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Spontaneous Human Combustion: Combustion of the Entire Body: 20th Century Cases 

Cases of human spontaneous combustion in the 20th century in which the entire body was consumed by the fire.

Florida, 1951, The Mrs. Mary Hardy Reeser

Pennsylvania, 1964, Helen Conway

Pennsylvania, 1966, Dr. John Irving Bentley

New York, 1986, George Mott

South Carolina, 1953, Waymon P. Wood

Florida, 1951:

The Mrs. Mary Hardy Reeser case

Mrs. Mary Hardy Reeser, an agreeable, motherly widow of 67, was living in St. Petersburg, Florida, to be near her son, Dr. Richard Reeser. On the evening of July 1, 1951, she had remained in her son's home with one of her grandchildren while the rest of the family went to the beach. When they returned, they found that Mrs. Reeser had already left for her own apartment. The younger Mrs. Reeser drove to her mother-in-law's to see if everything was all right. According to her testimony, there was nothing in Mrs. Reeser's appearance or demeanor to cause any alarm. Dr. Reeser visited his mother later that evening. She was mildly depressed over the fact that she had not heard from two friends who were supposed to rent an apartment for her in anticipation of a return trip to Columbia, PA, formerly her hometown. His mother told him that she wished to retire early and would take two sleeping pills to ensure a good night's rest. Dr. Reeser left at about 8:30 PM and returned to his home. The last person to see Mrs. Reeser alive was her landlady, Mrs. Pansy M. Carpenter, who lived in another apartment in the four-unit building (the two units between them were unoccupied). Mrs. Carpenter saw Mrs. Reeser briefly at about 9 PM. She was wearing her nightgown, a housecoat, and black satin slippers and was lounging in a comfortable chair smoking a cigarette. The bed covers had been turned back. Mrs. Reeser's last night was a typical summer night in Florida: the sky was overcast with occasional flashes of heat lightning in the distance. When Mrs. Carpenter woke up Monday morning at 5AM, she noticed a slight odor of smoke but was not alarmed, since she attributed the smell to a water pump in the garage that had been overheating lately. She got up, turned off the pump, and settled back into bed. When she got up an hour later to collect her newspaper outside, she no longer smelled any smoke. At 8AM a telegram arrived for Mrs. Reeser. Mrs. Carpenter signed the receipt and went to her tenant's apartment to bring her the telegram. The doorknob, when she placed her hand on it, was hot. Alarmed, she stepped back and shouted for help. Two painters working across the street ran over. One of them opened the door; as he entered, he felt a blast of hot air. Thinking of rescuing Mrs. Reeser, he frantically looked around but saw no signs of her. The bed was empty. There was some smoke, but the only fire was a small flame on a wooden beam, over a partition separating the living room and kitchenette.

The firemen arrived, put out the small flame with a hand pump. and tore away part of the partition. When Assistant Fire Chief S. O. Griffith began his inspection of the premises, he could not believe his eyes. In the middle of the floor there was a charred area roughly four feet in diameter, inside of which he found a number of blackened chair springs and the ghastly remains of a human body, consisting of a charred liver attached to a piece of the spine, a shrunken skull, one foot still wearing a black satin slipper, and a small pile of ashes. Coroner Edward T. Silk arrived to examine the body and survey the apartment. Although deeply puzzled, he decided the death was accidental and authorized the removal of the remains. The scooped-up ashes, the tiny shrunken head, and the slipper-encased foot were taken by ambulance to a local hospital.

An area near the front window in one corner of the room, measuring about four feet by five feet, was incinerated, the carpet melted down to the cement floor. Centered in that area were the remains of Mary's large cushioned chair, burned down to the springs, and, beneath that was a blackened mass that was unrecognizable at first, then shocking and spine-chilling. There was a small mound of seared debris, mostly indistinguishable except for Mary's left foot at the end of it, the black slipper nearby. Closer examination revealed some of her vertebrae with burned liver attached to them and a rounded mass the size of a baseball that was assumed to be her shrunken skull. The investigators were astounded. How did a 175-pound woman come to be reduced to less than ten pounds overnight inside her own mostly undamaged apartment? Only the upper part of the walls of the room showed a line of smoke and oily soot and the upper portions of the drapes were thick with soot. Electrical wall outlets and plugs above a four-foot level had melted, which had caused a fuse to blow and, in turn, caused an electric clock to stop at 4:20. But closer to the floor on those same walls, similar electric materials were intact. Extreme heat had cracked a mirror ten feet from the burnt chair and melted two pink candles about twelve feet front it. Part of a cigarette lighter was pulled from the rubble. Only two legs of an end table next to the chair remained, and the lamp that had been on top of it was badly damaged. Certainly, the fact that the walls and the floor of the apartment building were concrete would have had much to do with the fire not spreading. thick with soot. Electrical wall outlets and plugs above a four-foot level had melted, which had caused a fuse to blow and, in turn, caused an electric clock to stop at 4:20. But closer to the floor on those same walls, similar electric materials were intact. Extreme heat had cracked a mirror ten feet from the burnt chair, and melted two pink candles about twelve feet from it. Part of a cigarette lighter was pulled from the rubble. Only two legs of an end table next to the chair remained, and the lamp that had been on top of it was badly damaged. Certainly, the fact that the walls and the floor of the apartment building were concrete would have had much to do with the fire not spreading. Much of the remainder of the apartment looked undisturbed. The sheets on a sofa bed were turned down neatly, as if ready for someone to retire. The clock still worked when it was plugged into another outlet. A stack of newspapers near the damaged area showed no signs of being scorched. Perhaps strangest of all was that intact left foot, burned off to about four inches above the ankle, the black satin slipper next to it.

