Note: I’ve been asked a number of times if and when I was going to do Mary’s story. Her story originally appeared almost ten years ago and had been pulled to be a part of Histories and Mysteries of Pennsylvania: Volume I. For this Halloween season, I’ve pulled the original article out, dusted it off and expanded it slightly.
“So who are we looking for this time?” Zech asked as we drove slowly along the roadways of Chestnut Hill Cemetery. Located south of Mechanicsburg, the cemetery covers the hillside southwest of the junction of West Winding Hill Road and South York Street.
“Mary Reeser,” I replied as I navigated towards the back of the cemetery. A short distance later Zech announced he spotted the family stone for the Reeser family. Parking on the roadway, we got out and walked over to the memorial. In front of the family marker, a simple stone marks the resting place of Mary Reeser.
“So who was she?” Zech finally asked.
“She was a victim of Spontaneous Human Combustion.” Spontaneous Human Combustion is used to describe cases where a living – or very recently deceased – person catches fire without an apparent cause. An external source for the fire cannot be determined in these cases and the cause is thought to be the result of a chemical reaction within the human body. The source of the phenomenon has not been discovered, but many have presented theories on what causes the fire that reduces its victim to ash. Note: for the rest of this article Spontaneous Human Combustion will be abbreviated as SHC.
Mary Hardy Reeser was born in 1884 in Columbia, Lancaster County. She married Dr. Richard Reeser and had one son, also named Richard. After the death of her husband in 1947, Mary moved to St. Petersburg, Florida to be closer to her son. During the four years she lived in St. Petersburg, Mrs. Reeser was involved in the local Woman’s Club and a faithful member of the First English Lutheran Church.
From all accounts, she did nothing noteworthy while she was alive that would have placed her in the history books. Sadly, it would be her death that would cause the world to remember her and place her into the annals of history. At some point between July 1 and 2, 1951, Mary Hardy Reeser would become a victim of the SHC phenomenon.
The mystery of Mary Reeser’s death begins the morning of July 2, 1951. Mrs. Carpenter, her landlady, attempted to deliver a message and upon reaching Mary’s apartment discovered the door knob was unusually warm. Worried about Mary, Mrs. Carpenter contacted the police. When they entered the apartment they discovered the remains of Mary Reeser. Mary, who had last been seen alive the night before when her son left around 8:30, had been reduced to a pile of ash.
Of all of the cases of SHC, Mary’s is probably the best known case. Her strange demise was the first one to gain media attention and was also the first one that gained the attention of modern forensics. In addition to the local police and medical examiners, the FBI was called in to help with the investigation.
Now authorities were faced with the challenge of determining what had happened. The once robust woman, who roughly weighed 170 pounds, had been reduced to less than ten pounds. Those who examined her remains discovered only pieces of her spine, her skull which had been shrunk to the size of a baseball by the unusually intense heat, and her left foot still wearing the unburned slipper.
The plush chair Mary had been sitting on had been reduced to the springs. The walls of the apartment were covered with a greasy substance; and the rest of the apartment showed no burn marks. Although Mary and her chair were reduced to nothing, the heat failed to crack the paint on the wall behind her. All of the smoke and soot damage was above table level, including an electrical switch that was subjected to heat so intense it had melted, though nearby newspapers and bed sheets had not been affected. There were no electrical appliances turned on in the kitchen and as this happened at the beginning of July, and the gas heater was not being used at the time.
A nearby clock had stopped at 4:30 — the time the event is believed to have happened, yet it worked fine when plugged into a different outlet. Mrs. Carpenter had noticed the smell of smoke around five that morning, but thinking it was coming from an overheating water pump she turned that off and went back to bed.
Local police have never closed the case on what happened to Mary. However, FBI reports claim she fell asleep while smoking, and accidentally set herself on fire. This claim was supported by the fact that Mary had taken some Seconal tablets the night before to help her sleep. When her son and landlady left her, she had already taken two Seconal and was smoking a cigarette. The FBI investigation stated the cigarette fell on the chair, setting it, and then Mary, on fire. The FBI concluded that the fatty tissue caused a wick effect and the fire continued to burn until Mary was reduced to ash.
However, if the cigarette was able to catch Mary on fire and cause her death, then the apartment around her also should have caught fire. But the damage on scene was limited to the area immediately around Mary and the chair in which she was sitting. In order for a human to be reduced to ash, the body would need to burn for three to four hours at a temperature of approximately 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. If indeed the incident had been caused by a cigarette, there should have been a lot more damage to her surroundings.
Rumors began to circulate that she had been set on fire by an unknown enemy. These were quickly pushed aside when it was revealed that she had no real enemies. An analysis of the scene revealed no accelerants in Mary’s apartment. This proved that no one had maliciously entered her apartment and set her on fire. One theory even suggested she was murdered somewhere else, her body cremated, and then brought back to the apartment where the scene was staged.
Another theory that was proposed was she was struck and killed by lightning. Again, this was quickly discarded when neighbors said they could not recall seeing any lightning throughout the night. There were no signs of lightning entering or exiting the apartment and newspapers state that the FBI eliminated the lightning theory almost immediately.
If the fire would have spread, Mary’s death would probably have been listed as an accidental death. However, the mystery of her death was only intensified by how such a great fire not only started, but extinguished itself.
Officially her cause of death was an accidental death by fire unknown. To be honest, the truth of what happened to Mary Reeser that night will never have a satisfactory ending. Most theories can be supported by the evidence that was at the site, but the evidence tends to contradict itself.
As we stood before her grave I tried to find an answer in my mind to what really happened to Mary. As I recalled facts, they seemed to be at odds with each other. While I’m not a big fan of SHC, I don’t understand how a fire could completely consume a person yet create very little damage to the surroundings. If the fire burned hot enough to reduce her to ash, then it should have destroyed the apartment, if not the entire building. To me, nothing about the phenomenon makes sense.
As we prepared to leave I was faced with the one truth about Mary’s demise that is definite: her remains are interred within the sacred grounds of Chestnut Hill Cemetery.
Note: The other case of SHC that is often mentioned has a Pennsylvania connection, having happened in Coudersport. The mysterious case of Dr. Bentley can be found here: The Strange Death of Dr. Bentley.