Weird Suffolk: Was Grace Pett’s death an unfortunate accident or something altogether more sinister?
There could be few more potent anti-smoking warnings than that demonstrated by Grace Pett in April 1744.
Grace, who lived in Ipswich, had crept downstairs from the bed that she was sharing with her daughter, to enjoy a quiet moment by the fireside, her only company her trusty pipe. Tip-toeing downstairs, her path lit by a candle, she was ever-so slightly tipsy.
The welcome return of one of her daughters from far-flung Gibraltar had called for celebration, and Grace had partaken of somewhat more gin than she was used to – it had been a good night: ‘had’ being the operative word.
The next morning, Grace’s daughter came downstairs and came upon a most grievous sight: there was her mother, or rather what was left of her.
Grace’s body was on the floor, her head against the grate of the fireplace and her torso stretched across the hearth. Her legs were on the wooden floor and, to the petrified girl, her mother’s body looked “like a block of wood burning with a glowing fire without flame”.
Quickly pouring two bowls of water on the body to stop the smouldering, the young woman was subsumed in thick and noxious smoke.
Pett’s body was so burnt that it resembled a lump of charcoal covered in a fine white ash: her head, arms and legs were slightly fire-damaged, but did not compare to the devastation wreaked upon her torso.
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The grate had no fire in it, the candle had burnt out and items close to Grace were undamaged – when she was examined, experts said that the fire was so intense and so localised that they believed there must have been an internal cause. Had Grace Pett spontaneously combusted?
Grace’s death is one of the earliest published accounts of a strange fire death being attributed to spontaneous combustion – while many believed that the poor woman simply set herself on fire while inebriated and her body burned like a candle fed by body fat (apologies to those with a feeble constitution) in an example of what is known as “the wick effect”.
Others, however, felt there was a darker reason why Grace had been subsumed by a very specific fire.
Neighbours claimed that she had practiced witchcraft and that they had proof: a Mr Garnham lived at Purdis Farm near Ipswich and that the welfare of his sheep had caused him great concern, as they appeared to be bewitched by a curious disease which caused them to “whirl around around and cut sundry strange capers” before they turned up their hooves and either died or were stricken.
After consulting the local cunning man from Ipswich, a Mr Winter, he was instructed to burn one of his diseased sheep alive and that if he did so, the witch who had cursed the poor beasts would appear at the scene and – if everyone remained silent – the witch, like the sheep, would be consumed by flames.
A fire was duly set up but the poor beast struggled so much that it had to be crammed in an oven instead, its bound feet hanging out.
It is said that on the same night as Garnham burned his sheep, Grace Pett was seen making her way towards Garnham’s Farm, changing her mind at the last moment and turning on her heel towards home where she lay down in her own fireplace and allowed the flames to claim her, leaving both her hands and feet untouched, just like the sheep.
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