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Woman's Fiery Death Remains Worldwide Enigma

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Woman's Fiery Death Remains Worldwide Enigma 51 Years Later


by: Scott Taylor Hartzell at

c St. Petersburg Times


Firefighters blamed lightning. Accident, said the FBI. To many, it was spontaneous combustion.


ST. PETERSBURG -- On a hot night in 1951, Mary Hardy Reeser was consumed by a mysterious blaze.


Little was left of her body. Her chair was destroyed, except for its springs. Her room suffered only smoke damage.


"Grandma had burned up," said Ernestine Reeser, the widow of Resser's son, Dr. Richard Reeser.


Firefighters thought Reeser was struck by lightning. A witness claimed he saw a ball of fire race through her window. The Federal Bureau of Investigation ruled Reeser's death accidental.


But others believed that Mary Reeser died from spontaneous combustion, that a chemical reaction caused her body to ignite.


The Reeser enigma has gained worldwide attention in books, magazines and newspapers. It recently was featured on television's Learning Channel.


"A case that continues to baffle the world, even to this day," the program noted.


"St. Petersburg's greatest mystery of all time," journalist Dick Bothwell wrote.


On July 1, 1951, Reeser was awaiting confirmation of her vacation plans to her hometown, Columbia, Pa. "She hadn't eaten," said Ernestine Reeser, 90. "She had taken two Seconal and was going to bed." Mary Reeser lived in an apartment on Cherry Street NE.


The landlord, Mrs. P.M. Carpenter, last saw Reeser wearing an acetate nightgown about 9 p.m. She was sitting in her chair and smoking a cigarette. Dr. Reeser had left earlier. About 5 a.m., Carpenter awoke and smelled smoke. She turned off a troublesome water heater and returned to bed.


While delivering a telegram confirming her tenant's vacation at 8, Carpenter again smelled smoke and noticed soot in the hallway. Reeser's doorknob was blistering hot. Two painters helped Carpenter enter the apartment, and they were greeted by a great blast of heat.


"She apparently burned slowly all night," Ernestine Reeser said. "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."


Firefighter Winthrop "Buddy" Standish, now 81, was amazed. "We were the first ones on the scene. I couldn't tell there had been a body there."


An intense fire had raged, but the room had not burned. The upper walls showed smoke damage; the lower walls were pristine. Light switches had melted.


Naked candle wicks stood in pools of wax, but newspapers were spared. No one had heard any screams or smelled burning flesh.


"I'll never forget it," said Bill Bennett, 75, another firefighter. "The sheets on (Reeser's) studio bed were still white."


City police Chief J.R. Reichert wrote to the FBI: "Dear Mr. (J. Edgar) Hoover. This fire is too puzzling for the small-town force to handle."


After examining the remains, Hoover's agents called the case "unusual and improbable." They pointed to the flammability of fatty tissue after finding no obvious accelerants. Reeser, 67, weighed about 175 pounds.


Backed by the FBI, coroner Ed Silk ruled Reeser's demise accidental by fire of unknown origin. Laymen and experts ventured opinions.


"A bolt of lightning was the culprit," resident Charles Morse wrote to the St. Petersburg Times. Experts discounted Morse's theory.


Some pointed to an electrical cause, but all fuses were intact. "The guys at the scene saw it as a complete mystery," said former fire Chief Zelmar Greenway, 82. "It seemed to be under one of those spontaneous combustion cases."


Colin and Damon Wilson said Reeser was a victim of spontaneous combustion in The Mammoth Encyclopedia of the Unexplained. Michael Harrison agreed in his book, Fire From Heaven.


Ernestine Reeser, who has been interviewed about the tragedy by media as far away as England, believes the FBI report. So did her husband, the doctor.


"Mary was a great smoker," she said. "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."


Eighteen years later, Ersila Dina was nearly consumed by flames. Like Reeser, she died in a chair.


"Mrs. Dina's death is amazingly similar to the death of Mrs. Reeser," the Evening Independent wrote of the Dina case, which also remains a mystery.

c St. Petersburg Times



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