When the coroner, Edward T. Silk, looked over the remains and scrutinized the apartment, he felt the death was accidental and ordered the charred fragments, ashes, and severed foot be taken by ambulance to the hospital. St. Petersburg Police Chief J. R. Reichert, who had witnessed many fires, flatly stated: "This is the most unusual case I've seen during my almost twenty-five years of police work in the city of St. Petersburg."

Dr. Krogman went on to dispute the idea that the rounded mass some had identified as Mrs. Reeser's shrunken skull was actually her skull. "In fact," he said in describing other cases lie had seen, "the opposite has been true. The skulls have exploded into hundreds of pieces or been abnormally swollen." He added, "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." Dr. Krogman went on to dispute the idea that the rounded mass some had identified as Mrs. Reeser's shrunken skull was actually her skull. "In fact," he said in describing other cases he had seen, "the opposite has been true. The skulls have exploded into hundreds of pieces or been abnormally swollen." He added, "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."


Pennsylvania, 1964:

Helen Conway

Mrs. Helen Conway, a 51 year old widow live in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, at 527 Argyll road. On the evening of November 7, 1964, Mrs. Conway was babysitting two grandchildren. Her daughter and son-in-law went out for the evening and they were going to pick the children up sometime on Sunday. That Sunday morning, Conway’s granddaughter, Stephanie, was watching cartoons on the first floor. Mrs. Conway was an invalid and used a bell to call for help. She asked Stephanie to bring her up a book of matches. The child brought them to her and then went back down to watch TV at around 8.30am.

Mrs. Conway’s next door neighbor was going to church and saw a glow at the window. She ran over to the house and Stephanie answered the door. Because the heat was so intense, the neighbor could not make it to the top of the stairs and she called the fire department.   When the firemen arrived the fire was out. The heat was still there. The doorknob was red hot, the door was hot and when they opened the door, the smoke that hit them was hot.

In the corner they found the remains of Mrs. Conway. There was smoke coming from the chair but there were no flames. Her upper torso was consumed to ash and rubble. Her left arm was burned right down to the bone so that a bracelet could be seen dangling from her wrist bones.

All that was left of her were her legs from the knee-down.  There were blisters on her toes and legs but they weren’t burned. When examined and two of the blisters were broken on her leg, fluid did not come out but they were wet. This means she was alive at the time of the fire.

The fire was so intense that there was suspicion initially that foul play was involved because it seemed that accelerants must have been present to fuel this intense fire, but accelerants were ever found at the scene.

In contrast to the body, only minor damage was apparent in the room. The telephone, sitting on a nearby table, had started to melt, though nothing else on her end table had been damaged. Her pack of cigarettes, on the same table, about three feet away, was undamaged.

In the adjoining bedroom there was nothing that had been affected and her sheets were white and spotless. However, on a dresser there was a bizarre juxtaposition. The plastic on the television set had begun to melt down. Next to the television set was a little doll dressed in a mesh that is highly flammable, but it was untouched.

Volunteer fireman Robert Meslin stated: “The amazing part of the incident in my opinion is the time element.” Meslin went on to say that the grand-daughter made the fire alarm call within “three minutes” of leaving Helen Conway’s house. That meant Mrs Conway was alive at 8:42 AM and the firemen arrived to find her remains at 8:48 AM – taking only 6 minutes. The time between the start of the fire and the arrival of fireman was at the most 20 minutes. A normal fire would take seven hours to burn a body.

(taken from different sources)


Pennsylvania, 1966:

Dr. John Irving Bentley

From 1925-1953 John Irving Bentley had worked as a family physician in Coudersport, Pennsylvania. He had suffered a fractured hip in 1947 which affected his mobility and had caused him to be infirm in his senior years. Dr. Bentley remained in Coudersport where he was friendly with many residents which he had served as physician to before his retirement.

On December 4, 1966, ninety-two year old John Irving Bentley received visitors who left at around 9 pm that evening. The following morning, Don Gosnell, meter reader with the North Penn Gas Company arrived at Dr. Bentley’s two-story home on Main Street and let himself in, as usual due to the ninety-two year old’s immobility.

When he entered the house, he went into the basement to read the meter. He saw a pile of ash on the floor as well as a hole in the ceiling, circled by glowing embers.

Concerned, he set off to search for Dr. Bentley. Don Gosnell noticed a light blue smoke and a strange smell which was “somewhat sweet, like starting up a new oil-burning system.”.

