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Spontaneous Human Combustion. The Woman Who Burst Into Flames -Mystery Files

Updated on November 9, 2012
Spontaneous Human Combustion
Spontaneous Human Combustion
Mary Reeser - The victim of Spontaneous Human Combustion?
Mary Reeser - The victim of Spontaneous Human Combustion?

Was this a case of Spontaneous Human Combustion?

It is eight in the evening on the second of July in 1951. A landlady in St Petersburg USA, has received a telegram for one of her tenants - a Mrs. Mary Reeser.

The landlady takes the telegram to deliver it to Mrs. Reeser. However on touching the doorknob to the residence, the landlady almost burns herself - The doorknob is scorchingly hot.

She runs for help and finds two painters working nearby. They return together and manage to open the door. It is like opening an oven as they are met with a blast of hot air - and yet, inside there is no great inferno, just a small flame on a dividing partition, and a little smoke.

They check the 67 year-old widow's bedroom - The bed is empty and she is nowhere to be seen.

The Firemen arrive and need only a small hand pump to douse the feeble flame. They pull away the charred partition to check that all flames have been extinguished and discover a burnt circle on the floor. It is little more that three feet in diameter.

Within the charred circle they see a pile of ashes containing several chair springs, a human spine with the burnt remains of a liver still attached, a human skull which the heat has shrunk to the size of a grapefruit and a satin slippered human foot, burnt off at the ankle. This was all that remained of Mrs. Reeser

All that was left of Mrs. Reeser
All that was left of Mrs. Reeser
The partial burning of the body is typical of cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion
The partial burning of the body is typical of cases of Spontaneous Human Combustion

The Enigma of Spontaneous Human Combustion

Here was a case of human combustion that was to baffle Police, Insurance men, Fire officials and Arson experts alike. On the face of it, there was no real reason for the fire. Nearly all of the damage was limited to the chair where Mrs. Reeser had met her fate. This area alone seems to have been subjected to incredibly intense heat.

It was explained at the inquest that Crematoria generally need to generate temperatures as high as 2500 degrees fahrenheit and sustain them for up to four hours to incinerate a body. They would still then need grinders to reduce the remains to match the state of Mrs. Reesers remains as they were found.

Mrs. Reeser was not a slightly built woman. When alive, she weighed in at twelve and a half stone, yet had been reduced by the burning to a mere eight and a half pounds of ash.

Although the heat was said to have been phenomenal, as in most cases of spontaneous human combustion, very little damage had occurred outside the charred circle of death. Two pink candles standing on a dressing table had been reduced to mere pools of wax and a wall mirror had cracked. Yet a pile of newspapers standing just outside the circle was completely unharmed. The slippered foot resting outside the circle was unharmed, yet the portion of leg residing within the circle had completely incinerated.

Investigating the scene of the aledged Spontaneous Human Combustion - Note the barely damaged partition.
Investigating the scene of the aledged Spontaneous Human Combustion - Note the barely damaged partition.

Investigation into the Human Combustion

Spontaneous Human Combustion is not regarded as a proved phenomenon by most official bodies. The FBI suggested that Mrs. Reeser must have fallen asleep whilst smoking after taking sleeping pills even though it was determined that neither the chair or her nightdress was particularly flammable.

Experts also dismissed the possibility of death by lightning, suicide or murder. For the murder scenario to hold water, the body would have to have been soaked in petrol or some other such incendiary agent, but no trace of accelerant chemicals were found.

A leading expert in death by fire, Dr. Wilton Krogman was called in to give his opinion, but having surveyed the evidence, confessed that he was baffled. A particular puzzle was the strange shrunken state of the victim's skull. Dr. Krogman explained that a skull subjected to such intense heat would normally expand and then shatter explosively! "They say truth is often stranger than fiction" he said "and this case proves it".

Dr. Krogman also said "I regard it as the most amazing thing i've ever seen. As I review it, the short hairs on my neck bristle with vague fear. Were I living in the middle ages, I'd mutter something about Black magic"

More about Spontaneous Human Combustion

The Entrancing Flame
The Entrancing Flame
In this text, Heymer, a retired police officer, looks at spontaneous human combustion (SHC). He tells of how he once investigated a case of what he remains convinced was SHC and how this led to him delving into possible causes and the widespread silence or disbelief of the scientific community. He takes the view that those with intensive specialist training may have very rigid opinions and refuse to see something they do not wish to or which fails to accord with their theories.

