The mystery of spontaneous human combustion

Rise to flame

Arguably the most famous modern case of spontaneous human combustion occurred in 1951, when a 67-year-old widow named Mary Reeser died in an unknown and mysterious fire in her St. Petersburg, Florida apartment.

The Reeser case has all of the hallmarks of spontaneous human combustion. According to the original newspaper article about Reeser’s death, Reeser was a “robust” woman (the St. Petersburg Times lists her weight at 170 pounds) who burned to ash along with the armchair that she was sitting in. Only her foot remained. The ceiling and upper walls of Reeser’s apartment were covered in soot, but the furniture and lower walls were perfectly fine. Detective Cass Burgess, who investigated Reeser’s death, claimed that there were no signs of common accelerants like ether, kerosene, or napalm at the crime scene. The mysterious fire propelled the city of St. Petersburg into the national spotlight, and attracted the attention of amateur sleuths all over the country.

But there’s also a perfectly logical explanation for Reeser’s demise. In 2009, reporter Jerry Blizin, who covered the Reeser story in 1951, revisited one of his most famous cases, now armed with some additional details. The FBI concluded that Reeser’s own body fat fueled the fire. The night that she died, Reeser told her son that she’d skipped dinner in favor of two sleeping tablets. He last saw her sitting in the armchair where she later died, smoking a cigarette. While nobody will ever know exactly what happened to Ms. Reeser, there’s an obvious conclusion — and there’s nothing supernatural about it.