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Mary Hardy Reeser (1884–1951) of St. Petersburg, Florida was a suspected victim of spontaneous human combustion.

The Mysterious Death of Mary Hardy Reeser in the Summer of 1951

 It was called the “cinder woman” case, and it was the biggest thing that had happened in St. Petersburg in years. All of a sudden, the sleepy little city was getting national attention.

The cinder woman was Mary Hardy Reeser, a 67-year-old widow who was virtually cremated in her northeast St. Petersburg apartment on July 2, 1951, by a mysterious fire that did little other damage. The case remains open at police headquarters so it is, as it was over half a century ago, a fascinating tale without a satisfactory ending.

The human remains found at the fire scene (and almost missed by firefighters) included Mrs Reeser’s left foot, clad in an undamaged black satin slipper, a portion of her skull and part of her spine. The piece of skull was described at the time as “shrunken.” Authorities tried but couldn’t snuff out the theory that Mary Hardy Reeser was a victim of spontaneous human combustion.

To this day, it is believed that the FBI report given to St. Petersburg police in August 1951 is the most credible if incomplete, explanation of the incident — that Mrs Reeser’s own body fat provided the fuel for the fire that consumed her. The FBI said there was no “spontaneous human combustion,” nor was her death caused by lightning or chemicals.

For hundreds of years, mystery lovers have theorised about spontaneous human combustion — the strange physical phenomenon that allegedly turns its victims into columns of fire, without an apparent spark and without doing damage to anything else around.

Stories of death by such magic flames have been written about since Charles Dickens’ era and repeated by generations of believers in the paranormal. These rumours have proved so persistent that they are still commonly accepted as fact on the Internet, on television and in the minds of many people today.

But 66 years ago, a source no less authoritative than the FBI testing lab came to a different conclusion on the issue of “SHC” after examining the immolation of an elderly St. Petersburg, Fla., a woman who mysteriously burned to cinders in her easy chair.

Mysterious spontaneous combustion tale of Mary Hardy Reeser.

“It is not generally realised the extent to which the human body can burn once it becomes ignited,” the bureau wrote in a report. It was formerly believed that such cases arose from spontaneous combustion or the burning was sometimes attributed to preternatural causes.

“There is, however, absolutely no evidence from any of the cases on record to show that burning of this nature occurs.”

Before the bureau’s dismissal of the spontaneous combustion rumours, the 1951 case of Mary Hardy Reeser’s burning had stumped local police.

During the summer of 1951, the St. Petersburg (Florida) Police Department needed help. On July 2, a 67-year-old woman named Mary Hardy Reeser had burned to death in her apartment, and the police did not know how or why. A fire of unknown origin had reduced her body to fine ashes — except for her skull (“shrunken to the size of a teacup”), a small section of backbone, and her left foot, which still wore a shoe.

A chair, end table, and small rug had been incinerated, and the ceiling was darkened by smoke, but otherwise, the apartment appeared little affected by the intense heat necessary to transform a human body into cremains.

Sixty-seven-year-old widow, Mrs Mary H. Reeser, was reclining comfortably in an easy chair in her St. Petersburg, Florida apartment (1200 Cherry Street, Northeast) at 9:00 P.M. on Sunday, July 1, 1951.

Mary was upset over a delay in plans to move back to Pennsylvania — took a dose of the sleeping pill Seconal to calm herself and settled into her easy chair to have a smoke. It was her usual ritual, but that night it would have tragic consequences. That was the last anyone ever saw her alive. 

Sunday evening, son, Dr Richard Reeser, and landlady, Mrs Pansy M. Carpenter, had been visiting Mary. When they left at around 9:00 P.M. they had no idea it was going to be the last time they would see Mrs Reeser alive.

At around 5:00 A.M., Mrs Carpenter awoke to the smell of smoke which she assumed was from a water pump in the garage that had been overheating. The pump was switched off and Carpenter went back to sleep.

At 8:00 A.M. on Monday, July 2, 1951, a telegraph boy woke Carpenter. The telegraph was for  Reeser, so  Carpenter signed for it. When she went to deliver the missive to her tenant, there was no answer. She checked Mary’s door to find it was hot. Thinking the apartment had caught fire and Reeser might be trapped inside, Carpenter solicited the help of two painters to break the door down. When she went inside, she found a tableau that would stun the city of St. Petersburg and provide fodder to paranormal enthusiast for decades.

