The Woman Who Spontaneously Combusted, 1951

Among the phenomena on the fringes of scientific understanding is the propensity for the human body to set itself alight. The explanation, apparently, is Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC). Read here about one famous case and how it discombobulated investigators.

On the morning of July 2, 1951, Mary Reeser’s landlady arrived at her door with a telegram. Trying the door, she found the metal doorknob to be uncomfortably warm to the touch. She called the police and, once they battered the door open, they were confronted with a ghastly sight.

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 slippered left foot 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 ‘to the size of a teacup’.

Physical Anthropologist Professor Krogman who was asked to look into the case on record saying “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.

He then concluded “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” In actuality, Ms Reeser was judged to be the victim of a bizarre phenomenon known as Spontaneous Human Combustion (SHC).

That SHC even exists, the scientific community is sceptical. Can a human body really just set alight by itself? Wouldn’t there be a number of cases around the world of people combusting in public?

Of over a hundred cases investigated, none have been observed. Victims are frequently elderly, female and prodigious drinkers. They are also usually near a heat source. There is probably no single explanation for each case of SHC but the general consensus is that an external source starts a fire on the person and then body fat acts as a sort of ‘candle wax’ to the human ‘wick’. Other pseudo-scientific theories exist.

Mrs Reeser and her remains after bursting into flame (

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