Scientist Special: William R. Maples

“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.

William R. Maples (Source: http://anthro.ufl.edu)

William R. Maples (Source: http://anthro.ufl.edu)

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.

References

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.

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Geochemistry and Clandestine Graves

Geochemistry and Clandestine Graves

Perpetrators of fatal crimes will on occasion attempt to conceal their wrongdoings by burying the evidence – that is, attempting to bury human cadavers. This can be problematic during a forensic investigation for a number of reasons. Firstly, the search for a victim’s body may well be relatively blind, with investigators having little or no idea as to where a body has been buried. In some instances, a body may well be so damaged or decomposed that little recognisable human remains are present. The perpetrator may later remove the body from the burial site, perhaps fearing discovery, leaving behind no obvious trace that a body was ever buried there.

So what can investigators do to determine if an area of soil was the site of a clandestine grave (illicit burial site)? A number of methods that have been developed to tackle this question.

grave

Certain chemical compounds may be indicative of decomposing flesh. Sterols have been suggested as a potential biomarker for decomposition fluids – that is, the presence of them in soil could indicate whether or not a body has decomposed in that location, depending on the types of sterols present and in what amounts. Sterols are a class of organic compound, of which cholesterol is perhaps the most well-known sterol present in animal cells. This compound can be found in plants too, but in a significantly smaller amount, thus the unexpected presence of cholesterol in soil will typically indicate some kind of animal-related activity. Research examining the decomposition fluids in soils found sterols to be beneficial in this application (Von der Luhe et al, 2013). A number of pig carcasses were buried over a few months, with soil samples being collected from underneath the cadavers at different time points after burial. Cholesterol and coprostanol were detected in the soil, and it is these substances that were of particular interest to the researchers. Coprostanol is formed via hydrogenation of cholesterol in the intestinal tract of higher mammals, thus it is considered a useful biomarker associated with the faecal matter of animals such as humans and pigs. The concentration of these compounds was greater during the time period in which the pigs were undergoing the putrefaction stage of decomposition, at which point fluids would be leeching into the soil. This suggests a certain time frame in which these compounds are useful as indicators of decomposition fluids.

chol

Cholesterol

The research suggested that, as the cadaver decomposes, decomposition fluids leak into the soil, depositing cholesterol and coprostanol (and a whole range of other substances). Thus the presence of these compounds in a particular area of soil, particularly if nearby similar areas did not contain them, could indicate previous decomposition of a human (or equally a pig or other animal) in the area. However it is vital to note that these compounds could equally be detected in the soil as a result of faecal matter, though potentially in considerably lower concentrations than those produced by a whole decomposing body.

Other compounds resulting from decomposition are of equal interest in detecting potential gravesites. Adipocere, also known as grave wax, is an insoluble, white substance known to form if a body decomposes in very specific conditions. The presence of this substance in soil can of course indicate the decomposition of a body, but how does one distinguish between the decomposition fluids of a human and those of another mammal? Research has aimed to answer this question using isotopes (Bull et al, 2009). By focusing on the ratio of 13C to 12C content of particular fatty acids from the fats of various animals, it was suggested that it is possible to distinguish between adipose fats from humans and those from other animals, such as pigs, though further work may be required to develop this application.

Other researchers are applying existing forensic techniques in a novel manner to the detection of clandestine graves. When the body decomposes, a significant amount of nitrogen is released, typically in the form of ammonium and nitrate (Hopkins et al, 2000). Ninhydrin, a compound already readily available to law enforcement due to its use as a method of fingerprint development, can produce a blue or purple pigment upon reaction with certain nitrogen-containing compounds.

nin

Ninhydrin is typically used for visualising fingerprints (http://daten.didaktikchemie.uni-bayreuth.de)

One particular study examining ninhydrin reactive nitrogen (Carter at al, 2008) left a number of mammalian cadavers to decay over a period of a month, after which soil samples from the burial sites were collected and analysed for ninhydrin reactive nitrogen. This work discovered that cadaver burial resulted in the concentration of NRN in the soil approximately doubling, thus concluding that it may be possible to use ninhydrin as a presumptive test for gravesoil. Of course this particular method is somewhat limited by the fact that any mammalian cadaver (and plants or faeces for that matter) will most likely produce this increase in nitrogen-containing compounds which will react with ninhydrin, but an interesting application of an existing indicator nonetheless.

