ST. PETERSBURG — On the night of July 2, 1951, a plump, peppy doctor's widow named Mary Hardy Reeser took two sleeping pills, put on her nightgown and settled into an easy chair for a last cigarette before bed. Shortly afterward, something quite horrible happened in the little studio apartment at 1200 Cherry St. NE. We do not know how it happened or how long it took.
But when firefighters broke through the door at 8:07 the next morning, they could not find Mrs. Reeser at first. For a few frantic moments they thought she had disappeared.
A thick gray haze hung over the room. Under their feet, the wall-to-wall carpeting had a sinister and faintly disgusting stickiness.
Oddly, the apartment was mostly intact. The sofa bed was turned down, sheets gleaming white and unslept on. But the ceiling and walls in one corner of the room were black with soot. On the floor below, a 5-by-4-foot patch of carpeting was singed away, revealing the cement floor.
In the middle of this bare patch was a modest pile of black ashes.
It was several moments before the firefighters noticed a slippered foot among the ashes, then a burned-out skull shrunken to the size of a big man's fist.
The foot, the skull and the ashes were all that remained of Mary Hardy Reeser.
"It was the biggest thing that had happened in years," says Jerry Blizen, the reporter who covered the story for the St. Petersburg Times. "This was a sleepy little town in those days, with the tourists emptied out for the summer. Now, all of a sudden, it was getting national attention."
The mystery grew, rumors spread, reporters, experts, criminologists swooped in. An FBI team studied the remains.
The police ruled out foul play; the woman had no enemies. There was no sign of lightning entering the apartment, and no trace of fire starters or accelerants at the death scene.
This left some of the supermarket weeklies and sensational crime magazines to come up with an explanation more to their liking: Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC). This is an alleged condition in which, for no known reason, the human body suddenly catches fire and burns furiously on its own juices and oils.
At any rate, questions remain. What sort of fire from hell was this that burned so furiously, yet failed to spread beyond the corner of a single room? And how could others in the apartment house, in nearby houses, have remained so utterly unaware of the inferno next door?
The obvious explanation —that the pills put Mrs. Reeser to sleep and the dropped cigarette ashes caused a fire — did not fully explain. Nothing could explain the fury of flames that consumed a human body, shrank its skull and then, as if obeying a command from some unearthly power, simply stopped, pulled back, disappeared.
Funeral directors said that for a body to be reduced as was this one, it would have to burn in a special furnace at 1500 degrees Fahrenheit for three hours or more. But this, they said, would not explain the shrinkage of the skull.
Wilton M. Krogman, a University of Pennsylvania anthropologist with a worldwide reputation as an expert on the effect of fire upon the human body, raised the heat requirement to 3,000 degrees. Even so, he declared, the skull would not shrink but expand and ultimately explode.
"I regard it (the Reeser case) as the most amazing thing I have ever seen," Krogman went on. "As I review it, the short hairs on the back of my neck bristle with vague fear. Were I living in the Middle Ages, I'd mutter something about black magic."
One year later, Detective Cass Burgess of the St. Petersburg Police Department said: "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."
Mary Reeser was 67 when she died, and about the most important woman in Columbia, Pa. (population 12,000).
She had been the wife of the town's foremost doctor, and she loved bridge, gourmet cooking and her only child, Richard Jr. He graduated from Cornell Medical School, was assigned to troops in this area during World War II and stayed on to practice medicine for almost 40 years in St. Petersburg.
"You don't see hostesses like Mother Reeser anymore," says Richard's wife, Ernestine. "Her cream was the thickest in town. She always had three kinds of ice cream in the freezer, and it was always homemade. She loved to eat and to have people over for wonderful rich food, the kind none of us dares to eat now that we're so aware of cholesterol."
Mrs. Reeser was proud of her large home, her good furniture and antiques. Her hands were always busy with needlepoint. Forty years after her death, it is sobering to see some of her furniture and needlepoint surviving in the St. Petersburg home of her son.
In 1950, three years after her husband's death, she sold her home in Pennsylvania and moved to Florida to be near her son and his three little girls. "She soon realized that selling her home was a mistake," Dr. Richard Reeser Jr. says.
