DATE OF UPLOAD: July 12, 1989 ORIGIN OF UPLOAD: Gallifrey CONTRIBUTED BY: Frank Salerno/Pa
DATE OF UPLOAD: July 12, 1989
ORIGIN OF UPLOAD: Gallifrey
CONTRIBUTED BY: Frank Salerno/ParaNet Sysop
(C) Copyright 1989 ParaNet Information Service
All Rights Reserved.
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A Case Study in
Spontaneous Human Combustion
The 1951 death of Mrs. Mary Reeser of St. Petersburg, FL, who was found
reduced to ashes in a practically undamaged apartment, was a landmark case of
spontaneous human combustion because it was the first instance where every
possible tool of modern scientific investigation was used to determine the
cause of this mysterious phenomenon. Yet despite the efforts of the FBI, fire
officials, arson experts, and pathologists, a year after the incident
Detective Cass Burgess of the St. Petersburg police commented as follows:
Our investigation has turned up nothing that could
be singled out as proving, beyond a doubt, what
actually happened. The case is still open. We are
still as far from establishing any logical cause
for the death as we were when we first entered
Mrs. Reeser's apartment.
And Dr. Wilton M. Krogman, a physical anthropologist at the University of
Pennsylvania's School of Medicine and a world-renowned expert on the effects
of fire on the human body, finally gave up trying to figure out what happened.
Dr. Krogman said:
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.
Here are the details of the case:
Mrs. Mary Hardy Reeser, an agreeable, motherly widow of 67, was living in St.
Petersburg, Florida, to be near her son, Dr. Richard Reeser. On the evening of
July 1, 1951, she had remained in her son's home with one of her grandchildren
while the rest of the family went to the beach. When they returned, they found
that Mrs. Reeser had already left for her own apartment. The younger Mrs.
Reeser drove to her mother-in-law's to see if everything was all right.
According to her testimony, there was nothing in Mrs. Reeser's appearance or
demeanor to cause any alarm. Dr. Reeser visited his mother later that evening.
She was mildly depressed over the fact that she had not heard from two friends
who were supposed to rent an apartment for her in anticipation of a return
trip to Columbia, PA, formerly her hometown. His mother told him that she
wished to retire early and would take two sleeping pills to ensure a good
night's rest. Dr. Reeser left at about 8:30 PM and returned to his home.
The last person to see Mrs. Reeser alive was her landlady, Mrs. Pansy M.
Carpenter, who lived in another apartment in the four-unit building (the two
units between them were unoccupied). Mrs. Carpenter saw Mrs. Reeser briefly at
about 9 PM. She was wearing her nightgown, a housecoat, and black satin
slippers and was lounging in a comfortable chair smoking a cigarette. The bed
covers had been turned back. Mrs. Reeser's last night was a typical summer
night in Florida: the sky was overcast with occasional flashes of heat
lightning in the distance.
When Mrs. Carpenter woke up Monday morning at 5AM, she noticed a slight odor
of smoke but was not alarmed, since she attributed the smell to a water pump
in the garage that had been overheating lately. She got up, turned off the
pump, and settled back into bed. When she got up an hour later to collect her
newspaper outside, she no longer smelled any smoke.
At 8AM a telegram arrived for Mrs. Reeser. Mrs. Carpenter signed the receipt
and went to her tenant's apartment to bring her the telegram. The doorknob,
when she placed her hand on it, was hot. Alarmed, she stepped back and shouted
for help. Two painters working across the street ran over. One of them opened
the door; as he entered, he felt a blast of hot air. Thinking of rescuing Mrs.
Reeser, he frantically looked around but saw no signs of her. The bed was
empty. There was some smoke, but the only fire was a small flame on a wooden
beam, over a partition separating the living room and kitchenette.
The firemen arrived, put out the small flame with a hand pump. and tore away
part of the partition. When Assistant Fire Chief S. O. Griffith began his
inspection of the premises, he could not believe his eyes. In the middle of
the floor there was a charred area roughly four feet in diameter, inside of
which he found a number of blackened chair springs and the ghastly remains of
a human body, consisting of a charred liver attached to a piece of the spine,
a shrunken skull, one foot still wearing a black satin slipper, and a small
pile of ashes.
Coroner Edward T. Silk arrived to examine the body and survey the apartment.
Although deeply puzzled, he decided the death was accidental and authorized
the removal of the remains. The scooped-up ashes, the tiny shrunken head, and
the slipper-encased foot were taken by ambulance to a local hospital.
The ensuing investigation included police and fire officials as well as arson
experts. The facts that confronted them seemed inexplicable considering the
great heat necessary to account for Mrs. Reeser's incinerated body. Little of
the furniture, other than the chair and the end table next to it, was badly
damaged, but the apartment had suffered some peculiar effects. The ceiling,
draperies and walls, from a point exactly four feet above the floor, were
coated with a smelly, oily soot. Below this four foot mark there was none. The
wall paint adjacent to the chair was faintly browned, but the carpet where the
chair had rested was not even burned through. A wall mirror 10 feet away had
cracked, probably from heat. On a dressing table 12 feet away, two pink wax
candles had puddled, but their wicks lay undamaged in their holders. Plastic
wall outlets above the four foot mark were melted, but the fuses were not
blown and the current was on. The baseboard electrical outlets were undamaged.
An electric clock plugged into one of the outlets had stopped at precisely
4:20, but the same clock ran perfectly when plugged into one of the baseboard
Newspapers nearby on a table and draperies and linens on the daybed close at
hand - all flammable - were not damaged. And though the painters and Mrs.
Carpenter had felt a wave of heat when they opened the door, no one had noted
smoke or burning odor and there were no embers or flames in the ashes.
Faced with such a mystery, the St. Petersburg authorities called in the FBI.
Laboratory findings showed that Mrs. Reeser's estimated weight of 175 lbs. had
been reduced to a total of _less than 10 lbs._, including the foot and
shrunken head. The final report concluded that no known chemical agents or
other accelerants had been involved in starting the fire.
Dr. Krogman has burned cadavers with gasoline, oil, wood, and all kinds of
other agents. He has experimented with bones encases in flesh or stripped,
both moist and dry. His tests have utilized combustion apparatus ranging from
outdoor pyres to the most modern pressurized crematorium equipment. He has
demonstrated conclusively that it takes extraordinary heat to consume a body,
and that only at over 3000 degrees Fahrenheit would bone become volatile
enough to lose its shape and leave only ashes. "These are very great heats",
he said, "that would sear, char, scorch or otherwise mar or effect anything
and everything within a considerable radius."
Another mystery was the slippered left foot, which Mrs. Reeser, having been in
some discomfort, was in the habit of propping up on a stool. The foot was left
unburned, apparently because it was outside the mysterious four-foot radius of
Perhaps strangest of all, and unique to this case of SHC, was the shrunken
skull. Dr. Krogman commented:
...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 in many pieces.
I...have never known any exception to this rule.
SEE: Michael Harrison, "Fire From Heaven"
Vincent Gaddis, "Mysterious Fires and Lights"
Francis Hitching, "The Mysterious World: An Atlas of the Unexplained"
Frank Edwards, "Stranger than Science"
Reader's Digest, "Mysteries of the Unexplained"
E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank