Pansy Carpenter heads to her tenant Mary Reeser’s apartment with a telegram – but what she thinks will be a quick delivery doesn’t go that way. The landlady knocks and receives no answer, so she reaches for the doorknob, which is hot to the touch. She runs for help, and the painters who heed her call enter the property with her – only to find a burned chair and a pile of ash beside it.
Reeser had just moved into the apartment, which sat at 1200 Cherry Street NE in St. Petersburg, Florida. Nothing of note had happened during her tenancy there – not even on the morning when her apartment became a crime scene. Carpenter thought she might have smelled smoke, and she could have sworn she heard a mirror breaking. But none of that explained what had happened to the widow living at the rental property.
In her last days, Reeser’s son had visited and she’d detailed her medication routine to him. That night, she had followed along as she usually did – two Seconal tablets, which she would follow up with two more later. The barbiturate likely soothed her, as doctors use it to relax patients as they head into surgery.
But no amount of medication could have prepared Reeser for what would happen to her next. Her landlady discovered some of the evidence that would build a case that would confuse even the FBI. Beyond that, Reeser’s fate would spark a huge discussion among those who followed the case – some believed she had suffered a shockingly brutal demise that came from within.
Mary Hardy Reeser came into the world in March 1884 in Columbia, Pennsylvania. She and her husband, Dr. Richard Reeser, would go on to have a son who shared his name – right down to his title – with his father. The younger Dr. Richard Reeser, for his part, was born in either 1910 or 1911.
Eventually, though, Reeser made her way down south to St. Petersburg, Florida. There, she lived in at least one abode before moving into a new rental at 1200 Cherry Street NE. Still, Reeser kept in touch with her roots up north – every summer, she trekked back to see her friends.
In the summer of 1951 Reeser awaited a telegram that would confirm her travel arrangements for her annual trip. In the meantime, her son, Richard, came by to see his mother on Sunday, July 1. His visit took place at around 8:30 p.m., and he noted that his mom hadn’t eaten dinner at that time.
Still, Reeser had ingested something – two things, to be exact. She informed Richard that she had taken a pair of Seconal tablets, a barbiturate hypnotic that doctors administer to patients pre-surgery. The medication, for its part, helps calm the jitters that so often affect people before an operation.
Reeser also mentioned that she might take two more Seconal tabs before heading to bed that evening. She donned a nightgown and reclined in an upholstered chair, pulling on a cigarette as she did. Richard eventually left his mother’s house and, unbeknownst to him, he’d be the last-ever person to see her alive.
A series of strange events then led authorities to Reeser’s remains the next morning. It all started at 5:00 a.m., when the widow’s landlady, Pansy Carpenter, awoke and headed outside of the apartment building to pick up the newspaper. But it hadn’t arrived – instead, Carpenter discovered something very different indeed.
As she stepped out of the apartment that morning, Carpenter claimed to have smelled smoke at the crack of dawn. But the landlady didn’t think much of the scent, considering she’d had previous woes with a water pump on-site. So, thinking it to be the source, she turned it off and hopped back into bed.
An hour later, Carpenter woke up a second time, and by now the paper had arrived, but her trek outside didn’t come with any unusual scents. Carpenter did note another strange occurrence at this time, though – she heard a loud sound, which she later identified, according to Buzzfeed, as the “sound of a large mirror breaking.”
A little over two hours later, a telegram arrived from Western Union with Reeser as its recipient. The delivery boy later said nothing seemed amiss – although the widow’s apartment windows remained open, he didn’t notice any smoke billowing out. Nevertheless, Reeser never accepted the message – Carpenter did so instead.
So, with the telegram in her possession, Carpenter made her way to Reeser’s apartment to pass it on. And just as she had at 5:00 a.m. that morning, the landlady once again caught the smell of smoke as she made her way there. Then, she noticed a trail of soot in the hallway heading right toward Reeser’s door.
Carpenter then reached out to touch the doorknob to Reeser’s apartment before entering, but it was too hot for her to touch, let alone turn to open the door. So with that, the landlady knew she had to get help.
Carpenter left Reeser’s apartment and eventually found a group of house painters nearby. They agreed to check out her tenant’s home and together they opened the door. None of them could have expected to find what hid behind the hot doorknob – there was a reason why the place had smelled of smoke.
Inside, they found the charred remains of Reeser’s seat – only its springs remained intact. Within those ashes, authorities also found what remained of the widow who had sat in the chair the night before. All that was left of her body was a portion of her spine, her left foot and what appeared to be a shrunken skull.
Making matters even stranger, the rest of Reeser’s apartment seemed unaffected by what would have been an intensely hot blaze. In order to burn through bones, as had happened to Reeser, the fire would need to reach approximately 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. And it would have to burn at that heat for about four hours to cremate her.
The authorities, however, noted little damage to the rest of Reeser’s property, aside from the chair in which she had died. For starters, the widow had candles arranged near where the blaze started. Although the intense fire had melted the candle wax, their wicks still stood ominously upright – and that was just the beginning.
Reeser had plenty of plastic objects in the vicinity of her easy chair, too. Many of them had softened or otherwise lost their shape, showing that they, too, had heated up with the fire. However, a stack of newspapers sitting near where the fire broke up hadn’t lit up with the blaze.
A scorch mark ran across the rug beneath where Reeser had sat. An end table and another chair sat atop the rug, though – just above the markings – and both remained upright post-fire. The wall behind Reeser’s burned chair had no notable damage, though above it, soot and smoke stained the ceiling.
