Throughout history, there have been stories and even photos of people who were victims of Spontaneous Human Combustion. One of these occurred in 1951, when Mary Hardy Reeser burned up. Little was left of her body?the chair she was sitting in was also destroyed, except for its springs, but her room had only smoke damage. According to her granddaughter Ernestine Reeser, “Grandma had burned up.?
On July 1, 1951, Reeser was planning her vacation. “She hadn’t eaten,” says Ernestine Reeser, who is now 90. “She had taken two Seconal and was going to bed.” Her landlady, Mrs. P.M. Carpenter, last saw Reeser wearing a nightgown made of acetate, which is an extremely flammable fabric, about 9 p.m., sitting in her chair smoking a cigarette. About 5 a.m., Carpenter woke up because she smelled smoke. She turned off her water heater, but didn?t investigate further, and went back to bed.
When she delivered a telegram to her tenant at 8 a.m., Carpenter again smelled smoke and noticed soot in the hallway. Reeser’s doorknob was too hot to touch. Two painters working nearby helped Carpenter enter the apartment, where they were almost overcome by a blast of heat. Firefighter Winthrop “Buddy” Standish, who is now 81, says, “We were the first ones on the scene. I couldn’t tell there had been a body there.”
“She apparently burned slowly all night,” Ernestine Reeser says. “All that was left was her skull – the size of a teacup – and her left foot encased in a black satin slipper. She had a bad left leg and always stretched it out.”
Although an intense fire had raged inside, the room itself hadn?t burned. The upper walls showed smoke damage, but the lower walls didn?t. Some of the light switches melted and a naked wick and pool of melted wax were all that was left of a candle, but nearby newspapers weren?t even singed. No one heard any screams or smelled burning flesh. “I’ll never forget it,” says firefighter Bill Bennett, age 75. “The sheets on (Reeser’s) studio bed were still white.”
City police Chief J.R. Reichert called in the FBI, saying, ?This fire is too puzzling for the small-town force to handle.” After examining the remains, the FBI called the case “unusual and improbable.” They blamed the fire on the flammability of fatty tissue since Reeser, age 67, weighed about 175 pounds. Coroner Ed Silk ruled that Reeser’s death was accidental, caused by a fire of unknown origin.
“A bolt of lightning was the culprit,” Charles Morse wrote to the editor of the St. Petersburg Times. Other people thought the fire must have had an electrical cause, but all the fuses were intact. “The guys at the scene saw it as a complete mystery,” says former fire Chief Zelmar Greenway, 82. “It seemed to be under one of those spontaneous combustion cases.”
“Mary was a great smoker,” says Ernestine. “The cigarette dropped to her lap. Her fat was the fuel that kept her burning. The floor was cement, and the chair was by itself. There was nothing around her to burn.”
In a similar case 18 years later, Ersila Dina was nearly consumed by flames. Like Reeser, she died in her chair. The Evening Independent newspaper wrote that, “Mrs. Dina’s death is amazingly similar to the death of Mrs. Reeser.”
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