Skip to main content

The mystery of the woman who burned to ashes in the apartment is still intact: A history of decades

On July 2, 1951, Pansy Carpenter, Mary Reeser’s landlady, stopped by the tenant’s apartment to send a telegram. When Pansy knocked on the door, no one answered. She put her hand on the doorknob and felt unusually hot, so she called the police.

Police immediately went to the apartment at 1,200 Cherry Street (St. Petersburg town, Florida, USA) and discovered Mrs. Marry Reeser, 67 years old, burned to death in a mysterious fire. Reports say that the victim’s body was burned to ashes by a “white” flame – the color shows a temperature between 1,300-1,500 degrees Celsius, equivalent to the temperature in a crematorium.

The victim’s body was almost completely ash, leaving only one leg with the sandal intact, and there was no sign of soot. Part of Reeser’s spine and a fragment of her skull were also found at the scene.

Victim Mary Reeser.

Although the apartment was very warm and smoky when police arrived, most of the furniture was intact. Only plastic items placed near the chair Mrs. Reeser sat in melted and deformed. The carpet has a scorch mark. The chair in which the victim was sitting was almost completely burned, but the wall behind it was not cracked or scorched. The rest of the room appeared untouched by the fire that consumed Mary Reeser. The bed sheets nearby were also not burned, damaged, not even dirty.

It needs to be heated at about 1,600 degrees Celsius for 3 or 4 hours to cremate a body. As a result, the case confused the authorities.

Due to the mysterious circumstances of the case, it is suspected that Ms. Reeser was a victim of spontaneous human combustion. It is when a person ignites a fire from a chemical reaction inside their body, without any obvious ignition from an external heat source. Although there have been documents about the human body burning on its own since 1663, not all scientists are convinced.

Sheriff Cass Burgess was the detective investigating the Reeser case at the time. “This fire is a very strange thing,” he told reporters.

Diagram of the apartment where the “woman turned to ashes” happened. The location of the fire was close to the kitchen, opposite the bed was still intact. Photo: thedehistory

On July 7, 1951, Burgess and his team sent a container of evidence from the victim’s apartment to the laboratory of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation – FBI (in Washington D.C) for chemical analysis. Some of the evidence included ashes, shoes, part of the rug, mortar from the walls, pieces of yarn suspected to be from the victim’s nightgown, bone fragments, and remains of the chair Ms. Reeser was sitting in when the fire burned. ….

The public also paid great attention to the case. Investigator Ed Silk said that at least 15 amateur detectives called him to come up with their theories.

The team of detectives released a statement saying it was an “accidental death by fire of unknown cause”. That doesn’t mean they’re concluding the investigation, Mr. Burgess explained, but just to make it possible for the burial of the victim to be organized.

Meanwhile, the FBI determined that Mary Reeser’s death was not due to spontaneous combustion in humans. However, the incident remains a mystery.

The FBI believes that Mary Reeser’s own body fat fueled the fire that burned her, possibly from lighting a cigarette and falling asleep. Ms Reeser was set on fire and “as soon as the body caught fire, almost complete destruction occurred from the victim’s own fatty tissues”.

It is true that human adipose tissue is very flammable, and even more so in fat people. Which Reeser is a large woman, weighing 77kg.

Investigators examine the crime scene. Photo: ATI

The FBI’s explanation also has a certain basis, but it only provides a partial explanation, because there are still some anomalies. For example, a stack of newspapers stacked next to the victim’s chair was still intact, not even scorched.

Dr. Wilton M. Krogman, professor of physical anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and an experienced fire researcher, disagreed with the FBI’s conclusion. Mr. Krogman has written about all five deaths he has previously investigated. “I can’t imagine such a complete cremation without burning the apartment at all,” wondered the professor.

Several other explanations were given in turn, such as lightning strikes, explosives… However, that night there was no lightning at St. Petersburg. Samples of evidence from the scene also showed no sign of gasoline or flammable substances. After a fruitless investigation, police eventually concluded that the cause was “a forgotten cigarette”. One question from this, however, is whether someone dies from not being able to wake up even while under fire? If Mrs. Reeser was awake, why couldn’t the landlady Pansy hear the screams?

Finally, after exactly 70 years, the death of the “ash woman” is still a mystery that challenges investigators.