1744, April 9: Grace Pett’s Fiery Death
Grace Pett lived in the parish of St. Clement, in Ipswitch, England. On the night of April 9, 1744, she went upstairs to bed with her daughter and, as was her habit, she came back down a little later with a candle to light her way so she could smoke a pipe alone by the hearth. Her daughter fell asleep, since her mother's absence at this time was not unusual. Though Pett was not generally known to drink a lot of alcohol, on this particular night she had been celebrating the return of one of her daughters from Gibraltar, and had imbibed a lot of gin.
The next morning, her daughter discovered Pett's remains downstairs and immediately started to scream for help. Pett's body was on the floor, her head against the grate of the fireplace, her torso stretched across the hearth, and her legs on the wood floor... and it was described as "appearing like a Block of Wood burning with a glowing Fire without Flame." Her daughter poured two bowls of water on the body to quench the smolder, which produced a thick and noxious smoke as her neighbors arrived to help.
The trunk of Pett's body was burnt so much that it resembled a block of charcoal with a fine layer of white ash on it. Her head, arms, and legs also showed signs of fire damage, but nowhere near what her torso had experienced. The grate had no fire in it, the candle was burnt out, and some children's cloths and a paper screen on opposite sides of Pett's body were both undamaged by the fire that had consumed the woman. Her body fats had melted into the hearth so completely that it couldn't be cleaned out, but the wood floor under her legs was undamaged. She was only wearing a cotton gown and petticoat at the time, so the idea that her clothes burning could have had the effect seen was rejected; instead it was decided there must have been an internal cause to the fire in order for her torso to be so completely destroyed.
Variations & Theories
The summary of the matter above is taken from an account of Pett's death published in 1745. Grace Pett's death is one of the earliest published accounts of a strange fire death being attributed to an internal source of ignition; it's also one of the most repeated, and her name is often given as 'Pitt' or 'Kett' (due to copying from authors who got it wrong in the first place).
Joe Nickell in his book Secrets of the Supernatural states his belief that Grace Pett, who was drunk, simply lit herself on fire and couldn't extinguish the flame. She could have lit herself with the candle, the flame in the fireplace, or while trying to smoke her pipe... her burning clothes would have overwhelmed her, and then there were several hours for a slow smoldering fire to consume her body. In short, he feels she is an example of the "wick effect," when a fire uses the clothing on a person's body to wick up their melting body fat and burn like a candle.
One other variation has to be noted; in her 1989 book The World's Greatest Mysteries, Joyce Robbins states that Grace Pett's daughter actually witnessed her mother bursting into flames... but that's just not true.