back to top

Notes For Unsolved: The Cinder Woman

Research notes for Supernatural Season 2 Episode 7

Posted on

**Compiled for Ryan & Shane on January 11, 2017 by Adriana Gomez.

History of Spontaneous Human Combustion:

  • Spontaneous human combustion became characterized as a cremated body that has not tarnished its surroundings.
  • The earliest known recount of a case of spontaneous human combustion dates back to 1641.
  • The curiosity of spontaneous human combustion gained popularity in the 19th century when Charles Dickens wrote it as a cause of death for one of his characters in Bleak House.
  • Cases of human combustion from the past include one from London in 1904, and Paris in 1869. In both cases, the surroundings of the cremation did not suffer much damage.
  • In 1641, Thomas Bartholin, a Danish mathematician and doctor, recorded the death of Polonus Vorstius, who died in 1470 by bursting into flames after a night of drinking in Milan, Italy.
  • In 1663, he also wrote about a Parisian woman who spontaneously combusted in bed, but did not damage her mattress.
  • In 1745, Paul Rolli wrote of Countess Cornelia Bandi of Ceséna, Italy, who after dinner felt heavy and went to bed. Her maid found her the next morning, burnt to a pile of ashes with only her legs intact.
  • In 1800, Pierre Aimé Lair wrote Essai sur les Combustions Humaines, produits par un long abus des liqueurs spiritueuses (which roughly translates to Essay on the Human Combustions: Produced By A Long Abuse Of spirituous liquors).
  • The theory that alcoholism may be a source of spontaneous human combustion may be traced back to this piece.
  • In 1861, J.L. Casper denounced spontaneous human combustion as a myth in his work Handbook of the Practice of Forensic Medicine.
  • In 1885, Dr. Floyd Clemens, the coroner of Mrs. Pat Rooney, concluded that she died of spontaneous human combustion.
  • In 2005, David Dolinak also stated in Forensic Pathology: Principles and Practice, that it “does not exist.”
  • In 1982, the family of Jean Saffin claimed they saw her burst into flames in her London home. Their coroner denied that this was a possible cause of death.
  • As recently as 2010, a coroner claimed spontaneous human combustion to be the cause of death of 76-year-old Irishman, Michael Faherty. He was found in his home and none of his surroundings were badly tarnished.
  • ALLEGEDLY, there have been roughly 200 recorded cases of spontaneous human combustion.
  • (Brian Ford also makes this statement in his interview.)

The Science of Spontaneous Human Combustion

Cases of spontaneous human combustion typically contain these three characteristics:

  • Surroundings of the site of the fire are practically intact.
  • There is no visible source of the fire.
  • Parts of the body are left intact and adjacent to the ashes.
  • It is also mysterious how most spontaneous human combustion victims do not seem to try and escape.
  • The human combustion process involves internal fluids turning into gas and the melted fat of the body further burns organs and bones.
  • The possibility of spontaneous human combustion is questionable since the body is made of up to 70% water. The only components of the body that are flammable are body fat and methane gas.
  • Scientist believe that these cases can be explained by an undetectable flame source such as a cigarette or match.
  • Yet, because it takes temperatures of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit to burn a body, it is odd that the flames do not cause drastic damage to the surrounding area of the blaze.
  • Theories as to why the body would ignite so easily include: static electricity, bacteria, stress, obesity and alcohol consumption - none have been proven.
  • In a 2012 issue of New Scientist Magazine, biologist Brian J. Ford theorizes that a large concentration of acetate in the body may cause spontaneous combustion. Alcoholic intake, variations in diet, and diabetes can allegedly lead to a buildup of acetone.

General Spontaneous Human Combustion Theories:

Note: All of the theories are a little nutso. Legitimate sources also report what I’ve read on dubious websites, so I didn’t create a separate “what the internet says” section. The legitimate sources will say “others believe…” and go into the other internet theories.

Interview with Brian J. Ford (the man who Scientific American says “dabbles” in the sciences) summary:

  • Biologist Brian J. Ford soaked pork tissue, which is similar to human tissue, in alcohol for a week. They could not burn the tissue.
  • Acetone however is a chemical that is extremely flammable and our body produces it in small amounts.
  • Ford claims amounts of acetone in the body can increase. Ford says for instance, alcoholics and those who follow the Atkins diet, diabetics, and even teething babies can have higher levels of acetone.
  • According to Ford, when you are ill, acetone levels rise.
  • So Ford let pork tissues soak in acetone for a week and they did burn.
  • They then re-created dressed humans who had come in contact with acetone, and propped them in a chair. They also lit on fire.
  • Static electricity and divine intervention are also cited as possible explanations of spontaneous human combustion.
  • Another explanation is the “wick-effect” which theorizes that clothes act as the wick, setting fire to the body. This was used as a possible explanation for Reeser’s death. Records blamed her acetate nightgown.
  • Human cells may reach a “heightened state” of vulnerability to ignite.
  • Extreme stress could cause the body to ignite.

