“That’s how I feel about the skeletons in my laboratory. These have tales to tell us, even though they are dead. It is up to me, the forensic anthropologist, to catch their mute cries and whispers, and to interpret them for the living, as long as I am able”. – William R. Maples in Dead Men Do Tell Tales.
As an internationally-renowned forensic anthropologist, William R. Maples travelled the world to offer his expertise to over a thousand cases, fighting to not only identify skeletal remains but also uncover how they died.
Born on 7th August 1937 in Dallas, Texas, Maples developed an early fascination with anthropology and death investigation, allegedly when a deputy sheriff showed him autopsy photos of the infamous duo Bonnie and Clyde. After receiving his Master’s Degree in 1962, he spent a short time working in Kenya studying primates, later being awarded his PhD in anthropology from the University of Texas in 1967. He began his career with a number of teaching positions at Western Michigan University and the University of Florida at Gainesville, later taking on the role of Curator of Physical Anthropology at the Florida State Museum. He was President of the American Board of Forensic Anthropology and a fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.
During the 1970’s, Maples began offering his expertise to legal death investigations, aiding in the identification of victims and conclusion of cause of death, working with a number of police departments. This further extended to working alongside the U.S Army’s Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, examining the remains of military personnel.
Throughout his career he applied his expertise and guidance to hundreds of cases, some of which involved particularly high profile investigations. Perhaps his most famous case is that of the investigation of the Romanov family. The Romanovs were members of a Russian royal family with Nicholas II as Tsar. However in 1918 he was forced to give up his throne and he and his family were arrested and brutally executed by the Bolsheviks, a group of Russian communists who would soon become the dominant political power in Russia. In the early 1990s the bodies of the Romanov family were recovered from a mass grave, with William Maples leading a team of forensic experts in the investigation. They ultimately concluded that the remains were in fact those of the members of the Romanov family, with DNA testing confirming this.
In 1991 Maples was also part of the team examining the remains of former President Zachary Taylor, rumoured to have been murdered by arsenic poisoning. A former humanities professor at the University of Florida, Clara Rising, called for further tests to be carried out, convincing Maples to lend a hand and examine the remains. His investigation aimed to put these claims to rest and ultimately concluded that the cause of death had been gastroenteritis.
In 1994, Maples was part of the team that laid to rest a vicious murder case from the 1960s. In 1963, civil rights leader Medgar Evers was assassinated as he returned home one day. When taken to hospital, he was at first refused entry because of his race, and later died, bitterly just hours after President John F. Kennedy delivered a speech in support of civil rights. White supremacist and member of the Ku Klux Klan Byron De La Beckwith was arrested under suspicion of his murder, but managed to escape justice. But 30 years later when the case was re-opened, William Maples helped exhume the remains of Evers for an autopsy, eventually leading to the long overdue conviction of Beckwith.
This scrapes the surface of Maples’ involvement in death investigations, which extends to the examination of the remains of Joseph Merrick (the ‘Elephant Man’), the investigation of the 1996 ValuJet 592 disaster, and the study of the remains of victims of the Gainesville student murders.
In 1995 he was diagnosed with brain cancer and, although continuing to work for two more years despite this, passed away on 27th February 1997 at the age of 59 years.
You can read William Maple’s book, Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Anthropologist, to gain a further insight into his life and career.
Herszenhorn, D. M. 1997. William. R. Maples, 59, Dies; Anthropologist of Big Crimes. [online] Available: http://www.nytimes.com/1997/03/01/us/william-r-maples-59-dies-anthropologist-of-big-crimes.html
Maples Center for Forensic Medicine. W. R. Maples. [online] Available: http://maples-center.ufl.edu/organizations/people/william-r-maples
Maples, W. R. Browning, M. 2010. Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Anthropologist. California: Doubleday.
Williams, R. C. 2015. The Forensic Historian: Using Science to Reexamine the Past. Abingdon: Routledge.