When the door was forced open, and upon entering Mary’s apartment, a grisly sight confronted them. the three were hit with a blast of sweltering air. A thick, greasy residue coated the walls. As they approached the armchair, the neighbour discovered what appeared to be the charred remains of Mrs Mary Reeser. The rest of the room, however, showed little evidence of an actual fire in the apartment.

The freakish remains of Mary were discovered on a burned out chair with only the charred, coiled springs remaining. The only parts of her left were her left foot, which still had a slipper on, her backbone and a mysteriously shrunken skull. Mary’s body, which weighed 170 lbs had been reduced to less than 10lbs.

Reeser’s skull had survived and was found among the ashes, but shrunken (sometimes with the added descriptive flourish of ‘to the size of a teacup’). The extent of this shrinkage was enough to be remarked on by official investigators and was not an illusion caused by the removal of all facial features (ears, nose, lips, etc.). The shrinking of the skull is not a regular feature of alleged cases of SHC, although the ‘shrunken skull’ claim has become a regular feature of anecdotal accounts of other SHC cases and numerous apocryphal stories. However, this is not the only case in which the remains featured a shrunken skull.

Even though the body was almost totally cremated, requiring very high temperatures, the room in which it occurred showed little evidence of the fire. The only damage to the apartment was a small, circular burned area. At the side was a plastic wall socket which had melted and caused her clock to stop at 4:20 am. These findings and the remains of Mary baffled the firemen, police, and pathologists who examined them.

Reeser, in fact, was so thoroughly immolated; the local press started calling her “cinder woman.”  The only part of the woman’s zaftig body still intact was her left ankle and foot, which was still wearing an undamaged shoe. But this fire — which was hot enough to destroy a human body — did not destroy several items sitting just a few feet away, including things as flammable as a pile of newspapers. And the only damage to the structure of the house was some charring to the carpet and a layer of soot and grease high on the walls of the room.

Walls were covered with a greasy soot, a mirror had cracked, plastic switches and two candles on a dresser, which left behind their unburned wicks and a pink pool of wax below.

The remainder of the apartment showed all the signs of heat damage; from about the four foot level on up, the walls were covered with a greasy soot, a mirror had cracked, plastic switches and a plastic tumbler in the bathroom had melted, as had two candles on a dresser, which left behind their unburned wicks and a pink pool of wax.

Below the four foot level, the only damage was the small circular burn area encompassing the remains of Mrs Reeser and her chair, and a plastic electric wall outlet that had melted, stopping her clock at 4:20 a.m.

Police were stunned. How could this happen? It seemed possible that Reeser could have fallen into a deep sleep from the pills and dropped her cigarette onto the highly flammable rayon acetate nightgown she was wearing.

But how could a cigarette fire destroy a body? Maybe if gasoline or some other accelerant was used it could explain this level of burning. But no such liquid was found at the scene. Some writers at the time quoted the proprietors of a crematory as saying their furnaces reached 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and still did not completely destroy bone, as was done in the Reeser case.

And even if the fire from a cigarette could get that hot, how could such a roiling blaze fail to spread to the many flammable items sitting just feet away and, ultimately, fail to consume Reeser’s home?

Stalled in his department’s investigation, police chief J.R. Reichert asked for the FBI’s help and shipped to Washington several pieces of evidence, including clothing fibers, glass fragments found in Reeser’s ashes, particles of her bones, an unburned section of the rug (“heavily soaked with greasy substance”), chair springs, and the shoe. He asked the FBI to investigate these items and to provide “any information or theories that could explain how a human body could be so destroyed and the fire confined to such a small area and so little damage done to the structure of the building and the furniture in the room not even scorched or damaged by smoke.”

Many people had speculated that Reeser’s death was an example of spontaneous human combustion (SHC), a phenomenon that had occurred in novels of Charles Dickens, Herman Melville, and Frederick Marryat, and also in unverified factual cases around the world in which people appeared to have caught fire without a known source of ignition. Could SHC explain Reeser’s fiery death?

On July 7, 1951, he sent a box of evidence from the crime scene to bureau Director J. Edgar Hoover. Also included was a note saying: “We request any information or theories that could explain how a human body could be so destroyed and the fire confined to such a small area and so little damage done to the structure of the building and the furniture in the room not even scorched or damaged by smoke.”

The FBI scrutinised the evidence and thought not. Its analysts speculated that an outside source, such as a burning chair or clothing, had set Reeser aflame. “Once the body starts to burn there is enough fat and other inflammable substances to permit varying amounts of destruction to take place,” the FBI noted. “Sometimes this destruction by burning will proceed to a degree which results in almost complete combustion of the body.” The heat from the burning body rises, possibly leaving intact most of the smouldering fire’s surroundings.

