Previous Report <-Return to the SHC Chronology Page -> Next Report
As already mentioned, most authors discount the possibility of a cigarette or electrical short starting the fire, though the main arguement against the cigarette theory has faults; but more on that in a moment. Other theories that were put forward included the possibility of murder or suicide by a dowsing of gasoline (tests indicated no signs of an accelerant), lightning strike (there was none that night), murder by flame-thrower (burn pattern was inconsistent with this theory), suicide by swallowing an explosive material (no known explosive could do it easily, and why swallow it to blow yourself up?), ball lightning (there was no lightning that night), and the theory that she was burned somewhere else, then brought back to the apartment and arranged to look like an accident (theory didn't match known facts, and why would someone do it?).
The main arguement against the cigarette theory is the claim that burning clothing could not produce a 2500 degree temperature that is "required for such dramatic results." While it's true that clothes burning under these circumstances can't burn that hot, it's untrue that such a high temperature is required to produce these results. According to Joe Nickell in his book, Secrets of the Supernatural, it is very possible that clothing ignited by a cigarette could create the overall effect.
Joe Nickell and John F. Fischer investigated the Mary Reeser case by examing not only news clippings, but also the original police reports and death certificate. First of all, Nickell points out that, despite reports to the otherwise, Mrs. Reeser was last seen wearing a flammable nightdress and smoking a cigarette, after taking two sleeping pills; and she told her son as he was leaving that she intended to take two more. So it is not only possible that she fell asleep with a lit cigarette, it is very probable.
The fact to note is that the armchair Mrs. Reeser was in was capable of burning also. Nickell quotes Thomas J. Ohlemiller, described as an expert in smoldering combustion at the Center for Fire Research, Department of Commerce, as saying: "Fire deaths caused by cigarette ignition of bedding and upholstery are among the most common in the U.S. ... The smoldering spreads slowly and can sometimes consume the entire piece of furniture with no flames." Ohlemiller added, "More commonly the smoldering process abruptly ignites the gases coming from the object; this may occur an hour or more after the smoldering process was initiated."
Many proponents of SHC claim that human bodies are difficult to burn, and point to the extreme temperatures that crematoriums use to reduce bodies (as high as 2,500 degrees). But crematoriums are designed to reduce bodies in the shortest time possible (usually about three hours), and therefore use extreme temperatures. However, given more time a lower temparature burn can have the same effect; and in the Reeser case, the time between Mrs. Reeser last being seen alive and the discovery of her body is 11 hours (9:00 p.m. to 8:00 a.m.).
This is due to the so-called "candle effect." A low temperature smolder, using a victim's cloths as a wick and a victim's own body fats and anything a victim is lying and/or sitting on as fuel, can reduce even bones to ash, given enough time. In Reeser's case, the smoldering chair could have provided more than enough "fuel" to reduce Mrs. Reeser. Her left leg remained unburned because she was in the habit of stretching it out when she was sitting because of stiffness... so it was not close enough to the main fire of the chair and torso to also be reduced.
The strangest phenomena, and long considered to be the "proof positive" of SHC in this case, was Mary Reeser's unnaturally shrunken skull. While this features large in recountings of the event, there is no real mention made of a shrunken skull in the original reports and documents; as Nickell puts it, "The self-described 'bone detective' who is often quoted on the subject merely referred to secondhand news accounts and thus spoke of 'a roundish object identified as the head.'" Since skulls do not shrink,* and, in fact, will boil and pop if heated too much, then the 'roundish object' was not likely to be Mrs. Reeser's head; having said that, though, what was it? A forensic anthropologist, at the request of Nickell and Fischer, theorized that the most likely answer was that Mrs. Reeser's head had burst in the fire and that the 'roundish object' was probably "a globular lump that can result from the musculature of the neck where it attaches to the base of the skull." And with that explaination in place, Nickell feels that the case of Mary Reeser's strange death can be closed. [*Supposed "shrunken heads" from Africa are just the skin of the head shrunk and stuffed.]
But Nickells' theory does have its opponents. Jenny Randles, in her book Strange & Unexplained Mysteries of the 20th Century, claims that through research by herself and Peter Hough of the original investigation reports written at the time of Mary Reeser's death, she "ascertained that there is considerable reason to suspect that the fatal fire occurred at around 4.20 a.m. and not many hours earlier as alleged by the sceptics." She argues that, if this claim is true, there was not enough time between 4:20 a.m. and the discovery of Mary Reeser's body for the "candle effect" to have been the cause -- and she sweetens her argument by claiming that the remains were discovered just two hours later, at 6:20 a.m., not three and a half hours later -- at 8:00 a.m. -- as other accounts claim. She does not go into further discussion of her evidence in this book, but it seems safe to assume that her book Spontaneous Human Combustion, co-written with Hough in 1992, will elaborate; I will attempt to locate a copy of this book.
|PLEASE NOTE: All articles in the Anomalies database and it's sub-databases (Mysteries, Curiosities, and SHC) are written by Garth Haslam, and should not be copied in any format without his express permission. If you use Anomalies or any of it's sub-databases for research, please be sure to list Anomalies and it's URL -- http://www.anomalyinfo.com -- in your references. This article is written by and copyright (c)2005-2012 Garth Haslam, all rights reserved. Web page design, logo/link art by Garth Haslam, September 1996-2012; he can be emailed by Clicking Here.|