BONE DETECTIVE (Feb, 1950)
By Alfred Eris
AN EGYPTIAN!” The FBI agent drew back, startled. “But, Doctor Stewart,” he protested, “This hand was found in Oklahoma!” He waited for the slim, bespectacled Smithsonian scientist to switch his diagnosis.
Doctor Stewart just looked at him, quietly. “I know. Still, it’s Egyptian!”
The Federal man stared hard at the shriveled hand partially wrapped in moldy fabric, then sighed. “Do you mind if we quote you?”
The scientist nodded assent.
The result was precisely what the FBI man anticipated. Midwestern newspapers had a field day gibing at the Smithsonian “expert” who confused the hand of an honest Oklahoman with the mitt of an ancient Egyptian. Eventually, the furore and hilarity came to the ears of a rural citizen who promptly claimed the mysterious hand, and silenced the merriment by announcing that it was, without question, Egyptian. Furthermore, there was more than just a hand; there was all of the rest of a mummified Middle-Eastern gentleman brought home by a family globe-trotter. Some playful children or household pets had probably dragged the appendage from an attic into the open, where it was brought to the attention of startled local sleuths, who hurriedly called in the FBI.
Episodes like this explain why FBI men call about once a month on Dr. T. Dale Stewart in his office at the near-by Smithsonian Institution. Formally known as curator of physical anthropology, Doctor Stewart is surrounded by more skeletons than any other man in America. Exactly how many, no one knows; the counting stopped when files bulged with over 20,000 separate specimens.
Day after day bones pour in from all over the nation, in paper bags or cardboard boxes, from the pit dug by a murderer or from Indian burial graves centuries old. Each bone is carefully lettered and neatly filed away in its appropriate group. Every bit of space in the offices of the physical anthropology section is so crammed that new arrivals now are stored in filing drawers stacked up some 10 feet high in the corridor.
From years of study of all these bones, Doctor Stewart has garnered a knowledge of our skeletal make-up rivaled by few. Given a few bones, he will quickly paint an astonishingly accurate portrait of the body that once surrounded them. Such data is invaluable to law-enforcement officers.
A few years ago, the federal men brought to Doctor Stewart some bones found in an abandoned well in Quantico, Va., by trembling workmen. After careful scrutiny, Doctor Stewart quietly announced that the body was that of a young, white man, 26 to 28 years old, five feet eight inches in height and of medium build. Then, he added casually that the victim had been suffering from pyorrhea and had been left-handed.
Investigators hurriedly went to work. Soon, in checking Marine Corps records at the giant Quantico base, they found that John Bradford Ellison, a left-handed Marine, had disappeared in 1928. Later, enough circumstantial evidence was gathered to convict Raymond “Scissors” Saunders for a murder committed 17 years previous to his arrest! Doctor Stewart, though, was far from elated; he was off a full 1/2 inch in his estimation of the Marine’s height, and Ellison had been 29 instead of 26 to 28.
In appearance, Dr. T. Dale Stewart is a typical scientist, quiet-mannered, high-browed and with a slightly preoccupied air. It seems a bit farfetched to connect this mustached, soft-spoken, unassuming man with unsolved murders, grisly crimes and such. But the federal men have come to regard him as an important, if unsung, “aide.” Time after time he has clinched cases for the state with his testimony.
One morning, in 1946, federal men drove over from Pennsylvania Avenue to the Smithsonian, carrying eight small fragments of charred bone found in Arkansas. If they were human, a murderer would hang. Several minutes after the bundle was deposited on Doctor Stewart’s desk, the scientist looked up and nodded â€””Yes, they’re human.”
“How can you tell?” the FBI agent asked.
“You see this tiny bit of charred tissue clinging to this bit of bone?” Doctor Stewart pointed out. “Undeniably human.” He indicated a suture of the joints on a bit of human skull. “These joints don’t grow together until a person is over 35,” he explained. “The victim was at least that age!” Incredible is the word for the lengths to which a murderer will go to conceal his crime. In this instance, Leon Merrow had, after killing his wife, put her body on a fire and stoked it for three days and three nights.
At the trial, the conviction hinged on Doctor Stewart’s testimony as to whether or not the few bones found were those of an Indian, cremated decades ago, or those of the accused’s wife. Stewart,
himself, had admitted that the bones resembled those he had seen taken from Indian funeral pyres. The courtroom was tense as the defense attorney tried to get the expert to testify that they were Indian. Doctor Stewart shook his head and pointed out that a small piece of tissue was still attached to one of the pieces of bone. The tissue was leathery and had obviously been subjected to great heat, but it would have disintegrated in timeâ€”and could not possibly have come from an old Indian grave. The defense collapsed.
This confusion of Indian remains with the victims of mayhem is a very frequent source of bother to Doctor Stewart. Only recently, a skull, complete with barnacles, was dredged from the mouth of the Mississippi by fishermen who were certain that here was genuine proof of a very foul deed on a dark night. Doctor Stewart took one look at the skull which he instantly recognized as that of a good Indian brave who went to the happy hunting grounds many years ago, and counseledâ€””Forget it.”
Law-enforcement men have inquiring minds and Doctor Stewart marvels at the amount of chicken and duck bone they unearth and offer for his inspection. He must scrutinize said bones carefully, however, and decide on the few scraps available, whether the remains are those of a cow, sheep or a taxpayer.
