Bizarre double death: spontaneous human combustion, or merely tragic coincidence? Andy Owens The Skeptic

Fall Lane is aptly named.

A steep-sided B-road in West Yorkshire’s Pennines, it drops dramatically at a 45-degree angle from the hilltop village of Norland, and if someone hurrying down the lane were to trip, they could effectively fall or tumble to the Calder Valley below.

At approximately 11.30am on Thursday 5th January 1899, two people were hurrying along the lane; one down, one up, meeting roughly in the middle, to relate horrifying tales of terrible tragedy and spooky similarity.

Five year old Alice Ann Kirby and her four year old sister Amy had apparently burst into flames at exactly the same time – but in different locations.

Officially, they were still living together at Hargreaves Terrace, off London Road, on the edge of Norland, but their parents had separated some time before and were now living at different addresses.

Alice Ann was living with her father John and grandmother Susan at No.45 Wakefield Road in the valley, whilst Amy resided with her mother, Sarah, on Hargreaves Terrace. Both houses were in sight of one another, roughly a mile in distance (as the crow flies) across the valley and connected by Fall Lane.

The report of the tragedy originally appeared in the Halifax Courier on 6th January 1899, with the title: SISTERS FATALLY BURNT AT SOWERBY BRIDGE – SINGULAR COINCIDENCE, suggesting a prosaic explanation. Deaths of children near open-hearth fires were apparently a sadly common occurrence at that time – though, of course, not two together.

However, the double-tragedy was later recalled in an article in the same newspaper on 13th April 1985, suggesting a supernatural cause – specifically SHC (Spontaneous Human Combustion) – with the somewhat sensationalist title of “FIRE FROM HEAVEN – Or were they flames from Hell that turned two sisters into human torches?” (presumably named after Michael Harrison’s less-than-objective 1982 book about SHC).

Contemporary accounts of the incidents have appeared in at least five books (including one of my own) and several websites, all based on the assumption that the Fire from Heaven article paints a true and accurate depiction of what occurred, but I have since discovered that it doesn’t: there is one misquote and several important omissions. The journalist appears to have been selective with the points mentioned in the inquest report, keeping those details which suggest supernatural/SHC, and disregarding others which don’t.

The 1899 and 1985 articles recount that the girls’ mother, Sarah Kirby, left Amy in the house at Hargreaves Terrace while she went to fetch some water from a nearby well. She was gone for only two minutes, but on returning, at around 11am, she heard the girl screaming and saw that she was on fire. There were no spent matches or charred paper in the room and nothing to suggest how she had caught fire, and it was also noted that Amy was afraid of fire and always kept her distance from the open hearth. Sarah is quoted as saying:

If she had had paraffin oil thrown over her she would not have burned faster… (and) …Flames a yard high were coming from her head.

In fact, it was one of her neighbours, Mr Joseph Barker (who came to their aid) who made the above statements, but what he really said in the latter statement, was ‘flames a yard high were coming from the child.’ (Halifax Weekly Courier, 7th January 1899). In a rival newspaper, Halifax Guardian (7th January 1899), he was quoted as saying ‘flames a yard high were coming from her.’ The word ‘head’ was never specified in either version of the report, which gives the statement a rather different implication.

The articles also state how Alice Ann had been left in bed, still asleep and feeling unwell, in the house on Wakefield Road, for between thirty and forty-five minutes, between 10.30 and 11.15am, by her grandmother Susan Kirby, while she went to visit her daughter a few doors away. When she returned, she found Alice Ann on fire, and several neighbours attempting to douse the flames.

The two girls were rushed to the Royal Halifax Infirmary in a horse-drawn ambulance where they were treated in vain: Alice Ann died at 3pm, and Amy just before midnight. I acquired the death certificates of both girls, and the cause of death was recorded by the coroner as ‘shock’: Alice Ann died of ‘shock from burns by her nightdress accidentally getting on fire’, and Amy of ‘shock from burns by her clothes accidentally getting on fire.’

For some unknown reason, the inquest was arranged and carried out so hurriedly that it was reported in full just one day after the tragedy. Held at the Royal Halifax Infirmary on 6th January 1899, it was presided over by district coroner and justice of the peace, William Barstow (Halifax Weekly Courier, 7th January 1899).The girls’ father, John Henry Kirby, was the first to be interviewed, though was he presumably at work at the time of the tragedy as he worked as a labourer and gas stoker at Halifax Corporation, and could therefore offer little information – but his testimony still included an important detail.

Mr Barstow told him: “I am sure the jury are all very sorry for you. These burning cases are sadly too frequent. They generally come one at once, but to have two together in a family is both remarkable and distressing.”

