As a weird kid growing up in the 80s, I have to say that Unsolved Mysteries gave me completely unrealistic expectations about the frequency of cases of amnesia and spontaneous human combustion. All kidding aside, if you were into the strange and unusual back then, one of the things that you would always see in some weird book was the burned remains of a person with only the bottom portion of the leg still recognizable. There were two pictures that were the most popular, Dr. John Irving Bentley, and Helen Conway.
Both Dr. Bentley and Helen Conway died in the 1960s. But prior to their unusual deaths, a woman named Mary Hardy Reeser died under similar circumstances in July, 1951. The difference between her death and theirs from a researcher’s perspective is that it was covered much more in depth in the papers.
Who Was Mary Reeser?
Mary Hardy Reeser was a 67-year-old widow who had moved to St. Petersburg, Florida from Columbia Pennsylvania, following the death of her husband a few years prior. Her son, like his father had been, was a prominent physician in the area. Mary lived in a fairly new, furnished apartment located at 1200 Cherry Street NE in the “exclusive” Northeast section of St. Petersburg. She was in Apartment #1 which is the left corner apartment in the picture below. It was described as thoroughly modern. Each apartment had a living room, “electric” kitchen, twin-bed bedroom, tiled bath, and a garage.
Although the Allamanda Apartment building had five apartments and one hotel room, Mary and her landlord, Pansy M. Carpenter, were the only two living in the building.
A Telegram Arrives
Around 5 a.m. on Monday, July 2nd, Pansy was woken up by the sound of a dull thud. She told investigators that it sounded like a door closing. She got up, looked around outside but saw nothing unusual and made her way back to bed. As she got to her apartment she thought she smelled smoke and went into her garage to turn off an electric pump that had been causing her problems. Around 6:00 a.m. she got back up to get the paper and thought that it was strange that Mary was not up and listening to her radio as she normally did in the morning. Pansy said at this time she didn’t see or smell any smoke.
Around 8 a.m. a Western Union boy came with a telegram for Mary and asked Pansy what apartment she was in. Pansy told him she would deliver the telegram as she also had the paper. When she got to Mary’s screen door she felt that it was hot and hollered at the boy to come help her, she said the screen door was unlocked. When the boy didn’t respond she yelled at some painters working across the street, and told them that there was a woman in the apartment. The two men went into the apartment as she went back to her apartment to call the Fire Department and Mary’s son Dr. Reeser.
The first man looked into the apartment from the doorway and could see no one lying on the bed, although the bed looked like someone had slept in it. The second man entered and went through the entire apartment before he saw Mary’s remains on his way back out. He told investigators when he entered the apartment there was very little fire but a lot of smoke. All he could see of Mary’s body was the lower part of one leg and a black slipper. He noticed that the ceiling light was on in the dressing room and he tried to turn it off, but the face plate was melted and he was afraid to touch it. Both men told investigators that the heat was not what they considered to be intense.
When the Fire Department arrived on scene they remarked that the inside of the apartment was filled with smoke and the Assistant Fire Chief entered to open the windows to allow the smoke to escape. The smoldering mass on the floor was put out with a hand pump. He did not see what remained of Mary’s body until he was making his way out of the apartment.
The fire chief was completely stunned by the scene that he found. All of the electrical outlets were working fine, though most were slightly melted. The switch that was nearest to where Mary had been was completely melted and not working. An electric clock in the room had stopped at 4:20, but when it was plugged in at Pansy’s apartment it worked fine. The facts of the case were quickly released to the papers.
- The corner where Mary’s body was found was hot enough to destroy Mary’s body and most of the chair, but the paint on the wall behind her was not cracked or scorched.
- The living room rug was burned only underneath where the chair had been.
- Soot and smoke blackened the upper walls and ceiling of the room, but there was no evidence of smoke near the floor or below table level.
- Light switches melted and buckled, but outlets a few feet lower on walls were intact and working.
- Candles on a windowsill near the hot corner had melted, but their wicks remained upright in the holders.
- A pile of newspapers on a water heater immediately behind the hot corner were not damaged.
- Bed sheets a few feet away were not burned, smoke damaged, or even dirty.
- All electricity to the kitchen was off.
- Wall mounted gas heater was secured and off.
Different theories began to spread about the cause of the fire. One of the more prominent was that Mary had been struck by lightning. Shortly after her death, police received an unsigned letter that was addressed to the “Cheif of Detectiffs” which said “a ball of fire came through the open window and hit her. I seen it happen.” Another theory was that her body must have been soaked in ether and/or alcohol.