The various methods of using the chemical analysis of soil to detect clandestine graves are plentiful and fascinating. Despite the limitations, namely the possibility of animal faeces and non-human decomposition providing false positive results, these techniques may at the very least act as a kind of presumptive or complimentary test for possible burial sites.

References

Von der Luhe, B. Dawson, L. A. Mayes, R. W. Forbes, S. L. Fiedler, S. Investigation of sterols as potential biomarkers for the detection of pig (S. s. domesticus) decomposition fluid in soils. Forensic Sci Int. 230 (2013), pp. 68-73.

Bull, I. D. Berstan, R. Vass, A. Evershed, R. P. Identification of a disinterred grave by molecular and stable isotope analysis. Sci Justice. 49 (2009), pp. 142-149.

Carter, D. O. Yellowless, D. Tibbett, M. Using ninhydrin to detect gravesoil. J Forensic Sci. 53 (2008), pp. 397-400.

Scientist Special: Clyde Snow

Scientist Special: Clyde Snow

“There are 206 bones and 32 teeth in the human body… and each has a story to tell” – Cylde Snow

Clyde Snow was a world-renowned American forensic anthropologist, involved in the examination of thousands of skeletal remains

cs1

Born in Texas in 1928, his rise to forensic stardom was not a smooth one. After being expelled from high school, failing at military school, and dropping out of college first time around, he finally obtained his PhD in anthropology. Initially Snow worked for the Civil Aeromedical Institute examining the bodies of individuals involved in fatal air crashes. He later became increasingly involved with issues of human rights, working with the United Nations Human Rights Commission and being involved in the investigation of victims of genocide and mass graves. Over the years he worked on an array of prominent cases, including the victims of infamous serial killers Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy, victims of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and even the death of John F Kennedy. He also testified in the trial of Saddam Hussein.

In 1985, a set of remains were discovered in Brazil, suspected to be those of infamous Nazi war criminal Joseph Mengele. It was believed that after German officials released a warrant for his arrest, Mengele fled to numerous South American countries where he lived under the name Wolfgang Gerhard until his death. Snow was asked to put together a team of experts and confirm the identity of the remains. And he did just that. Accompanied by a human rights colleague, an X-ray specialist, a renowned forensic odontologist and various others, Snow travelled to Sao Paulo and set to work on examining the remains. The team established that the victim was in his sixties, close to Mengele’s would-be age, was a European male, and had the correct stature and handedness. Mengele’s SS dental records, although lacking in much substance, were consistent with the skeleton under scrutiny. Photograph superimposition was also used, utilising both old and recent photographs of Mengele and superimposing them over the skull, resulting in an “impressive match”. The team ultimately concluded that the remains found in Brazil were in fact those of Josef Mengele. A few years later this deduction was verified by DNA analysis.

His work is by no means limited to legal investigations, but also extended to historic studies of the remains of King Tutankhamun and the suspected remains of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Clyde Snow’s career spanned decades, stretched across dozens of countries and was of the upmost importance. He strived to identify any set of human remains that came his way, hoping to discover an identity and whatever information he could gather that might help bring someone to justice and put yet another victim to rest. The work was no doubt gruelling, both physical and emotionally. To end on words spoken by Snow to his students… “Do the work in the daytime and cry at night”,

Unfortunately, Snow passed away in 2014.

References

The Economist. Stories in Bones. [online][Accessed 20 Feb 2015] Available: http://www.economist.com/news/obituary/21602660-clyde-snow-forensic-anthropologist-died-may-16th-aged-86-stories-bones

Forensic Architecture. Osteobiography: An Interview with Clyde Snow. [online][Accessed 19 Feb 2015] Available: http://archive.forensic-architecture.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Cabinet-43_Osteobiography.pdf

Washington Post. Clyde Snow, Forensic Anthropologist who Identified Crime Victims, Dies at 86. [online][Accessed 20 Feb 2015] Available: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/clyde-snow-famed-forensic-anthropologist-dies-called-grave-digging-detective/2014/05/16/f93778a4-dd44-11e3-bda1-9b46b2066796_story.html