The Foreman of the jury asked Mr Kirby: “Were (the girls) fond of playing with fire?”

“Very rare,” he replied. “Amy has whipped the younger children when they have gone too near.”

Although the Fire from Heaven article didn’t say Amy was left on her own, it implied she was alone by not saying otherwise. However, there were two younger children with her, whose names and gender were not specified, as John and Sarah had four children at the time.

The Coroner would later ask Sarah Kirby: “What ages are the other children?”
Sarah: “The next youngest will be three years old next and the other is eighteen months. They went to the back of the chair out of the way while she was on fire.”

The person best placed to answer questions about Alice Ann was undoubtedly the grandmother, Susan Kirby, who had taken care of her ‘for the last three months’ (since her parents’ separation) and also ‘off-and-on since she was three weeks old.’

The Coroner: “Was she (Alice Ann) fond of playing with the fire?”
Susan Kirby: “Very. She would stir the fire up and throw paper in to make it blaze.”

In another version, reported in the Halifax Guardian (7th January 1899), she replied: “Yes, when we were not there to stop her.”

Susan said she could see no matches or (charred) paper on the floor, but pointed out this was not surprising because the rug that was in front of the fire had been taken up and used to wrap around Alice to quell the flames.

Coroner: “Have you left her so long before?”
Mrs Kirby: “When she has not been well she did not usually get up until about half-past twelve, but I never left her.”
Coroner: “Did she usually get up by herself?”
Mrs Kirby: “Yes, she would usually come down in her nightdress”.
Coroner: “Did she sometimes play with the fire?”
Mrs Kirby: “Yes, we have whipped her for it. She has got a brush and reckoned to sweep the hearth.”
Coroner: “Didn’t you think it was risky leaving her for half-an-hour?”
Mrs Kirby: “Well, she had not been well and I thought she would go on sleeping up to noon.”

Another witness was neighbour Miss Phoebe Ramsden, who lived opposite 45 Wakefield Road, and who said that at between half-past ten and eleven o’clock she saw a light in the house which attracted her attention. It was an unusual kind of light, and she watched it. It moved away from the window and she thought Mrs Kirby had got something on fire, and had gone to the back to put it out.

She recounted: “Then the light moved again to the window, and once more towards the door. Then I saw the child’s hands through the flames. Her night dress was on fire. I afterwards thought the child had been trying to get to the door, and became blinded and could not see where she was going. Witnesses at once ran to the child’s assistance, and threw a mat over her (and wrapped her) in rugs. Some gentlemen came to their assistance and then the child seemed to come round a little. The child was very badly burnt, and really seemed to be gasping for breath. The house was full of smoke and witnesses had to go to the door a few times for fresh air.”

Another witness would later recount how Alice Ann uttered: “Let me drink a right lot.”

The Coroner asked Miss Ramsden: “Were you able to make out how she got on fire?”
Miss Ramsden: “No.”
Coroner: “No burnt paper about?”
Miss Ramsden: “No, nothing of that kind. Of course, the child might have sat close to the fire. They had a board on the fender, like there are in many houses, and she may have sat on that, or she may have been playing with the fire. That we can’t tell.”
A Juror: “Were there any matches about?”
Miss Ramsden: “No, I didn’t see any.”
Coroner: “Was the night dress completely burnt off?”
Miss Ramsden: “Oh, yes. There was only the garters above the knees left, and a little of the stockings.”

The Coroner remarked how very strange it was that these two children should be burnt at the same time, one child living with its mother, and the other child living with its grandmother, and the two children being sisters. However, if they believed the evidence, they could come to no other conclusion than that the deaths were accidentally caused. It was another incidence of the danger, he said, of leaving children by themselves, and adding that these incidents were sadly too common.

A Juror said: “We have no evidence to show how the fire occurred in either case.”
The Coroner: “No, there is nothing to show that. There is fire in the house (he was referring to the open-hearth fires in each house), but beyond that there is nothing. Death is due from shock through burning. Are you satisfied that in each case the burns have been accidentally caused?”
A Juror: “There is no doubt about it. They have been playing with the fire.”
Another Juror: “We have no evidence of that.”
Another Juror: “It is a lucky job that these two other children got away from (Amy).”

Verdicts of Accidental Death was returned in each case.

Just as the inquest was hurried, so was the burial, and only two days after the deaths, the girls were buried at 9am on Saturday 7th January 1899, at Sowerby Bridge Cemetery, on Cemetery Lane, off Sowerby New Road.