The Phenomenon of Spontaneous Human Combustion

The strange demise of Mrs. Mary Reeser is often cited as a classic case of what is known as "Spontaneous Human Combustion" This is a well documented phenomenon, in which it is believed that the human body can spontaneously ignite and burn itself to ashes. Many cases of spontaneous human combustion have been reported, some going back as far as the 17th century.

Most scientists deny that such a thing as spontaneous human combustion is possible, despite the regular reporting of such incidents, but denial of the facts gets us no closer to explaining how an old lady could find herself in the midst of an inferno with temperatures high enough to reduce her body to dust whilst leaving combustible materials only a few feet away unharmed. That is the mystery of Spontaneous Human Combustion.


Submit a Comment
  • Gaizy profile imageAUTHOR


    8 years ago from Denbigh, North Wales, UK

    Thanks TammanyB, Yes,it's a really weird subject but quite fascinating.

  • profile image


    8 years ago

    I really enjoyed this! Its facinating and the mystery of the subject matter is " moreish" . I am off to find some more cases! Great hub!

  • Gaizy profile imageAUTHOR


    9 years ago from Denbigh, North Wales, UK

    Thanks tamron. Yes, it's a real mystery, and more common than I imagined when first reserched the story.

  • tamron profile image


    9 years ago

    Great article on spontaneous combustion. I think spontaneous combustion accures the same way as any object the combust. Its due to some sort of chemical change. How I couldn't tell you. Voted up!

  • profile image


    9 years ago

    Yes, if you look it up you will find at least two well-documented cases of survivors, but there are probably more.

  • Gaizy profile imageAUTHOR


    9 years ago from Denbigh, North Wales, UK

    @ em-saenz - That's interesting. I didn't know that anyone managed to survive a spontaneous combustion.

  • profile image


    9 years ago

    It is interesting that some people have actually survived after this experience

  • Gaizy profile imageAUTHOR


    9 years ago from Denbigh, North Wales, UK

    Thanks for your comments smcopywrite.

  • smcopywrite profile image


    9 years ago from all over the web

    wonderful subject and believe or not it does happen to be a topic that many are interested in. nicely presented.

  • Gaizy profile imageAUTHOR


    9 years ago from Denbigh, North Wales, UK

    Thanks Scarytaff - The weird this is the localised nature of the fire - it doesn't seem to affect anything around it.

  • scarytaff profile image

    Derek James 

    9 years ago from South Wales

    There was a theory some years ago that when urine dries into clothing, then a tiny static spark can set it off like a roman candle. Again, pure theory. Good hub Gaizy.

  • Gaizy profile imageAUTHOR


    9 years ago from Denbigh, North Wales, UK

    @ Simone Smith - I seem to remember a TV science programme many years ago, trying this theorey on the dressed carcass of a pig. It took some time to ignite, but once going the pig's fat melted and wicked into the clothing, which kept the fire going. I don't think it reached temperatures high enough to incinerate the bones though.

  • Simone Smith profile image

    Simone Haruko Smith 

    9 years ago from San Francisco

    Fascinating subject, this is. I read the most plausible explanation is cigarettes. I heard something about how cigarettes igniting clothing and then the body burning similarly to a candle made this possible. But then again... nobody is exactly going to experiment with this theory to prove it right or wrong :D

  • Gaizy profile imageAUTHOR


    9 years ago from Denbigh, North Wales, UK

    @ bethperry - I'm sure that it's more common than we realise. I can remember a local newspaper report a few years ago in which an old lady died by fire in a room that was otherwise undamaged. She was a non smoker, and there were no sources of naked flames in the room - strange!

  • bethperry profile image

    Beth Perry 

    9 years ago from Tennesee

    Interesting hub!

    I believe in SHC as when I was little a neighbor was said to have died suddenly from flames that took him while watching television. The rocking chair he sat in wasn't affected, nor the room he was in. There was only a black scorch mark left on the ceiling. People for years wondered how it happened to him; the firefighters and insurance folks could never figure it out.

  • Gaizy profile imageAUTHOR


    9 years ago from Denbigh, North Wales, UK

    @spirit929 - Yes, In many ways I don't want them to find a rational explanation for it, 'cos I like a good mystery.

  • spirit929 profile image


    9 years ago from Upstate NY somewhere over the rainbow

    Hi Gaizy, Nice collection of Hubs especially this one! I have known about SHC since I was a kid, my dad used to read about it and was so freaked out about it we couldn't even say the words out loud! It is a strange bewildering occurance and to this day no definitve cause for it. frightening to say the least!


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