At times, the relentless concentration of the police on human remains infects Doctor Stewart. When they brought in a few bones believed to be those from a human hand, the expert announced firmly that the hand could not be human. He suggested a chimpanzee or near-relation. Federal men went to the mammalogists, where they soon learned that their “hand” was really the tailbone of a horse!
As a scientist, Stewart welcomes police . calls as another field for exploration. But, as a law-abiding citizen, he is shocked by the number of remains which never do seem to become finally identified. His reaction to modern crime is compounded of surprise and mild bewilderment. “There seem to be lots of bodies around,” he says.
The young Mr. Stewart, really didn’t mean to stay very long when he first arrived at the Smithsonian in 1927 from York County, in Pennsylvania. He “substituted” for a sick friend who died. Now, after 20 years, it looks like a lifetime job.
Criminals and their doings take up only part of Doctor Stewart’s time. Most of his mysteries are more complex. Among his most fascinating riddles: “Why do American Indians diminish in size according to their geographical location?” Anthropologists have found that an Illinois Indian skeleton is usually larger than that of a Texan Indian and that the skeletons of the Mexican tribes will be smaller still. During one of Doctor Stewart’s jaunts to South America, he discovered that his 12-year-old daughter, with him, was as tall as any Guatemalan Indian.
The condition of Indians’ teeth is another puzzler to the scientists. Does a diet of corn mean good teeth, or bad? Are shellfish superior to corn as a staple item in Indians’ diet? These questions, in turn, are linked to the vital issue of soil quality. Fresh soil, all agree, produces more nutritious food, while depleted earth will yield considerably less valuable foods.
Every GI who has done a stint in the United Kingdom has noted how much shorter the average Scot, Welsh or English citizen is by comparison with Americans. Yet, these same peoples, emigrating to Australia, Canada, New Zealand or the United States, will produce progeny appreciably taller than their forefathers. Doctor Stewart finds these items more difficult to solve than the cases the law officers regularly turn over to him.
Doctor Stewart refuses to admit to rivaling the famed Sherlock Holmes even with his impressive record. Ever cautious, he will admit only that if he has a number of bones, and if the skull is available, his guess will be “90 percent correct.” Before FBI men can receive his nod, they must satisfy his most conservative and scholarly instincts. In Iowa, recently, another killer went to extremes to dispose of the evidence. He broke all the bones and scattered them over a field. The investigators found some bones without a great deal of trouble, but they were returned with the notation that positive identification was impossible. Doctor Stewart kept them at their task, digging and scratching at the earth, until they had literally sifted the field. Finally, enough bits were found to satisfy the Smithsonian’s judge. Receiving his assurance that the fragments were human, they confronted the accused with the bones and with Doctor Stewart’s report. He broke down, confessedâ€”and another killer went behind bars.
One of the first questions the federal men often ask Doctor Stewart is â€” “how long has the victim been dead?” This is, again, a very difficult problem, Doctor Stewart points out. Much depends on the condition of the ground, its moisture content, the acidity of the soil, the temperature, etc. Not very long ago, two bodies, presumed to be those of mountain climbers, were found high up on Mount Shasta, but it was impossible to determine, because they were so well preserved, how long they had been dead. And, here were two more of the “lots of bodies” Doctor Stewart referred to which were not readily identified.
Doctor Stewart is apt to be most elated over a tooth, sent in by a friend rummaging about in an Indian grave. Some of these specimens have been found inlaid with a precious metal or “beautified” by running a file across it. South American Indians used to “wow” members of the opposite sex by mutilating their teeth with any one of 36 patterns, or by the judicious use of gold, silver or jade inlays, and such teeth are now “collectors’ items.” To date, he hasn’t found any of these rare specimens on his South American jauntsâ€”but he’s still hoping.
Doctor Stewart seems to have a genius for attracting bones, as would seem from the circumstances surrounding a prize collection he snared recently for the Smithsonian. While lecturing in Missouri, he made friends with a radiologist whose hobby was digging in the Indian ruins near his Illinois home. One day, his friend moaned plaintively about the lack of public interest in bodies sans flesh. It seemed that he had garnered some 400 choice Indian skeletons, which no one seemed particularly anxious to haveâ€”even for free. Naturally, Doctor Stewart snapped at this offer immediately, making the Smithsonian’s 20,000-odd skeletons some 400 richer.
This would seem like a tremendous amount, but Doctor Stewart makes no bones about the fact that a collection of this sort can never have “too much.” It seems, he admitted, that some very interesting (from an anthropologist’s point of view) skeletons have been arriving at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington minus skulls, which is equivalent to strawberry shortcake lacking whipped cream and strawberries. Naturally, this has been impeding the march of science and vexing anthropologists a good bit. So, if you have a little skull in your home, which has been storing ashes or serving as a letter rack for longer than is decent, you can aid U. S. science by returning the skull to its rightful skeleton, most likely in Washington.
The natives of Guam have long since accepted with resignation the penchant of Americans for collecting souvenirs; so have the denizens of other lands like Persia India, etc. Not soâ€”Dr. T. Dale Stewart He expresses gently, but firmly, the hope that Americans will collect Picasso, silver china or most anythingâ€”but will kindly leave his skulls alone.