Don Gosnell found the upstairs bedroom filled with smoke.  and in the bathroom he discovered the doctor’s remains.

As he progressed to the bathroom, he encountered a scene of horror and intrigue. A brown, but not charred, lower leg joint and slipper-clad foot rested next to a hole, about 2' by 4', burned through the linoleum-covered foot. Dr. Bentley's walker was tipped against the bathtub, in which the victim's partially burned bathrobe could be seen. No other parts of his body were visible.

Dr. Bentley’s ashes had fallen through this hole and into the basement. Shaken, Gosnell ran to the North Penn Gas office, just a block away, to alert his co-workers. The local fire department was summoned, as were Potter County Deputy Coroner John Dec and a local mortician, Richard Lindhome.

Nothing in the room suffered any damage except the floor beneath him and the ceiling above him. Paint on the adjacent bathtub was blackened, but not blistered. Even more odd was the fact that the rubber tips of Dr. Bentley's walker did not melt, even though it was positioned directly over his burning body.

After nine months of investigation, West Galway coroner Dr Ciaran McLoughlin, a 25-year veteran in the field, reluctantly put forth the following statement: “This fire was thoroughly investigated and I'm left with the conclusion that this fits into the category of spontaneous human combustion, for which there is no adequate explanation.”

The fire which consumed Dr. Bentley is estimated to have burned at 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, a common element of supposed cases of spontaneous human combustion.

(taken from different sources)


New York, 1986"

George Mott

George Mott had been a fireman in  Crown Point NY for thirty years. Mott had retired and had been hospitalized for lung problems and had returned home. Since his illness his nightly routine had changed. He kept track of medications and learned to use an oxygen enrichment machine.

 Kendall Mott (Son): After he got out of the hospital they gave it to him so that when he was lying down it would make it easier for him to breath. The air would go into his nose so he could breathe clean air during the night.

The events of the evening of March 25th, 1986, has been cause for much speculation. Georges son Kendall had checked in on his father every night since his father’s return from the hospital. Because he had to work late on march 25th, Kendall wasn’t able to make his regular visit.

The next evening he went to his father’s house directly after work. He reached for the door handle and it was warm. He automatically knew something was wrong and when he opened the door it was warm inside the house. There was a burnt smell, like a metallic smell. The whole house was black and it was like walking into a dungeon. Kendall called his name a couple of times and when he came across him could see right away that he was dead.

When the fire department arrived, they found a scene unlike any other they had ever confronted. Bob Purdy-Fire Dept: I’ve seen a lot of fires and seen quite a few fatalities where people were burned, but I’ve never seen anything like this. The man was laying in bed and he had just disintegrated. You can see the v in the bed where he rendered down and right down through the floor. And the house didn’t catch on fire.

All that was left of hid body was the lower right leg down from the kneecap, and a piece of his skull cap. The house itself was unburned, and there were some strange things around.

The firefighters discovered a greasy coating covering every horizontal surface. The water had evaporated from the toilet and the tub was ringed with soot as though someone had taken a bath in black paint.  When investigators opened the refrigerator, they found a surreal scene. Not only the butter, but the plastic butter dish itself had melted. There was an unopened packet of hotdogs that appear to have been boiled in the wrapping. The TV had melted, but much of the bedding was undamaged. Nearby, a box of wooden matches was still intact. And air was still pumping through George’s face mask.

They looked for accelerants. They looked at gas and electric and they looked at fuel. There was nothing. In the Mott living room, several of the interior walls were covered with cedar shingles. They also pointed to a v pattern on the wall surrounding an electrical outlet. They theorized that an electrical arc leapt from an outlet and started George Mott on fire. Mott then stumbled to his bed and died engulfed in flames. However,  Chief Bob Purdy and his investigators didn’t believe that is what had happened. Where they showed the v shape pattern was underneath a window where the curtains had caught fire and then dropped to the floor and then burned back up again. That is what that V pattern was from. It wasn’t Purdy’s men took apart the wall. Fire damage had come from the room’s interior, not from within the outlet. They looked at all aspects. They looked at homicide, suicide and all the aspects of how this could happen and nothing added up.

Source: Ablaze! by Larry Arnold



South Carolina, 1953"

Waymon P. Wood

Waymon P. Wood, age 50, was found “crisped black” in the front seat of his closed car on March 1, 1953, near Greenville, South Carolina, USA. Wood's car - described as a “1951 Nash” - was parked on the side of Bypass 291 near Greenville, and other motorists reported seeing smoke rising from it... and then the car started, rolled several hundred feet along the highway, and then plunged down a ravine, turning over twice.       

Firemen and police arrived soon after; the vehicle was “soaked by fire extinguishers,” then opened. Plastic fittings had melted, and the windshield glass had bubbled, but all fire damage was confined to the front seat. The gasoline tank was intact; there was no clue to the cause of the fire. Suicide was suggested, but no gas fumes had been detected at the scene. An hour before his death, Wood had been talking with friends and appeared cheerful.

Source: Mysterious Fires and Lights, by Vincent H. Gaddis, page 193