Sunday, June 1, 2014

Spontaneous Human Combustion

St. Petersburg, 1951.

On the evening of July 1, at around 9pm, retired widow Mary Reeser said goodnight to her son Richard Reeser and landlady Pansy Carpenter, who lived in the same building. As per her usual custom, she was relaxed back in her easy chair when they saw her last.

At 5am, Mrs. Carpenter thought she smelled smoke. A water pump in the building had been overheating recently and giving off a similar smell, so she turned it off and then went back to bed. At 8am, a telegram arrived for Mrs. Reeser, so Carpenter signed for it and took it to Reeser's apartment. No answer to the knock. She checked the doorknob and found it to be intensely hot. She ran outside and asked two workmen nearby to come over and help her, and they succeeded in forcing the door down.

The room was too hot to enter at first, as if entering the remains of a building still smoldering from a powerful fire. But the room, aside from a layer of greasy soot, was unburned except for one small charred circle of rubble. With horror they realized it was the remains of Mrs. Reeser and her chair. But nothing was visibly left of Reeser except for one unburnt foot with its slipper unharmed. After firemen and police arrived, they sifted through the pile of ashes and found some of her vertebrae and her shrunken skull which was reduced, according to reports, "to the size of a teacup."

What had happened? No one could say. The best the authorities could come up with was to surmise that she fell asleep in her chair while smoking and accidentally set herself ablaze, and that she must have taken sleeping pills which prevented her from waking up even as she was on fire. The problem is, that doesn't explain how a 170-pound woman and her giant easy chair were reduced to only 10 pounds of ash, and how the fire contained itself to a small circle where the chair stood instead of spreading. A clock on the wall had stopped at 4:20. Two candles had melted, and so had a plastic tumbler in the bathroom, quite some distance from Mrs. Reeser's chair.

The human body is mostly water, and despite what you see in the movies, does not burn easily. Even people completely consumed by fire still leave a charred skeleton behind; but Reeser's body was reduced to total ash. Even people in the cremation business find that excess unburnt bones still persist and often must be sent through for another pass, and cremation requires 2500 degrees of heat in a carefully controlled chamber. The remains were sent directly to J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, who tested for accelerants and found none.

Aficionados of "Fortean Phenomena", that voluminous body of evidence for paranormal incidents that defy explanation, quickly seized on the incident as the ultimate Spontaneous Human Combustion case. There were enough such incidents on file in legitimate medical literature, in fact, that in 1938 the British Medical Journal published an article about it, noting that the majority of cases have these commonalities: The victims are chronic alcoholics, they are usually elderly females, some source of fire was already in place to trigger the impossible immolation, the hands or feet usually escape, the fire has caused very little damage to combustible things in contact with the body, and the combustion of the body has left a residue of greasy and fetid ashes.

Later closed minds, like that of the staff of the Skeptical Inquirer, asked:

"If SHC is real, why doesn’t it happen more often? There are 5 billion people in the world, and yet we don’t see reports of people bursting into flame while walking down the street, attending football games, or sipping a coffee at a local Starbucks."

If one digs deep into news reports, actually, we find there are plenty more unexplained fires and SHC-like incidents that go unreported, misreported, or given the same public spin as the fairy tale the St. Petersburg Police spun to explain away Reeser's death. (In fact, such reports of freak fires are getting more and more common all the time - but we'll get to that tomorrow.)

And 18 years after Reeser's death, it happened in St. Petersburg again. It was an elderly woman again - one Ersilia Dina, and again she had been sitting in a chair. Again, the body and the chair were almost completely consumed while the rest of the home was relatively unscathed. Mrs. Dina's skull was extremely burnt (though not shrunken like Reeser's) yet her eyeglasses were - utterly impossibly - undamaged. One of her feet, still in its sock and shoe, was unburnt. Of the rest of her, there was little else left. The coroner ruled there was not enough of the body left to perform a proper autopsy.

And in 1980, it happened in Florida once more.

A woman named Jeanna Winchester was driving in Jacksonville when she suddenly burst into flames. This time the victim wasn't reduced to a pile of ashes - she was lucky enough to be able to get out of the car and have the flames beaten away, and she survived though she suffered horrible burns to most of her body.

This almost seems to suggest, then, that at least in Winchester's case it was her clothing that spontaneously self-destructed, and not her own body that burst out with fire from within. Winchester was not smoking and her car windows were rolled up. There was, and is, no explanation for what happened to her.

I've been aware of the Mary Reeser story since I was about 5 years old. A precocious reader, I took great interest reading about it in a copy of Frank Edwards' Stranger Than Science that my mother had in her book collection. Later, as a teen, I discovered the books of Charles Fort and read further on the Reeser case. Little did I know that one day I'd be living in the Spontaneous Human Combustion capital of the world, and would stand in the very yard of the house where Mrs. Reeser created one of the greatest unsolved X-Files of all time.

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