Culture, Miscellaneous, Surrounding Areas

Just Some Spontaneous Human Combustion

Leeds and Grenville – it’s a spooky place. William James Topley/Library and Archives Canada/PA-008791. (click photo to go to source)

Yes, spontaneous human combustion. A look through Thaddeus Leavitt’s idiosyncratic History of Leeds and Grenville Ontario, from 1749 to 1879, with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers yields a few tall tales from this region. I love folklore and legend (wish we had more of it around here to be honest) and while only one of these stories is still well-known today, the rest are enjoyable as oddities.

As usual, I’ve indicated short edits with an ellipsis . . . and long edits with an ellipsis in square brackets […]. In this case, I’ve also decided to modernize the spelling and punctuation quirks in the text.

Let’s start with the spontaneous human combustion story. This phenomenon can happen, although it’s not truly “spontaneous”: there has to be some ignition source, however minor, for the intense fire which typically leaves the victim’s body consumed but their surroundings untouched.

In our case, Dr. Peter Schofield described a case of spontaneous human combustion in a temperance lecture he delivered on June 10, 1828 in Bastard Township (east of Westport). Combustion supposedly due to alcoholism had been recognized as a phenomenon in the early nineteenth century; later it was used as a plot device by several Victorian authors, notably Charles Dickens in Bleak House. However, the veracity of such a phenomenon due to such a cause obviously remains to be seen. In Dr. Schofield’s account, the victim temporarily survives the experience:

“It was the case of a young man about twenty-five years old; he had been a habitual drinker for many years. I saw him about nine o’clock in the evening on which it happened; he was then, as usual, not drunk, but full of liquor. About eleven, the same evening, I was called to see him. I found him literally roasted, from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet. He was discovered in a blacksmith’s shop, just across the way from where he had been. The owner of the shop, all of a sudden, discovered a bright light in his shop, as though the whole building was in a general flame. He ran with the greatest precipitancy, and, on flinging open the door, discovered the man standing erect in the midst of a widely extended, silver colored blaze, bearing, as he described it, exactly the appearance of the wick of a burning candle in the midst of its own flame. The blacksmith seized him by the shoulder, and jerked him to the door, upon which the flame was instantly extinguished. There was no fire in the shop, nor was there any possibility of fire having been communicated to him from any external source. It was purely a case of spontaneous ignition. A general sloughing soon came on, and his flesh was consumed or removed in the dressing, leaving the bones and a few of the larger blood vessels standing. The blood, nevertheless, rallied around the heart, and maintained the vital spark until the thirteenth day, when he died, not only the most noisome, ill-featured, and dreadful picture that was ever presented to human view, but his shrieks, his cries and lamentations, were enough to rend the heart of adamant. He complained of no pain of body – his flesh was gone; he said he was suffering the torments of hell; that he was just upon its threshold, and should soon enter its dismal caverns; and, in this frame of mind, gave up the ghost.”

Another tale Leavitt includes is simply entitled “A Ghost Story,” about a man from Kilmarnock (near Smith’s Falls) who was able to foretell the death of fellow residents:

“At an early date there lived in the vicinity of Kilmarnock, on the north side of the Rideau river, a man by the name of Croutch, who claimed to have the gift of foresight. Many old and respected settlers believed implicitly that he received warnings of the approaching death of any person who resided in the settlement. According to the testimony of his wife, who bore the reputation of being a Christian woman, Croutch would frequently retire to bed, where in vain would he seek slumber; restless and uneasy, he would toss from side to side, at times groaning and muttering names of the departed. Do what he would to shake off the mysterious spell, in the end he was compelled to submit. Rising, he would quickly dress himself, take his canoe and paddle across the river, where he declared he always found waiting a spectral funeral procession, which he would follow to the grave yard, where all the rites and ceremonies would be performed. Croutch having watched the ghostly mourners fade away would then return home, retire to rest and sink into a profound slumber. It was always with the greatest difficulty that Mrs. Croutch could ever elicit from her husband the name of the party, whose death had been heralded. It is related of the late Samuel Rose that upon one occasion he was in the company of Croutch, in crossing a common both saw a light. Crouch exclaimed, Did you hear that cry? No, replied Mr. Rose. Oh, said the fatalist, it was the cry of a child, the name of which he gave. In a few days the child breathed its last. Upon another occasion he predicted the death of a man named McIntyre. Colonel Hurd, of Burritt’s Rapids, informs us that he knew Croutch and that far and wide he was regarded with terror by the children, who had learned from their parents his supposed power of communing with the spirits of the departed.”

