Mary Reeser: Spontaneous Human Combustion


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 pm and left Mrs. Reeser sitting in her easy chair in her apartment in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Smelly Smoke


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.


spontaneous human combustion, the story of Mary Reeser

Mary Reeser did not answer

At 8:00 am, Mrs. Carpenter was awakened by a telegraph boy at her door; he had a telegraph for Mrs. Reeser. Mrs. Carpenter signed for the missive, and walked to Mrs. Reeser’s room. Strangely, 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.


spontaneous human combustion, the story of Mary Reeser. Policemen investigate the scene

A very local conflagration

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 the intense heat.

Heat damage

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.

Charring conundrum

What could have burned Mrs. Reeser so fiercely without causing more damage to her surroundings? First, experts pointed out that a temperature of 2500 degrees is necessary for such a thorough cremation. Second, 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.

Mary Reeser: Cause unknown

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. In conclusion, the true cause of Mary Reeser’s impossible immolation is still unknown… and, possibly, unknowable.

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