And then, there were the light switches and outlets surrounding Reeser’s remains. The former, situated on a higher perch, melted. But lower wall outlets remained completely intact – they still worked afterwards. Meanwhile, in the kitchen, all of the power had gone out, and a gas heater attached to the wall had been shut off, too.
Strangely, high temperatures endured within the apartment post-blaze. One fireman who attended the crime scene found himself unable to enter the premises – he felt as though Reeser’s apartment too hot. But when he sought out the source of the heat, he couldn’t find anything. Nothing remained smoldering inside, in spite of the fact that the place felt so physically stifling.
And then, of course, there was the mystery of Reeser’s remains, or lack thereof. Most of her had burned into ash during the intense fire, but investigators did find a chunk of her spine within the ash. Her left foot remained intact and unburned, though – it even had its shoe on, too.
One day later, the coroner, Magistrate Ed Silk, signed off on Reeser’s death certificate and listed her cause of death. He deemed it “accidental death by fire of unknown origin,” but the coroner apparently only did this so that Reeser’s remains could be buried. He reiterated that the investigation into her death was very much still open.
The FBI were soon on the case too, and got access to a slew of samples from the crime scene gathered by the St. Petersburg-area detectives. They sent pieces of Reeser’s rug and samples of her chair, as well as wall, floor and smoke residue. As they usually did, the FBI also roped in Dr. Wilton M. Krogman into their proceeding investigation.
Krogman then teamed up with the FBI when their investigators couldn’t identify remains in their charge. In the case of Reeser, though, the bureau wanted to know what had happened to the burned woman. According to the St. Petersburg Times, Krogman felt “amazed and baffled” by the way she had died.
As many others had, Krogman noted the impossibility of such an intense blaze burning and causing minimal damage. He said he could not “conceive of such a complete cremation without more burning of the apartment itself.” Krogman also quipped, “They say truth is stranger than fiction and this case apparently proves it. I’ve never heard of anything like it.”
Although Krogman didn’t diagnose the cause of Reeser’s death, some who’d heard her story came up with a theory as to how she had died. They pointed to spontaneous human combustion as Reeser’s cause of death. Just as it sounds, one who suffers from SHC would perish after a fire started within them, no external spark required.
The idea of spontaneous human combustion traces back to the year 1746, when Countess Cornelia Zangheri Bandi died mysteriously in Italy. Since then, people have debated the possibility of such a death being a possibility, and forensic scientists have long investigated this potential, too. However, most scientists agree that such blazes start thanks to an unnoted external source of ignition.
Still, some believe in spontaneous human combustion, and they counter the consensus’ argument with facts of their own. Biology professor Brian J. Ford explained what such a death would be like to The Sun in January 2019. He said, “Humans suddenly burst into searing hot flame. Left alone, their bodies burn fiercely until little but hot ash remains, though the hands and legs may remain unscathed.”
And the newspaper had an explanation for how such a painful blaze could start. Some theories have pointed to the use – and abuse – of alcohol. As such, some experts have hypothesized that these people passed out brimming with booze, and a lit cigarette or match set their bodies alight.
However, Ford said alcohol hadn’t had that effect in lab tests. He revealed, “Alcoholism was traditionally thought of as a risk factor, but this isn’t plausible. Fatty flesh, even when soaked in alcohol, does not burn.” Instead, Ford theorized, it had more to do with the build-up of acetone in a person’s body.
Ford claimed, “When a person is ill they sometimes naturally produce traces of acetone in the body, and [it] is highly inflammable.” He tested his theory with shocking results, too. As Ford described it, “I experimented with scale model humans using pig flesh that had been marinated in acetone; they burn like incendiary bombs.”
And the kicker? Ford said that drinking too much booze could cause a person’s body to produce too much acetone, as could a slew of other diseases. He said, “My conclusion is that an unwell individual produces high levels of acetone which accumulates in the fatty tissues and can be ignited, perhaps by a static spark or a cigarette.”
Ultimately, the FBI drew a slightly different conclusion than Ford may have, had he investigated the Reeser case. They did not cite spontaneous human combustion, instead concluding that Reeser’s attire and her cigarette had caused her death.
The FBI believed that Reeser had taken her second dose of the barbiturate Seconal. Then, with a cigarette in her mouth, she dozed off while seated in her upholstered chair. Somehow, the burning tobacco came in contact with her acetate nightgown, setting Reeser’s pajamas on fire.
As the fire burned, the FBI theorized, Reeser’s body fat fanned the flames. The 67-year-old weighed about 170 pounds at her time of death. So, as her body fat heated up and melted away, it could have caused the fire to become bigger, hotter and more damaging. According to BuzzFeed, the FBI said at the time that “once the body became ignited almost complete destruction occurred from its own fatty tissues.”
Such an event could at least partially explain the lack of fire damage to the rest of Reeser’s apartment, too. If her body fat had started to burn, it would create a particular fire pattern that matched the damage on the scene. Namely, heat would rise from her body, thus explaining why things above her had melted away, while items placed lower remained intact.
Still, the FBI’s explanation left some questions unanswered. If Reeser’s body had burned in a 3,000-degree pyre, then how did a nearby stack of newspapers not even singe? And it’s these queries that have kept intrigue high in the case of the cremated widow, even 70 years after her death.