Another similar story is more well-known: that of Mother Barnes, “The Witch of Plum Hollow.” According to an article by Melanie King, the details of Elizabeth Barnes’ life have always been sketchy. She was apparently born in Ireland at the end of the eighteenth century, and was disowned by her parents after eloping to North America with a young soldier. This first husband died young, but Elizabeth later married David Barnes and had many children. In 1843 she moved to Sheldon’s Corners, not far from the Plum Hollow crossroads northwest of Athens. Here her “gift” of foresight was first publicized, and she turned to fortune telling for 25¢ a session. She was well-regarded by the local populace, and even Sir John A. Macdonald once allegedly used her services. At the time King’s article was written in 2003, Mother Barnes’ cabin was still standing, but I have no idea if it still is today.

Leavitt tells us Mother Barnes lives (because at the time of his writing in 1879, she was still alive) at “Lake Loyada,” by which I believe he means Lake Eloida, and is widely esteemed as a tea-reader and fortune-teller, able to reveal the secrets of the past, present, and future. “Unlike many modern soothsayers,” he writes, “she possesses a local reputation which time has not diminished.” He considers her practice “harmless” and says that while some scoff at her, others remain firm in their belief of her powers. She is memorialized today in name by Mother Barnes Road, a stretch of side road from Sheldon’s Corners to the intersection at Highway 29.

Lastly, we have a haunted buried treasure tale! This one takes place west of Mallorytown Landing, at the former mill site of Billa (William) Larue, an early pioneer. Before his death, Larue allegedly buried his wealth of gold and silver in an undisclosed location. There then followed many attempts to uncover the treasure, all without success. Leavitt gives us an account of the strange experiences surrounding an attempt to steal the treasure, recounted to him by one who was there. Of the anonymous man’s breathless tale, Leavitt adds, “The general public will probably conclude that he was badly frightened”:

“On a bright moonlight night, I, in company with three other men, left the Village of Mallorytown and proceeded to the vicinity of the old Larue mill, near the upper dam. We had provided ourselves with a witch-hazel divining rod [and] a goodly supply of shovels and picks […] A short distance west of the [Larue] house is the family cemetery, and in that direction we cautiously proceeded. Suddenly our director paused, the witch-hazel turned slowly in the direction of mother-earth . . . Evidently the secret had been solved and we were about to become the happy possessors of the long sought gold. Striking a circle . . . we removed our coats and proceeded to dig . . . Gradually the sky became overcast with clouds, one by one the stars faded away, the moon disappeared in the vault of night, the wind sighed mournfully through the pines, yet not a word was spoken . . . Then came a rush of the blast through the overhanging trees, the blast was of icy coldness and penetrated the very marrow of our bones . . . There was a trampling upon the earth in the distance, as if the guardian spirit of the treasure trove was marshalling all his cohorts to hurl back the audacious invaders who had thus dared to desecrate his domains and snatch away the glittering coin confided to his care   . . . [S]uddenly there rang out clear and distinct in the night air, a sound which proclaimed that the pick had struck a metallic substance . . . [W]ith our hands we felt that we had struck upon what appeared to be a smooth flat stone or piece of metal . . . which we concluded was the box containing the coveted treasure.

“With our united strength we slowly raised the covering, when in an instant we were surrounded by innumerable creatures, trampling up to the very edge of the circle. We could but indistinctly distinguish the forms of the new comers, but to my mind they appeared to be black cattle, and judging from the trampling, their number must have been thousands. We hesitated – a great fear came upon us, which I cannot describe – and, with a single impulse, we dropped the crow-bar, and ran for dear life. Beyond the house we came out of the ravine, near the new mill, where we paused. The moon was sailing majestically through an unclouded sky; the stars shone as brightly as when we had first entered upon our task. We paused and consulted, and at last concluded that imagination had got the better of our senses, and that we would return to our work. This we did. We found the excavation, the coats lying on the ground, the crow-bar, shovels and pick-axes, but not a sign of the flat stone or metallic covering at the bottom of the pit which we had dug. Our leader sorrowfully shook his head, and declared that future efforts would be of no avail, as the treasure had moved. We gathered our implements, and departed for Mallorytown, fully resolved that in the future other searchers were quite welcome to secure the hidden gold left by Billa Larue.”

These are all fun stories if you like creepy stuff. Arguably, however, the creepiest parts of Thaddeus Leavitt’s book are things that weren’t meant to be weird at all: they are the eerily lifelike engravings of crusty old local citizens, apparently intended to illustrate some of the luminaries of 1879. You can click each image to see it in better detail – you know, if you really want to.

Sources

Minor sources have been linked to in the text. History of Leeds and Grenville can be found online here, or at the Kingston Frontenac Public Library in a 1972 facsimile edition.

Leavitt, Thaddeus W. H. History of Leeds and Grenville Ontario, from 1749 to 1879, with Illustrations and Biographical Sketches of Some of Its Prominent Men and Pioneers. Brockville, ON: Recorder Press, 1879.

 

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