Timeline of Mary Reeser’s Death

  • The telegram was received at 8:07 a.m.
  • The Western Union telegram boy did not notice any smoke even though the windows were open.Mrs. Carpenter, the landlady, last saw her around 9 p.m., the night before the fire.Mary Hardy Reeser was a 67-year-old widow living in St. Petersburg, FL.
  • She died in a mysterious fire on the night of July 2, 1951 in her apartment on 1200 Cherry St. NE.
  • St. Petersburg Times - July 4, 1951: Mary Reeser had only just moved into her apartment at 1200 Cherry Street NE a month earlier from another local location. Mary Reeser was not under any medical care.
  • St. Petersburg Times - July 3, 1951: Mary Reeser was last seen by her son around 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 1, 1951.
  • Mrs. Carpenter, the apartment owner, came out of the apartment building around 5 a.m. to look for the morning paper, which had not yet arrived, and thought she smelled smoke. She assumed the smell came from a water pump she had had difficulties with. She turned the pump off and went back to bed.
  • She woke again around 6 a.m. and grabbed the morning paper and did not notice anything suspicious. She did hear a noise later, and upon examination she concluded it was probably the “sound of a large mirror breaking.”
  • At 8 a.m. Mrs. Carpenter received a telegram and on her way to deliver the telegram to Mrs. Reeser, Mrs. Carpenter noticed the smell of smoke again, but this time, there was also soot in the hallway that lead to Mary Reeser’s apartment.
  • When she went to touch the handle, it was too hot for her to grab.
  • Mrs. Carpenter left for help which she received from house painters nearby. They made their way into the apartment.
  • They found a shrunken part of a skull, part of the spine, and her left foot in its shoe.
  • The skin of Reeser’s remaining left foot was unburned.
  • At the scene of the fire, Reeser’s left foot was found, still in its black satin slipper. Parts of her spine and skull were found. The skull fraction reportedly seemed “shrunken.”
  • According to FBI records, Mary’s son, Richard Reeser, had visited her earlier in the day. She told him she had taken two Seconal tablets and was possibly planning on taking 2 more before bed. She had not eaten dinner. Later, while self-medicated on Seconal, Mary sat in her upholstered chair and fell asleep while smoking a cigarette. Seconal is a drug that is commonly used to calm a patient before surgery.It is a type of barbiturate hypnotic.
  • St. Petersburg Times - July 4, 1951: The telegram was received at 8:07 a.m.
  • The Western Union telegram boy did not notice any smoke even though the windows were open.
  • Mrs. Carpenter, the landlady, last saw her around 9 p.m., the night before the fire.
  • St. Petersburg Times - October 31, 1975: Mary Hardy Reeser usually traveled North to visit friends over the summer. The telegram received the morning of July 2, 1951, was to inform Mrs. Reeser that arrangements had been made for her travel.
  • St. Petersburg Times - July 3, 1951: The police, along with Fire Chief Claud Nesbit and Asst. Chief S.O. Griffith found the following at the scene:
  • The corner where the fire was located matched the required temperature to burn a body but the wall paint was not damaged. There were no signs of scorching or cracked paint.
  • The upper walls and ceiling were blackened from soot and smoke, but the lower half of the apartment was not.
  • Light switches were melted, but outlets below were intact and functioning.
  • Candles near the fire melted but their wicks stood upright.
  • Newspapers near the fire were undamaged.
  • A few feet from the scene were unmarked bed sheets.
  • In the kitchen, all electricity had been turned off, as well as a wall-type gas heater.
  • A clock in the apartment had stopped at 4:20 a.m. but functioned when plugged into an outlet in another apartment.
  • Fireman that had arrived at the scene reportedly couldn’t stand the heat and searched for signs of smoldering but didn’t find anything.
  • Detective Chief Cass Burgess described the case as “perplexing.”
  • A part of the rug from the scene was sent to a laboratory for chemical analysis.
  • Her body was sent to Rhodes Funeral Home but reported they would not officiate a death certificate until the case was closed.
  • St. Petersburg Times - July 5, 1951: The coroner of the case, Magistrate Ed Silk, signed Mrs. Reeser’s death certificate July 3, 1951, a day after the fire. Her death was described as “accidental death by fire of unknown origin.
  • Silk stated the signing of the death certificate did not signify that the investigation was closed, it was to allow the release of Mrs. Reeser’s remains for burial.
  • On July 4, 1951, detectives gathered samples of Mrs. Reeser’s chair, parts of her rug, debris from the wall and floor, and smoke samples, to be sent to an FBI laboratory for chemical analysis.
  • Detective Burgess states: “This fire is a curious thing, and I’ve been deluged by letter and phone calls offering solutions to the problems facing us.”
  • St. Petersburg Times - October 31, 1975: FBI investigation only found melted fat in the rug. The police concluded that Mary Reeser’s rayon acetate nightgown was probably lit by her cigarette and that the fat of her body was inflammable enough for the body to be consumed.

