The Mystery Behind Mary Reeser's Chilling Death

On the morning of July 2, 1951, 67-year-old Mary Reeser was found burned to death in her Florida apartment (via All That's Interesting). All that was left of Reeser was a foot in a slipper and pieces of her skull and spine. Reeser's landlady had called the police when she received no answer after trying to deliver a telegram. She also noticed that the doorknob was unusually hot. According to the Tampa Bay Times, when firefighters burst through the door, Reeser was a mere pile of ashes. Although there was clear evidence of extreme heat, the apartment was not on fire and was, for the most part, untouched.

Per Talk Murder To Me, police could not comprehend how Reeser had been cremated when only her recliner and some nearby items had been charred. Indeed, cremation is an hours-long process that requires a temperature of 1,500 to 2,000 degrees F — how could this have occurred in this older woman's home? The night before her death, nothing had seemed amiss. Reeser, who was in a nightgown, had taken two sleeping pills before enjoying a cigarette in her recliner. Hours later, she was somehow burned alive. Bay News 9 reports that it was quickly suspected that Reeser was the victim of spontaneous human combustion. The FBI, however, disagreed.

Mary Reeser's death remains a mystery

Although some believed that Mary Reeser had been struck by lightning or even murdered, those theories, along with various others, were quickly ruled out (via Talk Murder To Me). But what about spontaneous human combustion? Was it possible that she had been a victim of this mystifying (and debated) phenomenon? According to All That's Interesting, the concept suggests that a person can suddenly burst into flames without an apparent source of external heat. Per Bay News 9, the FBI said it believed Reeser fell asleep while smoking and set herself on fire. As she was on the heavier side and was wearing a highly flammable nightgown, her own body fat and tissues fueled the flames that would ultimately consume her.

Despite this conclusion, many have a hard time believing it. It doesn't explain why the entire apartment wasn't set ablaze and why some things, like a pile of newspapers next to her chair, were left completely untouched. Tampa Bay Times writes that anthropologist Wilton M. Krogman doesn't understand how cremation could have occurred without the rest of the apartment burning. He believes the FBI's explanation is credible but incomplete. And 70 years after Reeser's death, it's unlikely there will ever be any new answers about what truly happened to her.