1860, March 16: Elizabeth Pulley’s Evidential Murder

On March 19, 1860, neighbors noted that they had not seen any activity for two days at the house of Elizabeth Pulley, an elderly lady living in Stamford, England. The neighbors informed the local police, and the police proceeded to check on Mrs. Pulley. The front door was locked, but the back door was open; and upon entering the kitchen, Mrs. Pulley's body was found lying on the hearthstone in front of her fireplace.

        A small bonnet lay against her head, and between her body and the fireplace was an upright brass candlestick. Her clothes and body were "much injured by fire," but no fire had been lit in the fireplace; materials to start a fire had been placed there, but not lit. The house appeared to be generally in order, with the exception that a bottle of sherry was on a table in the next room with a wine glass (about three glasses worth of sherry were missing from the bottle), and some drawers in another room were "in a confused and tumbled state"... so, at first glance, there didn't appear to be anything too out of the ordinary, and it was assumed that Mrs. Pulley had either fallen while trying to light a fire in the fireplace and lit herself aflame, or had accidentally lit her clothes and been burnt to death.

        But further investigation soon told a different story. Several valuables and checks were missing from her effects; and a human tooth with hair stuck to it, as well as pieces of a burnt cord, were found in the ashes by the body. It was now assumed that Mrs. Pulley had been strangled during a robbery, and that her body had been set aflame to conceal the crime, perhaps with hopes the house would burn as well.  All evidence indicated that Mrs. Pulley had probably been killed on March 16.

        Inquiries led the police to a cabinet maker named Corby who, on the same day the body of Mrs. Pulley was found, was discovered by his workmen to be in possession of some unusual valuables... including gold mourning-rings inscribed "Thomas Pulley" and "Elizabeth Pulley." Corby removed the valuables the same day, but evidence of them were further discovered by the police upon a search of his house, and he was arrested on suspicion of murder.

        Corby committed suicide in prison before he could come up for trial, leaving a note for his wife and children that neither confirmed nor denied any involvement in Mrs. Pulley's murder.


        In the 1873 edition (and probably earlier) of Thomas Stevenson's Principles and Practices of Medical Jurisprudence, this murder case was given as an example of what a murderer might be able to pass off as a case of "spontaneous human combustion" -- which is a situation in which a human body is believed to ignite itself from the inside by unknown means -- if said situation was legally accepted as a possibility. The author argued that it would not take much imagination to blame Pulley's death on spontaneous human combustion, when a closer examination was required to show the evidence of the murder; therefore, spontaneous human combustion should never be assumed, but only offered up after all evidence has been strenuously examined and it is found that no other explanation exists.

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