Curiosities of Mary Reeser’s Death

  • St. Petersburg Times - July 3, 1951: Candles near the fire melted but their wicks stood upright.
  • Newspapers near the fire were undamaged.
  • A few feet from the scene were unmarked bed sheets.
  • The corner where the fire was located matched the required temperature to burn a body but the wall paint was not damaged. There were no signs of scorching or cracked paint.
  • The upper walls and ceiling were blackened from soot and smoke, but the lower half of the apartment was not.
  • St. Petersburg Times - July 28, 1951: Dr. Wilton M. Krogan, professor of physical anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania happened to be on a week-long vacation in Bradenton at the time of the case.
  • According to the St. Petersburg Times, the FBI would often contact Dr. Krogan when human remains were difficult to identify. He said he was “amazed and baffled” by Mrs. Reeser’s death.
  • The fire was able to mysteriously stop itself before damaging the rest of the apartment. Dr. Krogman stated that he could not “conceive of such a complete cremation without more burning of the apartment itself… it has been established that heat of about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit is necessary to completely consume the bones as happened in the Reeser case.”
  • Dr. Krogman also stated that in his 30+ fire investigations, he had never seen a skull shrink, they normally become swollen or explode. He could not explain why the apartment had stayed so in tact.
  • Dr. Krogman is quoted stating, “They say truth is stranger than fiction and this case apparently proves it. I’ve never heard of anything like it.”
  • St. Petersburg Times - July 3, 1951: Because a body requires three to four hours of burning around 2,500 degrees, it is unclear how there was no further damage in Mrs. Reeser’s apartment. No one else was disturbed by the fire.
  • St. Petersburg Times - July 4, 1951: A local mattress company pointed out the regular chair stuffing would not cause such a fire, the material would mere smolder for a prolonged period. Though Reeser’s chair was nonflammable, only its springs were left after the fire.

Explanations/Theories of Mary Reeser’s Death:

  • The FBI believe that Reeser’s housecoat and acetate nightgown were lit on fire by the cigarette.
  • According to their 1951 report, the FBI believe Reeser’s body fat fueled the fire. She weighed 170 pounds. The FBI records ruled out lighting and chemicals as the possible reason for the fire, and claimed that there was no reason to believe Reeser’s death was a case of human combustion.
  • The FBI believed that “once the body became ignited almost complete destruction occurred from its own fatty tissues.” The FBI records explained that fires sourced from a body tend to create a layer of heat that rises, which is why no furnishings on the lower level of the apartment were damaged.
  • St. Petersburg Times - July 4, 1951: the gas heater and wall radiant were inspected and were eliminated as potential causes of the fire.
  • St. Petersburg Times - July 3, 1951: lightning was ruled out as a cause since the electricity in the apartment was functioning.
  • St. Petersburg Times - July 4, 1951: Mary Reeser’s daughter-in-law (the wife of Dr. Reeser) said that Mary had not eaten dinner, which may have caused the seconal to take greater effect. She also stated that Mary had no cause for suicide.
  • St. Petersburg Times - July 5, 1951: Detective Burgess even received a letter addressed to the “Chief of Detectives” that said “a ball of fire came through the open window and hit her. I seen it happen.”
  • Others theorized the fire was done by thermite bombs, kerosene, magnesium and phosphorus, and napalm. But according to the coroner of the case, Magistrate Ed Silk, all of those would leave a distinct odor, none of which were detected at the scene.
  • In the 1980s, forensic investigators Joe Nickell and John F. Fisher looked into Mary Reeser’s case and believe that her body fat had melted into the chair which caused her entire body to light on fire.
  • They also believe her left foot was unharmed because it eventually fell out of range from the fire.
  • They explained that the “shrunken” head was most likely the neck since heads explode in fires.
  • The two theorized that the stuffing of the chair must’ve ignited the fire further, much more than Reeser’s clothes did.