On July 2, 1951, at about 8 a.m., Reeser's landlady, Pansy Carpenter, arrived at Reeser's door with a telegram. Trying the door, she found the metal doorknob to be uncomfortably warm to the touch and called the police.
Reeser's remains, which were largely ashes, were found among the remains of a chair in which she had been sitting. Only part of her left foot (which was wearing a slipper) and her backbone remained, along with her skull. Plastic household objects at a distance from the seat of the fire were softened and had lost their shapes.
Reeser's skull had survived and was found among the ashes, but shrunken (sometimes with the added descriptive flourish of 'to the size of a teacup'). The extent of this shrinkage was enough to be remarked on by official investigators and was not an illusion caused by the removal of all facial features (ears, nose, lips, etc.). The shrinking of the skull is not a regular feature of alleged cases of SHC, although the 'shrunken skull' claim has become a regular feature of anecdotal accounts of other SHC cases and numerous apocryphal stories. However, this is not the only case in which the remains featured a shrunken skull.
On July 7, 1951, St. Petersburg police chief J.R. Reichert sent a box of evidence from the scene to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. He included glass fragments found in the ashes, six "small objects thought to be teeth," a section of the carpet, and the surviving shoe.
Even though the body was almost totally cremated, requiring very high temperatures, the room in which it occurred showed little evidence of the fire.
Reichert included a note saying: "We request any information or theories that could explain how a human body could be so destroyed and the fire confined to such a small area and so little damage done to the structure of the building and the furniture in the room not even scorched or damaged by smoke."
The FBI eventually declared that Reeser had been incinerated by the wick effect. As she was a known user of sleeping pills, they hypothesized that she had fallen unconscious while smoking and set fire to her nightclothes. "Once the body starts to burn," the FBI wrote in its report, "there is enough fat and other inflammable substances to permit varying amounts of destruction to take place. Sometimes this destruction by burning will proceed to a degree which results in almost complete combustion of the body."
At the request of the Chief of Police, St. Petersburg, Florida, the scene was also investigated by physical anthropologist Wilton M Krogman. Professor Krogman, of the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine, had spent some time in the 1930s experimenting and examining the remains of such incidents, in order to aid in the detection of crimes.
Krogman was frequently consulted by the FBI for this reason but after examining the scene and reading the FBI's report, he strongly disputed the FBI's conclusions concerning Reeser. However, the full circumstances of the death—and Krogman's objections to the FBI's version of events—would not become known publicly for a decade.
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In a 1961 article for The General Magazine and History Chronicle of the University of Pennsylvania, Krogman wrote extensively about the Reeser case. His remarks included:
- "I find it hard to believe that a human body, once ignited, will literally consume itself -- burn itself out, as does a candle wick, guttering in the last residual pool of melted wax [...] Just what did happen on the night of July 1, 1951, in St. Petersburg, Florida? We may never know, though this case still haunts me."
With regard to Reeser's shrunken skull, Krogman wrote:
- "[...]The head is not left complete in ordinary burning cases. Certainly it does not shrivel or symmetrically reduce to a smaller size. In presence of heat sufficient to destroy soft tissues, the skull would literally explode in many pieces. I have never known any exception to this rule."
- "I cannot conceive of such complete cremation without more burning of the apartment itself. In fact the apartment and everything in it should have been consumed. [...] I regard it as the most amazing thing I have ever seen. As I review it, the short hairs on my neck bristle with vague fear. Were I living in the Middle Ages, I'd mutter something about black magic."
Later, having put this statement on the record, Krogman moved away from this position. He instead put forward the theory that Reeser had been murdered at another location. Her murderer had access to crematorium-type equipment and had incinerated her body. The hypothetical murderer had then transported the results of the partial cremation back to the apartment and used portable heat-generating equipment to add the finishing touches, such as the heat-buckled plastic objects and the warm doorknob.
Mary Reeser was born in Columbia, Pennsylvania and married Dr. Richard Reeser (b 1874/5). Their only surviving child, also Dr. Richard Reeser, was born in Pennsylvania in 1910 or 1911. She was buried in the Chestnut Hill Cemetery outside Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.
- Jerry Blizin "No New Clues In Reeser Death; Debris Sent To Lab", St. Petersburg Times, July 5, 1951, p14
- 1930 US Census of Columbia, Lancaster County showing "Richard Reeser age 55 b PA Physician, Mary wife age 45 b PA, Richard J son age 19 b PA"
- Blizin, Jerry (November 10, 2009). "FBI said 1951 death wasn't 'spontaneous human combustion,' but mystery persists". Tampa Bay Times. Archived from the original on 1 June 2014. Retrieved 31 May 2014.