The Fire from Heaven article stated that both girls were buried in unconsecrated ground and in unmarked graves.

If you say this quick enough and don’t think about it too much, it immediately sounds strange, as if someone in the church superstitiously suspected that the deaths had a link with the supernatural, devilry or witchcraft, and therefore refused ‘normal’ burial, as often happens in horror films. And some of the relatives have commented on this.

Malcolm Bull, on his fascinating local history website calderdalecompanion.co.uk records information supplied by a lady named Anne Lucas who told him:

The mother of the girls, Sarah Ann, was my maternal grandma. She died in 1949 at the age of 77. The two little girls would have been my aunts. When the church would not allow the girls to be buried in consecrated ground, this upset my gran as they were very religious and already owned a family plot.

Also, on 20th April 1985, a week after the Fire From Heaven article appeared in the Halifax Courier, a follow-up article was published on the subject, entitled Tragedy Story Shocked Family – SISTER,which included comments from one of the children that John and Sarah would have in later years, Hilda Greenwood, who had read the previous report.

Mrs Greenwood said she was upset to read that her parents had been separated at the time of the tragedy, and that the girls had been buried in the unconsecrated part of Sowerby Bridge Cemetery. “We have always been a church-going family,” she said.

However, there is no stigma about either unconsecrated ground or unmarked graves. Everyone I have consulted has told me that consecrated ground is for members of the Church of England only; whereas unconsecrated ground is for members of other faiths: Catholics, Baptists, Methodists, etc. I have not been able to discover which denomination the Kirby family were, but it wasn’t just the girls who were buried in unconsecrated ground. Their mother Sarah and three other members of the family are also buried in the same unmarked, unconsecrated plot, including one William Mitchell (presumably Sarah Kirby’s father), who originally paid for it.

Having visited the grave (plot number 288 in section B), I can attest it is located in the unconsecrated part of Sowerby Bridge cemetery, and that it is also unmarked. But this isn’t strange either. Either the family didn’t want, or couldn’t afford, a headstone, borders or any other materials. It is just a plain plot of ground, covered in grass, like many other graves in the vicinity.

Mrs Greenwood further commented on the double-tragedy:

My mother was only twenty-seven when the girls died, but in later life she often mentioned Alice Ann and Amy, although we never got to the bottom of what happened. Their deaths must have caused a lot of talk in the district and I remember once seeing a newspaper cutting that told how people from far and wide came to stare at the two houses.

EVENING (HALIFAX) COURIER), 20TH APRIL 1985

I am sure many readers will be familiar with the law of Occam’s razor, which states: The simplest solution – all things being equal – is probably the correct solution.’ So, is the simplest solution in this case Spontaneous Human Combustion, or merely a combination of naive, inquisitive children and the danger of open-hearth fireplaces?

Is it likely that Alice Ann, who was fond of playing with the fire, did so and accidentally set herself alight; and her sister Amy, who was afraid of fire, went to push one of her younger siblings away from the fire (as she evidently had done before) and suffered a similar fate? Or is SHC more likely?

I searched high and low for documentary evidence that may have suggested SHC as a possible cause. I checked to see if there were any archived notes (including patient records) about the physical injuries and deaths of the girls, from either the medical staff at the Royal Halifax Infirmary (including the pathologist who would have conducted the post mortem), or the district coroner (as coroners sometimes kept notebooks), but could find none preserved from so long ago.

However, bearing in mind that pathologists are trained scientists and coroners are trained lawyers, both dealing in evidential facts, if there had been any abnormalities about the injuries (including any indication that the source of ignition was internal rather than external, as would presumably be the case with SHC), you would expect someone to have mentioned it at some point.

If the simplest solution (accidental deaths) is the correct solution, then the only point remaining which suggests any supernatural element is the coincidences.

The original report was subtitled: ‘Singular Coincidence’, but it sounds more like a multiple coincidence: two sisters, same cause of death (shock), same means (fire), same day, approximately same time, but different locations.

However, if a single coincidence cannot be described as supernatural, it logically follows that a multiple coincidence cannot be described as supernatural either. If multiple coincidences were a common phenomenon then they could, arguably, be described as potentially supernatural or unexplained. But they are extremely rare – or exceptional – and are therefore the exceptions that prove the rule, that coincidences – even multiple coincidences – are just that.

Acknowledgements

Thanks also to the staff of Calderdale Libraries, West Yorkshire Archive Service, Halifax Register Office, Parkwood Crematorium, and Christ Church in Sowerby Bridge.

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Alice Ann Kirby and her little sister Amy died in separate, mysterious fires – some claim spontaneous human combustion explains the double tragedy
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