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FBI said 1951 death wasn't 'spontaneous human combustion,' but mystery persists

As a St. Petersburg Times reporter from 1948 to 1965, Jerry Blizin covered some of Pinellas County's biggest stories. Perhaps no story was bigger than the mysterious death of Mary Hardy Reeser in the summer of 1951.

It was called the "cinder woman'' case, and it was the biggest thing that had happened in St. Petersburg in years. All of a sudden, the sleepy little city was getting national attention.

The cinder woman was Mary Hardy Reeser, a 67-year-old widow who was virtually cremated in her northeast St. Petersburg apartment on July 2, 1951, by a mysterious fire that did little other damage. The case remains open at police headquarters so it is, as it was half a century ago, a fascinating tale without a satisfactory ending.

The human remains found at the fire scene (and almost missed by firefighters) included Mrs. Reeser's left foot, clad in an undamaged black satin slipper, a portion of her skull and part of her spine. The piece of skull was described at the time as "shrunken."

To this day, I believe that the FBI report given to St. Petersburg police in August 1951 is the most credible, if incomplete, explanation of the incident — that Mrs. Reeser's own body fat provided the fuel for the fire that consumed her. The FBI said there was no "spontaneous human combustion," nor was her death caused by lightning or chemicals.

Mrs. Reeser was visited shortly before her death by her physician son, Richard Reeser. She was depressed because she thought she wasn't going to be able to travel north for the summer. She hadn't eaten dinner and told her son she had taken two Seconal tablets and might take two more before retiring.

According to the FBI, the sedated widow apparently sat down in an upholstered chair and fell asleep while smoking a cigarette. The cigarette set fire to her acetate nightgown and housecoat. Though the upholstered chair had fire-retardant treatment, it burned, too. At the end of the fire Mrs. Reeser was gone, and nothing remained of the chair but the springs.

There was a layer of soot that ringed the upper part of the apartment walls. It looked very much like what results from a long-burning candle or a kerosene lamp. Electric outlets above this line had melted, but the switches below were intact. An electric clock on a table had stopped at 4:20, presumably a.m. It worked when plugged in elsewhere.

"Once the body became ignited almost complete destruction occurred from its own fatty tissues," the FBI reported, adding that the absence of any scorching or adjacent damage was due to the fact that "heat liberated by the burning body has a tendency to rise and form a layer of hot air which never came in contact with the furnishings on the lower level."

That's basically what I reported in a St. Petersburg Times "exclusive" on Aug. 9, 1951. Executive editor Tom Harris printed up hundreds of copies of the story, and the Police Department distributed these reprints for a long time afterward to people who wrote to them about the case. Many were unsatisfied by the FBI report.

At least one experienced fire researcher also disagreed. Dr. Wilton M. Krogman, a professor of physical anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, happened to be visiting in Bradenton when the story broke.

Krogman wrote that he had investigated more than 30 fire deaths and added, "I cannot conceive of such complete cremation without more burning of the apartment." Krogman also disputed that Mrs. Reeser's skull had shrunk. "In fact," he added, "the opposite has always been true. The skulls have exploded into hundreds of pieces or been abnormally swollen."

He did agree with local funeral home directors, who said it would require three or four hours of temperatures at 2,500 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit to cremate a body.

I found some general confirmation of the FBI views in a book by Dr. LeMoyne Snyder, a medico-legal expert for the Michigan State Police, who wrote that human fatty tissue was indeed highly combustible, particularly in heavy people. (Mrs. Reeser weighed 170 pounds.)

Yet there were all sorts of anomalies. Why did a pile of newspapers stacked next to Mrs. Reeser's chair remain unscorched and intact? Why had there been no widespread smoke or odors? Only one person had smelled anything.

Landlady Pansy M. Carpenter, who also lived at 1200 Cherry St. NE, thought she smelled smoke about 5 a.m., but she assumed it was an overheating water pump in the garage. She turned off the pump and went back to bed.

At 8 a.m. her doorbell rang. It was Western Union with a telegram for Mrs. Reeser. Ironically, the message said all arrangements had just been made for her to come up north. Mrs. Carpenter tried to deliver the telegram to her tenant.

That's when the mystery began to unfold. The doorknob to the Reeser apartment was too hot to touch.

Thus began a story that even now is fodder for books, supermarket weeklies, sensationalist magazines, blogs and Internet sites.

Jerry Blizin now lives in Tarpon Springs.

FBI said 1951 death wasn't 'spontaneous human combustion,' but mystery persists 11/10/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 10, 2009 5:02pm]
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