Sticky Ends: The Cinder Woman Case

Welcome to a new Why I Love Horror segment: Sticky Ends. This series will deliver bite-sized snacks to fill your appetite for the grisly and morbid. Sticky Ends features short, real-life tales of deaths that are notable for their gruesome, macabre, and bizarre natures.

Dr. Richard Reeser Jr. was concerned for his mother. Originally from small-town Pennsylvania, 67-year old Mary Reeser had moved to St. Petersburg, Florida to be closer to her children and grandchildren after being widowed.

But Mary wasn’t taking well to the move. She had been hoping to take a trip back to Pennsylvania to visit friends, but had recently discovered that she wouldn’t be able to make the trip. This summer evening, Richard had come to visit his mother at her apartment and found her depressed. She hadn’t eaten dinner and instead opted for her usual cigarettes and 2 sleeping pills, openly considering taking two more before bed.

Richard kissed his mother goodnight and went on his way at 9pm. As he departed, he pictured his mother turning in for the night in her nightgown and slippers, smoking in her overstuffed easy chair. Perhaps some time relaxing would ease her worries.

This was the last time Mary Reeser would be seen alive. And the last time her existence would be of little note to the general public. 70 years later, Mrs. Reeser’s mark on history is still made, unfortunately, through her strange and gruesome demise.

Mary Reeser, believed to be in her 40s in this photo.

The next day shortly after 8am on July 2, 1951 Mrs. Reeser’s landlady arrived at the apartment to deliver a telegram. The landlady knocked, but there was no answer. The landlady attempted to enter the apartment—but found the doorknob hot to touch. She called the fire department.

Firefighters broke into the home but found no active fire—just dissipating embers and smoke. There was soot stretching up to the ceiling and charred walls reduced to rubble in one corner of a bedroom. There were candles in the room where wax had melted below untouched wicks. Electrical switches were warped as if exposed to significant heat, but outlets at a lower height were normal. Newspapers sat unscorched. No soot tainted clean bedsheets.  

In the corner of the bedroom, the damage centered around a pile of ash. It contained some springs from a chair that had once occupied the spot. And it contained the last remains of Mrs. Mary Reeser: a portion of her skull, part of her spine, and her left foot, still clad in a black silk slipper. The rest of her was reduced to ash.

These signs indicted that a fire of intense heat had occurred, but its area was limited and the flames had apparently died out on their own. 

To reduce a human body to ash requires thousands of degrees of heat to burn over several hours. How do I know that? Because I looked it up and certainly not because I wanted to know for “recreational” reasons.

But how could a fire of that level of heat have occurred with no one noticing, with the flames not spreading elsewhere and eventually putting themselves out?

Actual photo from the scene.

There was a vague timeline of events after Mrs. Reeser’s son left at 9pm. A clock in the apartment stopped at 4:20 (am it is assumed). The landlady recalled smelling an odor at 5am, but assumed it was a simple maintenance issue. No one reported seeing smoke or flames that night.

Further investigation added to the mystery. Lightning had not been the cause, as all fuses in the building were still intact and not blown by a surge of electrical force. Combustible or accelerant fluids weren’t found near the center of the fire. But even if they had been used, fluids like this can simply burn up with the fire they cause, thus being undetectable after the fact. How do I know this? Certainly not for “recreational” reasons.

Responders and detectives were unnerved by the scene. Murder was suspected–was the son telling the truth about the evening he last saw his mother? Was the landlady really there in the morning just to drop off a telegram? Was the little girl from Firestarter real?

Still a small town police force at the time, St. Petersburg police knew that they didn’t have the resources to decipher the mysteries of the scene. So, they sent several boxes of samples from the apartment to the FBI for chemical analysis. The chief investigator even wrote to J. Edgar Hoover asking for assistance (I assume this is like when you consult Hannibal Lector to analyze a crime scene—surely one source of evil can divine the methods of another).

For three weeks, the FBI examined the Reeser fire. And in the meantime, little not-yet-out-of-the-closet St. Petersburg, Florida became fascinated with the incident. Called “the cinder woman” case, reports of it soon spread, capturing the nation’s morbid fascination.

Proving that amateur sleuths are far from a modern nuisance, detectives investigating the case were beset upon by phone calls and letters that were less-than-helpful. ‘Tips’ included accusations against napalm, thermite bombs, and a random “ball of fire” flying through a window. In other words: Mrs. Reeser was so bad to the bone that crafty James Bond had assassinated her with fiery toys from Q branch, or she was struck down by God himself. Again, J. Edgar Hoover could probably relate.

Another theory of Mrs. Reeser’s odd death emerged, one that continues to be propped up to this day: that she experienced spontaneous human combustion.

What is spontaneous human combustion, you ask? Ah, you weren’t the kid who checked out weird books from the library or watched The X-Files, says I.

Spontaneous human combustion is a “reported” “phenomenon” of a person being reduced largely to ash from an intensely hot fire that started within a person’s body without being exposed to an external source of ignition and doing little damage to surroundings. Theories include a person being under stress while also having had a lot of alcohol somehow just…starts a fire through basically pyrokinesis aka “magic that we pretend has a scientific explanation like homeopathy” Alternatively, spontaneous human combustion is caused by poltergeists. It’s a very legit interpretation of scientific principles, ya’ll, I swear.

Free Image websites are so much fun.

But the FBI, apparently full of Scullys with nary a Mulder in sight, provided an explanation in their final report. Many so-called spontaneous human combustion cases, including Mrs. Reeser, are forensically considered to be victims of what is called “the wick effect.” And this is where things get a bit gnarly, folks.

The wick effect refers to a human body being burning at such high heat…that human fat melts into the clothing of the victim, creating an effect like a wick on a candle. The fire eats through the immediate area, its damage contained by the long-lasting fuel feeding it–until the fuel runs out and the fire dies out.

Mrs. Reeser’s scenario fit this possibility. She was smoking a cigarette at bedtime, and likely fell asleep. That cigarette likely lit the chair or nightgown on fire. That nightgown was made of artificial cloth that was probably 1950s-level hilariously flammable.

But how do you turn into a human candle without waking up and screaming or trying to put of the fire or getting out of your easy chair? Well, on an empty stomach Mary had 2, possibly 4 pills that were 1950s-level hilariously effective at rendering one dead to the world (sorry, had to do it).

Insult to injury, to support the wick theory, most articles discussing Mrs. Reeser’s demise include her weight at her time of death. We’re not going to do that here, but suffice to say some of us would love to be able to say we weighed what Mrs. Reeser did at her age.

In any event, if Mrs. Reeser’s fat fed the fire (which we say in a matter of fact, body positive way and not with any judgment), it would have burned slowly like a candle flame, sending hot air and smoke to the top of the apartment rather than evenly heating the room.

Actual photo from the scene.

Yet the Mary Reeser case is most commonly cited by contemporary media through today as being a “mysterious” death or outright labelled spontaneous human combustion. And so, unfortunately, her memory lives on through exploitation—falsely holding her as an example of a supernatural event or overly relying on telling a grisly tale that happened to an ordinary woman (yes, I get the irony). And, again, can we just let the woman rest in peace without bringing up her weight?

Eventually, Mrs. Reeser’s remains were buried next to her husband—all the way back home in Pennsylvania, which she had been longing to visit the night that she died.

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