Up In Smoke - The Bizarre Case Of Mary Reeser

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The last time 67-year-old widow Mrs. Mary Reeser was seen alive was on July 1, 1951. Her son, Dr. Richard Reeser, and her landlady, Mrs. Pansy M. Carpenter, who had been visiting said goodnight at about 9:00 p.m. and left Mrs. Reeser sitting in her easy chair in her apartment in St. Petersburg, Florida.

The first sign of trouble was at 5:00 am. Mrs. Carpenter was awakened by the smell of smoke and, assuming it was a water pump in the garage that had been overheating, she turned the pump off and went back to sleep. At 8:00 am, a telegraph boy awakened Mrs. Carpenter at her door; he had a telegraph for Mrs. Reeser. Mrs. Carpenter signed for the missive, and walked to Mrs. Reeser's room, but there was no answer to her knock.

Mrs. Carpenter checked the doorknob; it was hot! Alarmed, Mrs. Carpenter ran outside to find some help. A pair of house painters working nearby rushed over to her aid, and, together, they managed to force open the door to Mrs. Reeser's apartment only to be met by a terrible blast of heat, evidence of a fire within. What they discovered inside the room defied belief.

The only portion of the apartment that was burned was the small corner in which sat the remains of Mary Reeser's easy chair and of Mary Reeser herself. Of the chair, only charred coil springs remained. Of Mrs. Reeser, there was little more; and these remains baffled the firemen, police, and pathologists that examined them. Mrs. Reeser's 170 pounds had been reduced to less than ten pounds of charred material. Only her left foot remained intact, still wearing a slipper, burnt off at the ankle but otherwise undamaged. Also found were her liver, now fused to a lump of vertebrae, and, stranger still, her skull - shrunk to the size of a baseball by theintense heat.

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. What could have burned Mrs. Reeser so fiercely without causing more damage to her surroundings? Experts pointed out that a temperature of 2500 degrees is necessary for such a thorough cremation. A cigarette igniting her clothing would never have produced that temperature.

The electrical outlet had melted only after the fire had begun, so couldn't be the source. An FBI pathologist tested for gasoline and other accelerants; there were none. Even lighting had been considered, but there had been none in St. Petersburg that night. Months after the occurrence, the Chief of Police, and the Chief of Detectives signed a statement attributing the fiery death of Mary Reeser to falling asleep with a cigarette in her hand. Although already shown to be an impossibility, the declaration served to publicly close the investigation. The death of Mary Reeser is the classic case of so-called Spontaneous Human Combustion in the 20th century. It is impossible to find a book that deals with the subject of SHC after the year 1952 that doesn't at least mention the Reeser death for the simple reason that this is the case that renewed popular interest in the topic.

Not surprisingly then, like most "classic" cases of the paranormal, it has a huge variance in its retellings, and an equally wide variance in the theories about it. Most of the legend above is compiled from Frank Edwards' Stranger Than Science and Colin Wilson's Encyclopaedia of Unsolved Mysteries, Edwards gives a few details: namely, Mary Reeser's middle initial (H.), and the address she died at (1200 Cherry Street, North West). He also gives different motivations for events in the story. The telegraph boy gave the letter to Mrs. Carpenter because Mrs. Reeser wouldn't answer the door, and Mrs. Carpenter was going to check on Mrs. Reeser anyway because it was "time for their morning coffee." He also says that the windows in the apartment were open, and that Mrs. Reeser was wearing a rayon night-gown, cloth slippers, and a light housecoat. Edwards also gives the name of Edward Davies as an arson specialist for the National Board of Underwriters, and says this man made a thorough investigation and then stated the victim died of fire, but that he had on idea what caused it.

Edwards also names Dr. Wilton Korgman of the University of Pennsylvania as the pathologist that studied the remains, and gives this quote: "Never have I seen a skull so shrunken nor a body so completely consumed by heat. This is contrary to normal experience and I regard it as the most amazing thing I have ever seen." Joyce Robins, in The World's Greatest Mysteries, describes Mary Reeser as 'plump'; other than this new detail, the account in this book agrees with the legend as given above. Robins also names Dr. Wilton Krogman as an investigator, and claims he said that a temperature of about 3000 degrees Fahrenheit would have been required to melt bone in the way it was, and that such a temperature should have consumed the whole apartment and the smell of the cremation would normally have spread through the entire building.

Robins also adds that newspapers near the burned chair and the linen on the bed were both unscorched. In Strange and Unexplained Mysteries of the 20th Century, Jenny Randles gives 7 a.m. as the discovery time of Mrs. Reeser's remains, and makes a point of referring to her as 'a healthy human being.' Randles also asserts that the FBI was involved because of the suspicion that Mrs. Reeser had been killed and burnt to cover evidence of a crime. She also mentions that Mrs. Reeser was last seen smoking and taking sedatives.

Joe Nickell, working from an account of this event published in True Detective ("Weird Cremation," W.S. Allan, December 1951), points out in his book Secrets of the Supernatural that the fire damage was a bit more extensive then most of the other accounts are willing to admit. Not just Mary Reeser and her chair burned, but also a nearby end table, the shade and wooden covering on a metal floor lamp, a four-foot hole had been burned in the carpet, and the firemen who first arrived had to extinguish a burning beam over a nearby partition.

Under Reeser's remains there was a quantity of grease; the floor was concrete, which helped prevent the fire from spreading. Nickell also states that the soot that covered the walls started at the three and a half foot level, identifies the house painters that came to help as Albert Delnet and L.P. Clements, and says that the clock that stopped at 4:20 a.m. still worked when plugged into another socket. Many scientists and lay people have attempted to explain the Reeser case and SHC. Once creative British scientist even went so far as to build a replica of the Reeser apartment in his lab, wrap a dead pig in a blanket, and light it on fire. The results were no inconsistent with cases of SHC, but the definitive answer?

The true cause of Mary Reeser's impossible immolation is still unknown and, possibly, unknowable.

This story Information drawn in-part from the exceptional "Anomalies" website.
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