Spontaneous Human Combustion

A front-page story in the June 30, 1991, St. Petersburg Times, "Burning death remains mystery," dealt with the gruesome demise of Mary Reeser, who literally melted away to nearly nothing one summer night in 1951. To read reporter Jacquin Sanders' version of this case of alleged SHC (defined by him as when "for no known reason, the human body suddenly catches fire"), "Nothing could explain the fury of flames that consumed a human body, shrank its skull and then, as if obeying some unearthly power, simply stopped, pulled back, disappeared." But no neighbors reported seeing any such so-called "fire from hell," and heat, no matter how intense, cannot shrink a skull.

For those familiar with the investigation by researchers Joe Nickell and John Fischer, as published in the Summer 1987 Skeptical Inquirer,  no paranormal phenomenon need be invoked. Reeser, an obese woman, had apparently taken a sleeping pill and then fallen asleep with a lighted cigarette. "What probably happened," concluded Nickell and Fischer, "was that the chair's stuffing burned slowly, fueled by the melted body fat and aided by partially opened windows." And as for the legend of the 'shrunken skull,' "as a forensic anthropologist (David Wolf) theorized at our request, Mrs. Reeser's skull probably burst in the fire and was destroyed, and the roundish object could have been merely 'a globular lump that can result from the musculature of the neck where it attaches to the base of the skull.'"

Sanders (and, more importantly, his readers) would have learned all of this had he contacted TBS. His failure to do so was all the more disappointing given his familiarity with us -- he had interviewed Gary Posner for a column, "Club hits you in the head with reality," shortly after TBS was founded. And his SHC article was picked up by at least one other newspaper that we are aware of (the Scottsdale, Arizona Progress). But at least some readers had an opportunity to read Posner's "Letter to the Editor" on July 9. And no doubt even more read Neil Cote's column in the Pinellas County editions of the July 5 Tampa Tribune ("Skepticism's flames fanned by fire death") about Posner's reaction to the Times article.

This article appeared in the Fall 1991 Tampa Bay Skeptics Report.

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