1772, March 2: Mary Clues’ Fiery Death
The earliest account of this event was written by B. Wilmer, a surgeon from the town of Coventry and an eyewitness of Clues' remains. Originally written by Wilmer in April, 1772, below are the details of the case as he gives them.
Mary Clues had always been a drinker, but after her husband died -- a year and a half before her own death -- she became a truly formidably alcoholic, averaging a quart of rum a day for the year previous to her death at the age of 52. Her health had deteriorated to the point that since February of 1772 she was bed-ridden, and, because she now lived alone, she depended on the kindness of her neighbors to check in on her and help her do things; often, someone would sit up and watch over her at night. This did not keep her from drinking, and she "generally smoaked a pipe every night."
Clues typically slept on the edge of her bed that was close to the chimney, which was only three feet away. On the night of March 1, 1772, she had fallen out of bed and was unable to get up. She was discovered when her next-door neighbor, Mary Hollyer, stopped by to see her; with some difficulty, she managed to get Clues back up into her bed. Despite her neighbor's insistence, Clues refused to have anyone stay and watch over her that night. The last person to see her alive was a man named Brooks, who had sat up with her before; he left the house at half past eleven, locking the door behind him. He had left two burning coals in the grate of the fireplace to warm Clues, and a "small rush-light in a candlestick" was left on a chair near the head of her bed. [A 'rush-light' was a cheap candle made by soaking a dried stalk from a rush plant in fat or grease.]
At half past five on the morning of March 2, smoke was seen coming from the window of Clues' room; the door was broken down, and some flames in the room were quickly extinguished with a few buckets of water. Lying on the floor between the fireplace and the bed were the remains of Mary Clues.
Only her legs and one thigh were still intact; of the rest of her, nearly all soft tissue had been totally consumed. The bones were still there, but had been calcined and were covered with a whitish powder; enough connective tissue remained to hold the skull and vertebrae in place, but the bones of both arms had separated from the rest of the remains. Her skull was near the head of the bed and her legs near the bottom, and the curvature of her spine seemed to indicate that she had had her back next to the grate of the fireplace.
Once the flames had been extinguished, it was noted that the furniture in the room was largely undamaged, with the side of the bed near the body burned most... but all the bedding on top of the bed was unburned. Wilmer himself arrived to view the scene about two hours after Clues' remains had been discovered. He noted that the walls in the room had been coated black, and that the air was full of "a very disagreeable vapor", but past this he was impressed that not much other than Clues had been burnt. He assumed that she had again tumbled out of bed in the early hours of the morning, and that her night shirt had then been ignited by either the coals in the grate or the candle on the chair... and he feels that, once set fire to, "she was probably soon reduced to ashes", presumably because "her solids and fluids were rendered inflammable, by the immense quantity of spirituous liquors she had drunk." This explanation fit into the theory of Preternatural Combustibility, which was popular at the time to explain what appeared to be otherwise inexplicable human fires... the theory postulated that people who drank a lot would make their bodies more readily able to burn due to saturation with alcohol.
Of course, Clues may not have been consumed quickly, as Wilmer supposed; after all, around six hours had passed since Clues was last seen alive. Wilmer assumed for a relatively quick reduction of Clues to ashes statively because of the lack of damage to the rest of the room; but he also noted that the floor was made up of bricks, so the fire would have been hard pressed to spread out too far if Clues' body was not touching any other flammable objects. He may also have assumed for a quick occurrence because smoke was not noticed before five-thirty in the morning, but that does not mean that Clues hadn't been burning since much earlier and no one had noticed. In any case, there is no mystery as to what ignited the fire. Given Clues' inability to even stand up unassisted, she would have had no escape if her clothes caught aflame.