The FBI’s answer was simple — though not intuitive. And, ultimately, not everyone accepted it. The bureau ruled Reeser died from a phenomenon known today as “the wick effect,” in which a small simmering fire sparked by something such as a cigarette grows to an intense heat with the body’s own fat acting as a fuel source.

The fat, in effect, seeps into the victim’s clothes and causes the victim to burn like the wick of a Coleman lantern. This process causes great heat in the immediate vicinity. But the heat only goes straight up, leaving flammable items next to the fire as unharmed as a camper sleeping next to a crackling campfire.

“Once the body starts to burn,” the FBI wrote in its report, “there is enough fat and other inflammable substances to permit varying amounts of destruction to take place.

“Sometimes this destruction by burning will proceed to a degree which results in almost complete combustion of the body.”

The FBI determined that Reeser’s death was a case of an elderly woman who made an unwise decision to fire up a cigarette while waiting for her sleeping pills to take effect. The cigarette likely toppled out of her mouth and onto her chest, igniting her highly flammable bedclothes. The fire began to smoulder, and Reeser likely began to be badly burned. She was so doped up, though, she probably never knew what was going on.

As the blaze grew, the overweight woman’s copious fat liquefied and provided the fuel. This turned Reeser into a giant candle in the middle of her living room. The heat rose and scorched the cement ceiling. But the heat, which was intense in the inches near Reeser’s body, never spread beyond the vicinity of her body before the fuel was exhausted.

This gruesome scenario, described by FBI scientists over 50 years ago, is what sceptics say is the most common cause of most of the more than a dozen cases of fire death attributed to spontaneous human combustion over the years.

“People wonder how these kinds of things happen,” said Dr John De Haan of the California Criminalistics Institute. “It turns out the subcutaneous body fat of animals is a pretty good fuel. It has about the same caloric content as candle wax.”

To test this theory, De Haan wrapped an entire pig carcas in cotton and set it on fire. Gasoline was used as an accelerant to mimic a blaze started by a cigarette.

In the test, the pig fat leeched into the cotton and caused the fire to simmer for hours, eventually destroying the pig’s entire body. Such decimation of bones happens as the fat fire rises to the 1,700- or 1,800-degree heat of a crematory at the immediate point where it touches bones and sinew. This sort of fire, it turns out, actually does more damage than a flame coming from outside the body, such as in a house fire.

“The elderly, the infirmed and sometimes the inebriated are the ones that are most likely to start an accidental fire in their bedding or clothes … and then be overcome,” De Haan said. “So the fire starts literally near them, but not on them, and then it’s the fire from the furnishing that actually gets the process going. By that time they’ve succumbed.”

Despite the experiments and explanations of scientists, the legend of spontaneous human combustion goes on. Over the years, it has been attributed to many causes from ball lightning to subatomic particles dubbed “pyrotrons” that SHC believers say get out of control and cause a person to just burst into flames.

So what really happened to Mary Reeser? Could it have been Spontaneous Human Combustion?

SHC is the phenomenon where a human being is incinerated without any known cause of external ignition. Rather, a chemical reaction from within the body causes it to burst into flames. The odd thing about SHC is that the torso and head are charred beyond recognition while, more frequently, the arms and legs of the body remain untouched by the flame as well as objects surrounding the victim. A greasy residue on the furniture and walls is often predominant in cases of SHC. There are also a rare handful of cases where the outside of the body has been charred and the organs are left unscathed by the fire.

SHC is not a very common occurrence. When it does happen, SHC strikes without warning and predominantly selects elderly women as its demographic of choice. Science has yet to determine the cause of SHC, but there is one theory that shows circumstances that could explain how a body can burn long and hot enough for fire to consume the body and leave the surrounding area relatively untouched. That theory is known as the Wick Effect.

The Wick Effect is a theory that suggests an external heat source, such as a smouldering cigarette or ember, begins a fire which then feeds off of the fatty tissues of the human body allowing the fire to burn much like a candle does. Much like a candle, in the wick effect, the victim’s body fat acts as the wax and the clothing or hair of the victim takes on the function of a wick. As the fatty tissue melts from the heat it is absorbed into the clothing and keeps the wick burning slowly. This theory explains why the bodies of SHC victims are utterly destroyed, but the surroundings are barely burned.

