Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Anthropology:

The Anthropologis Meets the Angel of Death

Clyde C. Snow was the American anthropologist on a team invited to analyze the apparent remains of the infamous Nazi doctor, Josef Mengele.  Snow was considered something of a pioneer in his enthusiastic application of the methods of anthropology to criminal cases, which he called "osteobiography," and he was a renowned expert on identification.

In 1937, when he was nine years old, Snow saw his first skeleton.  He was hunting with his father, a physician, and he got to go along with the men to have a look.  He didn't understand why the bones were so brown.  As his father examined the bones for cause of death, he explained a few things to young Clyde—including how they would identify who this skeleton might have been.

One of Snow's early jobs was to work for the Federal Aviation Administration, searching crash sites and piecing victims together for identification.  In one mass disaster, he had to work with over 10,000 body parts.  To aid his team, he came up with a computer program that would put all of the victim information into a database for easy access.  Using records supplied by relatives about such things as height, weight, dental work, and clothing worn, they could match it against what they determined to be the age, gender, height, weight, and race of each of the victims.  In this instance, an astonishing 234 of the 273 victims were identified.

Dr. Josef Mengele
Dr. Josef Mengele

Snow left this position in 1979 to concentrate on forensic work, and in 1985 took on one of his more spectacular cases—the identification of Hitler's "Angel of Death."  Mengele had run Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp that was part of Hitler's mass slaughter of over 6 million Europeans, mostly Jews.  As part of his job, he had supervised over 400,000 deaths.  When the war ended with Germany's surrender, he fled.  He was spotted in a number of South American countries, but no one managed to locate and capture him.  Then word came that he had drowned in 1979 and was buried in the tomb of "Wolfgang Gerhard."  To be certain, the Brazilian government decided to open it.  For identification, they needed experts, so Clyde Snow was called in, along with a forensic anthropologist from Germany, Richard Helmer.

Snow arrived in Sao Paulo that summer to find the skeletal remains in a state of disarray.  In fact, some of the bones had been fractured by those who had dug them up.  Nevertheless, the team got right to work.  The bones were those of a right-handed Caucasian male between the ages of 60 and 70.  Estimates from bone measurements came within half a centimeter to Mengele's height.

The forensic team identifies Mengele's skull.
The forensic team identifies Mengele's skull.

For comparison purposes, they had few records of the living Mengele.  There were no dental x-rays, and while the number of fillings had been noted in his files, no other characteristics were included.  Snow and Helmer decided to use a technique called "video skull-face superimposition," which was Helmer's expertise.  Piecing together the shattered skull, they marked it with pins at thirty points of comparison.  They did the same with photographs of Mengele, and set the skull and photo side-by-side for cameras.  If all thirty points lined up, then they could say they had a positive identification of the Nazi fiend.

The cameras recorded and then superimposed the images, and the experts carefully examined the matching areas.  Finally, they pronounced the exhumed skull as that of war criminal Josef Mengele.

Some time later, