1908, March 22: Wilhelmina Dewar’s Fiery Death

On Sunday, March 22, 1908, a retired teacher named Wilhelmina Dewar was found burned to death under unusual circumstances in the home in Whitley Bay, England, that she shared with her sister Margaret.

        Around 9:00PM Margaret Dewar ran into a neighbor's house shouting that she had just discovered her sister, Wilhelmina, dead. Neighbors rushed to the house with Maragret, and there found Wilhelmina's charred body... lying on an unburned bed. There was no other evidence of a fire in the house. 

        Asked about what had happened that day, Margaret said that she had assisted Wilhelmina to bed, and at about 2:00PM on Sunday she took up some tea to her, which Wilhelmina refused; she said she wanted to rest. The next time that Margaret checked on her sister was around 9:00PM that night, when she discovered her dead. 

        By 10:00PM, Wilhelmina's body and the scene of her death were being examined by Dr. Campbell. Wilhelmina was definitely dead; she was "burnt from head to toe," and all her clothes were burned away. There were no signs of burning underneath the bedclothes she was lying on. It was his opinion that she had been dead for ten hours; it was his further opinion that she must have been carried into the room, as "it was impossible for her to have walked up the stairs, even if she had been assisted.

        At the inquest, the coroner pressured Margaret Dewar to change her story, as the facts as they lay made no sense to him. An officer who was on the scene the night of March 22 testified that "he could not get an intelligible story from Margaret Dewar, who seemed under the influence of drink." It was not questioned as to whether or not Maragret was actually drunk, or just under extreme emotional distress. Eventually, Ms. Dewar was coerced into stating that Wilhelmina had been burned downstairs, and that she had then been assisted up the stairs by Margaret, only to die in bed later. Once this story was put forward, the case was closed with no attempt to explain where the fire came from or why there was no evidence of it within the household other than Wilhelmina's remains.

Some Additional Details

        The legend above is a sum-up of the events given in Charles Fort's book, Wild Talents, published in 1933. Fort was famous for printing lost and forgotten stories of possibly paranormal events; but he was also less famously known for not including all the details at hand, to help make a good story a great one. This definitely seems to have happened in the account of Wilhelmina Dewar's demise. Though Fort frames the story as an unbelieving coroner forcing a plausible explanation for a paranormal event, he forgets to mention that said coroner had some good reasons for doubting Margaret's story. 

        The officer that reported Margaret acted as if under the influence, police sergeant Pinton, also testified that he found a part of a skirt in the backyard of the house, burnt and wet... and one of the neighbors, Mrs. King, testified that she had found some burnt clothing in the downstairs part of the house. 

        On the other hand, the same 1908 source that mentions the burned clothing also mentions Dr. Campbell's assessment that Wilhelmina Dewar would have to be carried upstairs, for it was impossible for her to have walked upstairs, even assisted. This may be because both Wilhelmina and Margaret were retired teachers, and presumably of an advanced age; so Margaret may not have had the physical strength to get Wilhelmina up the stairs on her own to begin with!

        No matter how you cut it, more information is needed, and I'll keep digging. But I can confirm that the event happened, even if I can't yet state exactly what happened.

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