"She missed her old life, her friends, her position back home. She hated the hot months here and had tried to go back and rent an apartment for the summer. But there had been a little business boom in Columbia, and her friends couldn't find her an apartment. For that reason she was depressed in the last days of her life."
On the afternoon she died, Mrs. Reeser came to her son's house for Sunday dinner and then babysat for her youngest granddaughter Marty, 4, while the Reesers took Mary, 12, and Nancy, 10, to the beach.
"It was so easy to get to Pass-a-Grille in those days," says Reeser, "but we noticed Mother seemed depressed, so we came back in an hour."
Mrs. Reeser went home. Early in the evening, Ernestine, her daughter-in-law, dropped in to see how she was. A little later, her son and granddaughter Nancy came over.
"The last time I saw her," says Reeser, now 81 and retired, "she was sitting in her easy chair with two fans blowing on her. She always kept two fans going. She hadn't wanted any dinner, so the two Seconals she had taken would have been felt quickly. She was wearing a nightie. No bathrobe or house coat, just a nightie. She was smoking a cigarette and seemed content. I kissed her good night."
Pansy Carpenter, landowner and apartment neighbor to Mrs. Reeser, woke up at 5 a.m. smelling smoke. She decided it was from a defective water pump in the garage and got up and turned off the pump. Then she went back to sleep.
An hour later, she got up and brought in the morning paper. The smoke smell was gone. At about 8, a Western Union boy came with a telegram for Mrs. Reeser (It was from friends in Columbia saying that an apartment had finally turned up). Mrs. Carpenter went to Mrs. Reeser's room, tried the door knob, found it hot. She began to worry.
Painters were working in a house across the street. She called to them. They came over, opened the door, took a quick look and closed it again. Mrs. Carpenter called the fire department and Dr. Reeser.
"She didn't tell me what was wrong," says Reeser, "just to get over there quickly. I did, and found the fire chief, a patient of mine. He told me not to go in the room and explained why."
Reeser is a cultured, confident man. He dismisses the possibility of spontaneous combustion. "I think she died because she fell asleep and her cigarette ignited the upholstery of the easy chair."
He pauses, goes on with an effort. "This is difficult to talk about. Oddly enough, this is the first time anyone has asked me about my mother. I have a steamer trunk full of magazine stories about the case and not one of the writers ever came to me. Neither did the experts, the FBI, the famous Dr. Krogman from the University of Pennsylvania.
"At any rate, I think the fire that consumed my mother's body was so powerful because it fed on her own body fat."
Animal fat, including human fat, he explains, is especially combustible and burns with great heat. And there might have been a particularly burnable texture to his mother's body fat.
"She weighed 170 to 175 pounds. Not obese on a woman 5-feet-4 or -5, but dangerous weight."
"Once when we were cooking together," says Ernestine Reeser, "she burned her arm badly. And I could see the layer of fat under her skin. I'd never seen a layer of fat quite like it."
Mrs. Reeser's ashes, after months of testing and examination, were finally released, flown to Pennsylvania and buried next to her husband's grave. But the family insists that part of her remained in St. Petersburg with her son, her grandchildren and her furniture.
The ghost of Mary Hardy Reeser was felt — and occasionally smelled — in the guest room, on the stairwell and elsewhere in the house at 555 19th Ave. NE, where the doctor's family lived at the time of the tragedy.
"I guess we never saw the ghost, but we certainly were aware of it," says Reeser, smiling but serious, too, and unembarrassed. "Several times I got heavy whiffs of a perfume she always wore. . . . What was it?"
"L'heur Bleu," his wife says. "We all smelled it, especially in the guest room, which was furnished entirely with things from her Pennsylvania home. Once our little dog Wiggles jumped on her old bed and his hair stood on end and he whimpered and then just tore out of the room and would never go back."
Childhood friends of the Reeser children remember the ghost. One recalls feeling a cool breeze, and Marty Reeser, then about 5 or 6, said, "That's Grandma again. Don't worry. She's nice."
"Still, we couldn't keep her," Ernestine Reeser says. "Finally we redecorated and got new furniture in the bedroom, and that was the last of the ghost. You see, it wasn't our old house that was haunted. It was Mother Reeser's furniture. Maybe she just loved it too much.
"But we missed Mother Reeser and we missed the ghost. We called her our friendly ghost."