1853, November 1: Mary Ann Sturgeon’s Evidential Death

The following account was never blamed on either spontaneous human combustion or preternatural combustibility; it was used as evidence against them.

        Mary Ann Sturgeon had been the housekeeper for Mr. Goodwin at the Burnham Abbey Farm in Burnham, England, and worked with two gentleman, a groom named Moses Hatto, and a groundskeeper named J. Bunce. On the evening of November 1, 1853, Mr. Goodwin left the residence at six in the evening to pay a visit to some neighbors. Miss Sturgeon had visited with Bunce and his wife during this time (they lived in a small cottage separate from the household), and left at nine in the evening to go make dinner for Hatto. 

        Sometime later in the evening, Hatto arrived at the cottage of Bunce, stating that he had heard strange sounds and was worried that something had happened to one of the colts. Both Hatto and Bunce found and assisted a colt, then both men checked the yard to be sure nothing else was amiss... at half-past eleven, Mr. Goodwin returned, and Hatto took his horse while Goodwin let himself into the house with his key. 

        Mr. Goodwin thought it odd that Miss Sturgeon had not left out a candle burning for him by the door, as was her usual habit... he made his way upstairs and lit a candle for himself. Shortly after this he discovered a hairpin and a human tooth on the floor of the passage; more alarming still, smoke and the smell of burning was coming from Miss Sturgeon's room. Goodwin called the other two men, and they opened the door onto a horrific scene. 

        Once the smoke cleared enough, they found Miss Sturgeon's body lying on the floor between the mantlepiece and bedstead, her lower body and legs a mass of furious flames which had been helped along by a dressing-table and a quantity of linen that had been used as fuel for the fire... it had already burned through the floor of the chamber and was consuming the joists. Her feet were intact, as was her body above the genitals, but her legs were completely destroyed. She had a pool of blood under her head, and was missing the tooth that had been found in the passageway; she had been beaten in the head with a blunt object, and there was blood on the door handle of her room and on the railing to the stairs. Clearly, Sturgeon had been murdered... and it didn't take long to determine who had done it. 

        Hatto had been making advances on the young woman, who had rejected him... and Hatto slept in a room accessible by ladder directly above the spot in the passageway where Sturgeon's tooth had been found. He had her blood on his hat and, despite purposely messing his clothes with dung while checking on the colt with Bunce, Hatto's pants had traces of blood on them as well. Finally, given where he slept at night, it was impossible for him to not hear a struggle in Miss Sturgeon's room below. In short, Hatto did it.


        As mentioned above, this event was not reported as a case of spontaneous combustion, because it was obvious what had actually happened; but this case did become associated with the topic later when it was quoted in Thomas Stevenson's Principles and Practices of Medical Jurisprudence in 1883. Detailed in a section that debates the possibility of spontaneous combustion, Sturgeon's death was used as an example of how quickly a body can burn under the right circumstances from a known cause for comparison to other deaths that have been attributed to spontaneous combustion.

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