The Strange Case of Mary Reeser

Herbie J Pilato

According to Maryn Liles and, "On July 2, 1951, in Saint Petersburg, Fla., Mary Hardy Reeser was visited by her son, Dr. Richard Reeser, in her apartment. Mary had told her son that she had taken two mild sedatives that were mainly used to calm patients before surgery. She had also told him she was planning to take two more before bed. Later that night, she would fall asleep in an upholstered chair for the last time as she would become the victim of an apparent house fire."

"The next morning," Lilies continued to report, "...Mary’s landlord reported smelling smoke around 5 a.m., but it wasn’t until 8 a.m. when she went to go deliver a telegraph to Mary that she would smell the smoke again. She discovered soot in the hallway, and the doorknob leading to Mary’s apartment was too hot to grab, so she enlisted the help of nearby house painters to get into the apartment. What they found inside the apartment was truly horrifying: The remains of Mary Reeser. Her skull was reportedly shrunk to the size of a cup and parts of her spine also remained, but the most terrifying was Mary’s left foot was found still in its black satin slipper, the skin unburned. The rest of her remains had been completely cremated."

As Lilies also noted, "What makes this case odd was the environment of her surroundings. In order for a body to be cremated, the body must burn at 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit for three to four hours—yet somehow, the surrounding area of her chair and the rest of her apartment were relatively unaffected. The walls had no burn marks and showed no signs of scorching or burned paint. Light switches were melted, but outlets were still completely functional. Candlesticks had melted, but their wicks stood upright, and a stack of newspapers close to the chair was undamaged. Mary’s neighbors were also unaware of the fire."

As Liles concluded, "The FBI eventually declared that Mary had been incinerated by the wick effect when the clothing of the victim soaks up melted human fat and acts like the wick of a candle. As she was a known user of sleeping pills, they hypothesized that she had fallen unconscious while smoking and set fire to her nightclothes. However, there is still some speculation that she died of spontaneous human combustion."

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Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including RETRO ACTIVE TELEVISION, THE 12 BEST SECRETS OF CHRISTMAS, MARY: THE MARY TYLER MOORE STORY, TWITCH UPON A STAR, GLAMOUR, GIDGETS AND THE GIRL NEXT DOOR, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR, and NBC & ME: MY LIFE AS A PAGE IN A BOOK, among others. He's also a TV writer/producer, and has worked for Reelz, Bravo, E!, TLC, and hosted THEN AGAIN WITH HERBIE J PILATO, the hit classic TV talk show (which premiered on Amazon Prime in 2019).

Los Angeles, CA

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