was advised to burn one of them. The farmer was too wise to entertain such an idea; but his wife, more credulous in such matters, resolved to try the experiment. Accordingly in the very night that this woman was burnt, Mrs Garnham, afer her husband was gone to bed, made their head man bring in a diseased sheep, and make a great fire, and burn it to death.
Pretty remarkable stuff for Suffolk in the mid eighteenth-century, though in the west of Britain reports of such things carry on into the mid nineteenth century.
This circumstance gave encouragement to the report of the poor old woman’s being a witch; and they thought sufficient reason was found why her feet and ankles were not burnt, as it was reported, that the feet of the sheep were not, and that they were fixed in the ground when the animal was burnt. This was not true; for the poor creature was burned in the backhouse. Its four legs being tied together, it was laid on the hearth, and a miserable death it had; for soon after the fire began to burn fiercely about it, the bandage on its legs was burnt off, and the distressed sheep jumped up, and ran from the fire: the man than ran a pitch-fork into its body, forced it into the fire again, and held it there till it was destroyed.
Charming! A kind of sympathetic magic then between the sheep and witch burning.