Spontaneous Human Combustion: A Brief History

Mysterious Fires

The last time Mrs. Mary Reeser was seen alive was Sunday night, July 1, 1951. Her son, Dr. Richard Reeser, and her landlady, Mrs. Pansy M. Carpenter, who had both been visiting the 67-year-old woman, said goodnight at about 9:00 p.m. and left Mrs. Reeser sitting in her easy chair in her apartment in St. Petersburg, Florida.

        At 5:00 am the following morning, Mrs. Carpenter was awakened by the smell of smoke and, assuming it was a water pump in the garage that had been overheating, she turned the pump off and went back to sleep.

        At 8:00 am, Mrs. Carpenter was awakened by a telegraph boy at her door; he had a telegraph for Mrs. Reeser. Mrs. Carpenter signed for the missive, and walked to Mrs. Reeser’s room... but there was no answer to her knock. She checked the doorknob; it was hot! Alarmed, Mrs. Carpenter ran outside to find some help. A pair of house painters working nearby rushed over to her aid, and, together, managed to force open the door to Mrs. Reeser’s apartment only to be met by a terrible blast of heat. Though this was evidence of a fire within, the only portion of the one-room apartment that was burned was the small corner in which sat the remains of Mary Reeser’s easy chair... and the remains of Mary Reeser herself. Of the chair, only charred coil springs remained. Of Mrs. Reeser, there was little more; and these remains baffled the firemen, police, and pathologists that later examined them.

Mary Reeser's remains        Mrs. Reeser’s 170 pounds had been reduced to less than ten pounds of charred material. Only her left foot remained completely intact, still wearing a slipper and burnt off neatly at the ankle, otherwise undamaged. A lump of vertebrae was also found and, stranger still, what appeared to be her skull... apparently shrunk to the size of a teacup by the intense heat.

        The remainder of Reeser’s apartment showed all the signs of heat damage; from about the four foot level on up, the walls were covered with a greasy soot, a mirror had cracked, plastic switches and a plastic tumbler in the bathroom had melted, as had two candles on a dresser, which left behind their unburned wicks and a pink pool of wax. Below the four foot level, the only damage was the small circular burn area encompassing the remains of Mrs. Reeser, her chair, and the carpeted area they sat upon, as well as a plastic electric wall outlet that had melted, stopping her clock at 4:20 am.

        What could have burned Mrs. Reeser so fiercely without causing more damage to her surroundings? Experts pointed out that a temperature of 2500 degrees is necessary for such a thorough cremation. A cigarette igniting her clothing would never have produced that temperature. The materials of the chair she sat in were only capable of a slow smoulder, not an intense blaze. The electrical outlet had melted only after the fire had begun, so couldn’t be the source. An FBI pathologist tested for gasoline and other accelerants; there were none. Even lightning had been considered, but there had been none in St. Petersburg that night.

        Months after the occurrence, the Chief of Police and the Chief of Detectives signed a statement attributing the fiery death of Mary Reeser to falling asleep with a cigarette in her hand, although this had already been shown to be an impossibility. The declaration was meant to publicly close the investigation... but some spoke of another possible cause; a very strange possible cause. Some believed that Mrs. Reeser was a fine example of Spontaneous Human Combustion.

        Spontaneous Human Combustion... three simple words that convey a very bizarre possibility which many have argued to be absolutely true, and just as many have argued to be simply impossible. In the most basic sense, Spontaneous Human Combustion describes a situation in which a person’s body is believed to catch fire and burn rapidly, being reduced to ashes in a matter of moments... and the point of ignition is inside the person’s body. Outlandish though this idea may sound at first, a few hundred years ago there were good reasons people would be inclined to believe such an event could happen.

        First off, the very idea of combustion was not fully understood. Sure, any farmer knew that when hay was left in a pile under the right circumstances, it would catch fire on its own... but no one knew why. Some interesting ideas were put forward on the matter, though. In 1667, Johann Joachim Becher proposed the idea that there existed a basic element that caused combustion; this element, later named Phlogiston, was released when an object burned; and the more Phlogiston in the object, the faster and more fierce the final combustion. It was also believed that the purpose of respiration in living beings was to exhale out Phlogiston that built up within their bodies... so, logically, there could be medical conditions that allowed Phlogiston to remain and build up within a living body, leading to a combustion.

        Secondly, there was the very nature of the victims of the so-called spontaneous human combustion. Death by fire was hardly unusual; but it was pretty well known that a tremendous amount of wood was required to reduce a human frame to mere ashes. On average, two cart-loads of wood were required to burn a criminal or martyr at the stake, and the same amount was needed to cremate a corpse. So the fact that people were being found burned down to ashes ? even their bones ? on relatively undamaged floors, with no other obvious signs of fire damage within the area and often with undamaged limbs left behind, all implied a form of burning that had to be quite different from the fires used for purposeful cremation... a form of burning that might be supernatural. Hence when a man was found burned to death in bed by his wife in 1613, a pamphlet written about the event was entitled “Fire from Heaven burning the Body of one John Hitchell“.

        Another early thought on the matter was that people became combustible by consuming combustible substances. In 1717, John Henry Cohausen repeated a case of a woman found reduced to ashes, a bit of skull, and a few digits, a story he claimed to have found in a book published in 1673. The proposed cause of this combustion was that the woman had been a heavy drinker, to the extent that, for three years, she had not consumed much else other than liquor... and this, presumably, made her frame become prone to the strange combustion death.

        When the Countess de Bandi Cesanate was found reduced to ashes in her room one morning in 1731, the Reverend Joseph Bianchini, who was one of the first people to examine the scene, expressed his opinion that her death was caused by a lightning strike that either traveled down the chimney, or snuck through the cracks in the window. Bianchini dismissed the fact that no one had heard thunder easily by stating that either everyone was in too deep a sleep, or because “there have been seen Lightnings and Fulmina without Noise; as one may very often observe” [“Fulmina” is an old term for multiple lightning bolts. -- Garth].