The police contacted the company that manufactured the chair to determine what they used to stuff the chair, and were told that it was stuffed with sterilized cotton batting. A Tampa Tribune reporter checked Mary’s medicine cabinet and only found “standard digestive aids.” Every possible angle was explored and left police and fire investigators baffled.
Mary’s Last Moments
Mary’s remains were fairly quickly released to the funeral home for burial, although the death certificate remained unsigned. Police tried to put together a timeline of Mary’s last moments as best they could. They questioned both her son, Dr. Richard Reeser, Jr, and Mrs. Pansy Carpenter as they were the people who saw her last.
Mary’s day was said to revolve around her son, Dr. Richard Reeser. She was known to get up before 6 a.m. and listen to the radio while washing her clothes or doing other chores around the house. She would normally eat breakfast around 7-8 a.m and then wait for Dr. Reeser to come over for his morning cup of coffee around 10 a.m. She would then leave to do various errands for Dr. Reeser and return usually by 4 p.m. She would take a nap until dinner time which she ate at her son’s house. By 8 p.m. she was normally back in her apartment listening to the radio until it was time for her to go to sleep.
Pansy said that on Sunday, July 1st, Mary came home around 4:30 p.m. and appeared to be upset. Her daughter-in-law came over around 5-5:30 p.m. and stayed for a short visit. Around 8 p.m., Dr. Reeser came over but only stayed for a few minutes. Pansy spoke to Mary briefly either before Dr. Reeser arrived or just after he left. She said that Mary was wearing a rayon nightgown and black satin shoes. She told Pansy she was a little upset and had taken 2 Seconal tablets and would take 2 more a little later. Pansy believed that Mary was upset over a family quarrel, but really she was disappointed about taking a trip to Pennsylvania.
The telegram that would arrive the following day and lead to the discovery of Mary’s remains was from a friend in Pennsylvania letting her know that her trip had been arranged and taken care of.
The FBI Investigation
On July 7th, 1951, the St. Petersburg Police sent 14 pieces of evidence to the FBI laboratory for review. Included in the evidence were glass fragments, six small objects believed to be teeth, metal from near the body, fibers from what they believed was Mary’s nightgown, bone fragments, cotton from the chair, charred wood, charred legs from end table, a piece of the rug, unburned section of rug “heavily soaked with greasy substance”, ashes, shoe, and chair springs.
Interestingly enough, J. Edgar Hoover was directly involved with the investigation into Mary’s death. J.R. Reichert, Chief of Police specifically requested that the FBI provide any information or theories into how a human body could be so destroyed and the fire contained to such a small area with so little damage done to the building and furniture in the room.
On July 31st, 1951, the long awaited FBI report was released. The results were that no accelerants were found, and the greasy substance submitted was body fat. They stated the lack of widespread damage in the apartment was most likely due to the fire smoldering rather than burning. The hot air rose and formed a layer which never came into contact with the items below the 4′ level. The FBI believed that the piece of metal found near the body was most likely the remains of a cigarette lighter. The final result of the report was that Mary most likely accidentally lit herself on fire while smoking a cigarette. Click here to read the full FBI file on Mary Hardy Reeser.
Mary’s death certificate was finally signed following the release of the FBI report. The cause of death was listed as accidental.
The Wick Effect
The wick effect is the most current explanation for cases of spontaneous human combustion (SHC). Basically, after a person has caught fire they are kept burning from their own fat. The clothing on the body acts as the wick, sort of like an inside out candle.[mfn]Wick Effect[/mfn] Because it is normally a slow burn, nothing else other than items in the immediate area are affected.
I have to believe that the FBI got it right and Mary’s death was caused by a combination of sedatives and falling asleep with a lit cigarette. However, I have so many unanswered questions. Can someone be so passed out that they won’t wake up even when they’re on fire? If she did wake up on fire why didn’t Pansy hear her scream? If the thud that Pansy heard around 5am was Mary’s remains hitting the floor, is it possible for practically her entire body to be reduced to ash in a period of only 3-4 hours?
- The Allamanda Apartments: Tampa Bay Times
- Mary Hardy Reeser’s Apartment Diagram: Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg, Florida) · 3 Jul 1951, Tue · Page 13
- Mary Hardy Reeser: Source Unknown