Historic Hysterics #5: Exploding Grandma

The following article contains graphic images. Read at own risk.

Alyson Draper ~ Web Editor

Image from https://www.tampabay.com/news/florida/2019/10/17/spontaneous-combustion-in-st-petersburg-the-curious-case-of-mary-reeser/

Another Historic Hysterics set in Florida? Yep. This state usually has some of the strangest stories from across a wide spectrum of spookiness. This week we’ll be looking at a story of spontaneous human combustion, where an old lady goes out in a blaze of glory. There are some graphic images, so be warned. 

In St. Petersburg, Florida, there lived a widow by the name of Mary Reeser. She lived alone in her apartment but had family that visited often. However, on the night of July 1st, 1951, Mary would soon become a landmark case in Floridian lore. The next morning when Mary’s landlady went to visit she realized that the doorknob to Mary’s apartment was hot to the touch, a telltale sign of fire. The landlady called the fire department and they stormed in, but what they found was nothing less than baffling.

The apartment showed little to no signs of a fire, but in the corner of the room laid a pile of smoldering ashes, which were the remains of Mary and her armchair (seen in the image above). Nothing else seemed to be affected, and it was almost like Mary had just… exploded. From what it seemed, Mary had burst into flames so hot that they immediately burned themselves out after completely incinerating Mary and her chair. Officials were stumped as to what could have happened that caused something this extreme to happen? Some people believed it was a lightning strike, and others believed it was a ball of fire coming in from the window. Mary’s death piqued the nation’s interest, which soon set Mary firmly within the pantheon of weird American folklore. 

Mary wasn’t the only person to suddenly burst into flames though. In the 1960s, there were two other cases of spontaneous human combustion that led similar results which included the deaths of Dr. John Bentley and Helen Conway

Image from https://www.thedeadhistory.com/the-mysterious-death-of-mary-hardy-reeser/

Both of these cases had many things in common with Mary’s, but unlike Mary, these victims still had their legs. Making it seem like the fire started above the ankles and burned upwards. Sadly, not much is documented about these cases, as they share a lot of the same aspects. 

Including similar aspects, let’s get down to the cause. What makes people burst into flames so hot that they burn the person to a crisp and leave nothing behind? The most plausible explanation is called the Wick Effect where a human burns up due to their fat content. The mixture of a cigarette, flammable furniture, and a bad diet can lead to someone catching fire then burning out completely because their fat fuels the fire. Melted globs of human fat were found in Mary’s apartment where she burned up, and because the fire depended on fat for fuel, when the fat ran out the fire did too. So in the end spontaneous human combustion really isn’t super paranormal, but it is a really strange phenomenon. 

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