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The death of Mary Reeser is the classic case of so-called Spontaneous Human Combustion in the 20th century. It is impossible to find a book that deals with the subject of SHC after the year 1952 that doesn't at least mention the Reeser death for the simple reason that this is the case that renewed popular interest in the topic. Not surprisingly then, like most "classic" cases of the paranormal, it has a huge variance in its retellings, and an equally wide variance in the theories about it.
Most of the legend above is compiled from Frank Edwards' Stranger Than Science and Colin Wilson's Encyclopedia of Unsolved Mysteries. Edwards gives a few details that I need to check on: namely, Mary Reeser's middle initial (H.), and the address she died at (1200 Cherry Street, NorthWest). He also gives different motivations for event in the story: the telegraph boy gave the letter to Mrs. Carpenter because Mrs. Reeser wouldn't answer the door, and Mrs. Carpenter was going to check on Mrs. Reeser anyway because it was "time for their morning coffee." He also says that the windows in the apartment were open, and that Mrs. Reeser was wearing a rayon nightgown, cloth slippers, and a light housecoat.
Edwards also gives the name of Edward Davies as an arson specialist for the National Board of Underwriters, and says this man made a thorough investigation and then stated the victim died of fire, but that he had on idea what caused it. Edwards also names Dr. Wilton Korgman of the University of Pennsylvania as the pathologist that studied the remains, and gives this quote: "Never have I seen a skull so shrunken nor a body so completely consumed by heat. This is contrary to normal experience and I regard it as the most amazing thing I have ever seen."
Joyce Robins, in The World's Greatest Mysteries, describes Mary Reeser as 'plump'; other than this new detail, the account in this book agrees with the legend as given above. Robins also names Dr. Wilton Krogman as an investigator, and claims he said that a temperature of about 3000 degrees fahrenheit would have been required to melt bone in the way it was, and that such a temperature should have consumed the whole apartment and the smell of the cremation would normally have spread through the entire building. Robins also adds that a newspaper near the burned chair and the linen on the bed were both unscorched.
In Strange & Unexplained Mysteries of the 20th Century, Jenny Randles gives 7 a.m. as the discovery time of Mrs. Reeser's remains, and makes a point of referring to her as 'a healthy human being.' Randles also asserts that the FBI were involved because of the suspicion that Mrs. Reeser had been killed and burnt to cover evidence of a crime. She also mentions that Mrs. Reeser was last seen smoking and taking sedatives.
Joe Nickell, working from an account of this event published in True Detective ("Weird Cremation," W.S. Allan, December 1951), points out in his book Secrets of the Supernatural that the fire damage was a bit more extensive then most of the other accounts are willing to admit. Not just Mary Reeser and her chair burned, but also a nearby end-table, the shade and wooden covering on a metal floor lamp, a four-foot hole had been burned in the carpet, and the firemen who first arrived had to extinguish a burning beam over a nearby partition. Under Reeser's remains there was a quantity of grease; the floor was concrete, which helped prevent the fire from spreading. Nickell also states that the soot that covered the walls started at the three and a half foot level, identifies the house painters that came to help as Albert Delnet and L.P. Clements, and says that the clock that stopped at 4:20 a.m. still worked when plugged into another socket.
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