Supporters of this theory explain the remains of feet or hands through the existence of a temperature gradient– where the top of a burning object is hotter than the bottom (fire tends to go “up”). If the fire were on the bottom, it would lack the necessary airflow (bottom cool air to heated-by-flame air on top) to continue burning. In this respect, limbs that are lower on the body or extended away from the body do not burn easily and so they tend to be left untouched by flame. The Wick Effect theory also accounts for the greasy residue on the walls– it is the grease residue produced by the fatty tissue as it burns.

Though science hasn’t conclusively explained Spontaneous Human Combustion, most scientists agree that there is likely a reasonable explanation for the charred remains. A substantial number of the victims of SHC were smokers who appear to have died by falling asleep with a smouldering cigarette, cigar or pipe in hand. It is highly likely that such instances of death are not as coincidental as may be thought and, in fact, probably contribute to the cause of the fire. Still, until science explains with a certainty the origins of SHC, it will remain an unexplained phenomenon.

In the 1800s, the legend of spontaneous human combustion often was supported by members of the temperance movement, who saw it as a way to scare people off alc. The legend said that too much liquor or beer could soak one’s body so completely with alcohol one would become intensely flammable.

Charles Dickens even described such a scene in his novel Bleak House.

“Call the death by any name your Highness will, attribute it to whom you will, or say it might have been prevented how you will, it is the same death eternally — inborn, inbred, engendered in the corrupted humours of the vicious body itself, and that only — spontaneous combustion, and none other of all the deaths that can be died.”

But despite the theories, and literary heritage of the SHC story, skeptics say that most of the cases follow a similar, mundane plotline: An incapacitated, often elderly person (sometimes drunk or on sleeping pills) dressed inflammable clothing or sleeping in a flammable place decides to smoke, or comes into contact with a flame for some other obvious reason.

“What’s happening is a lot of people who are putting out the notion of spontaneous human combustion are primarily mystery mongers, and they are in the mystery-mongering business,” said Joe Nickell, a writer for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. “They are trying to convince you that if you don’t know what the explanation is, therefore it’s supernatural, and that is a logical fallacy.”

One investigator who viewed the Reeser case as an unknowable mystery — and possibly as a case of spontaneous human combustion — was Dr Wilton Krogman, who wrote a well-known article in the 1960s disputing the FBI’s findings.

According to sceptics, Krogman’s was the most common pro-SHC argument: Because there are some unknowable details, and because theories such as the “wick effect” cannot be 100 percent proved because no one ever sees these fire start, then anything could have happened, even the supernatural.”I find it hard to believe that a human body, once ignited, will literally consume itself — burn itself out, as does a candle wick, guttering in the last residual pool of melted wax,” Krogman wrote. “Just what did happen on the night of July 1, 1951, in St. Petersburg, Florida? We may never know, though this case still haunts me.”

But the doctor’s article wasn’t the only attempt to explain the death. The FBI file contains numerous notes and letters from the public posting theories on how the woman could have died. They came from as far as Oklahoma City, where a welding company worker put his expertise to work just six days after the fire by suggesting to Hoover that an oxy-acetylene torch could have been used.

Another man, from Woodbury, N.J., suggested that an as yet unknown cancer could have made her body temperature rise to over 15,000 degrees. The file also contains several letters from other police departments that said they had similar cases of what they thought might have been SHC.

The Reeser case continued to receive press attention for years, and citizens sent to the police and FBI their own theories on her death. These attributed the cause of the deadly fire to the use of an oxy-acetylene torch, a murderer who cremated Reeser elsewhere but moved her remains back to her apartment, a form of cancer that creates high temperatures in the body, and of course SHC, among other speculations.

The letters kept coming even after the FBI’s findings were reported in the press. Just too many people did not believe the empirical evidence.

This atmosphere wasn’t helped by the St. Petersburg police chief himself, who, after the answers came in from the FBI, still said: “This is the most unusual case I’ve seen during my almost 25 years of police work. … Since we have had hundreds of suggestions as to how this incident may have happened, I am not closing the door on the case yet.”

Reeser’s family is also still haunted by her death — nearly five decades later. Over the years, they never liked the attention the unusual demise attracted. Her son, Richard, who died about a few years ago, had always agreed with the FBI findings and disputed conclusions such as Krogman’s.

“My husband always hated all this stuff,” Ernestine Reeser, Mary Reeser’s 88-year-old daughter-in-law, said “He tried to tell people that she burned up slowly and naturally and there was no artificial business there. It was just a natural situation, though it was an unusual situation. There wasn’t anything supernatural there.”

The St. Petersburg Police concluded that Reeser had fallen asleep while smoking, accidentally igniting her rayon nightgown and the chair on which she was sitting. They closed the case soon after receiving the FBI analysis. But that explanation was never satisfying, and Reeser has remained on the list of people in history whose burning deaths have never been fully explained, fueling the theory of spontaneous human combustion.

At the request of the Chief of Police, St. Petersburg, Florida, the scene was also investigated by physical anthropologist Wilton M Krogman. Professor Krogman, of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine, had spent some time in the 1930s experimenting and examining the remains of such incidents, in order to aid in the detection of crimes.

Krogman was frequently consulted by the FBI for this reason but after examining the scene and reading the FBI’s report, he strongly disputed the FBI’s conclusions concerning Reeser. However, the full circumstances of the death—and Krogman’s objections to the FBI’s version of events—would not become known publicly for a decade.

In a 1961 article for The General Magazine and History Chronicle of the University of Pennsylvania, Krogman wrote extensively about the Reeser case. His remarks included:

“I find it hard to believe that a human body, once ignited, will literally consume itself burn itself out, as does a candle wick, guttering in the last residual pool of melted wax […] Just what did happen on the night of July 1, 1951, in St. Petersburg, Florida? We may never know, though this case still haunts me.”

With regard to Reeser’s shrunken skull, Krogman wrote:

“[…]The head is not left complete in ordinary burning cases. Certainly, it does not shrivel or symmetrically reduce to a smaller size. In presence of heat sufficient to destroy soft tissues, the skull would literally explode into many pieces. I have never known any exception to this rule.”

Krogman concluded:

“I cannot conceive of such complete cremation without more burning of the apartment itself. In fact, the apartment and everything in it should have been consumed. […] I regard it as the most amazing thing I have ever seen. As I review it, the short hairs on my neck bristle with vague fear. Were I living in the Middle Ages, I’d mutter something about black magic.”

Later, having put this statement on the record, Krogman moved away from this position. He instead put forward the theory that Reeser had been murdered at another location. Her murderer had access to crematorium-type equipment and had incinerated her body. The hypothetical murderer had then transported the results of the partial cremation back to the apartment and used portable heat-generating equipment to add the finishing touches, such as the heat-buckled plastic objects and the warm doorknob.

Mary Reeser was born in Columbia, Pennsylvania and married Dr Richard Reeser (b 1874/5). Their only surviving child, also Dr. Richard Reeser was born in Pennsylvania in 1910 or 1911. She was buried in the Chestnut Hill Cemetery outside Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.

For several centuries, people have debated whether human beings can spontaneously combust, or burst into flames without being ignited by an external source. Though the first known accounts of spontaneous human combustion (SHC) date all the way back to 1641, the phenomenon gained wider exposure in the 19th century after popular author Charles Dickens used it to kill off one of the characters in his novel “Bleak House.” When critics accused Dickens of legitimising something that didn’t exist, he pointed to research showing 30 historical cases. More recently, cases of SHC have been suspected when police and fire department officials have found burned corpses with unscathed furniture around them. For instance, an Irish coroner ruled that spontaneous combustion caused the 2010 death of 76-year-old Michael Faherty, whose badly burned body was discovered near a fireplace in a room with virtually no fire damage.

Because the human body is composed mostly of water and its only highly flammable properties are fat tissue and methane gas, the possibility of SHC being an actual phenomenon seems remote. Many scientists dismiss the theory, arguing that an undetected flame source such as a match or cigarette is the real culprit in suspected cases. Typically, deceased victims are found close to a fire source, and evidence suggests that many of them accidentally set themselves on fire while smoking or trying to light a flame.

On the other hand, believers point to the fact that the human body has to reach a temperature of roughly 3,000 degrees in order to be reduced to ashes. Unless SHC were a genuine factor, it seems impossible that furniture would not burn as well. Proposed causes of the supposed phenomenon include bacteria, static electricity, obesity, stress and—most consistently—excessive consumption of alcohol, but none have been substantiated by science so far. One recent hypothesis comes from British biologist Brian J. Ford, who in August 2012 described his experiments with combustion in the magazine New Scientist. According to Ford, a buildup of acetone in the body (which can result from alcoholism, diabetes or a specific kind of diet) can lead to spontaneous combustion.

The FBI’s file on the Reeser case

History.com: Is spontaneous human combustion real?

St. Petersburg Times: White-Hot Blaze Cremates Woman; Home Damage Slight

St. Petersburg Times: Mystery as consuming as the flames

St. Petersburg Times: No New Clues in Reeser Death; Debris Sent To Lab

St. Petersburg Times:  Reeser Death Stumps Anthropologist

Mary Reeser – Wikipedia

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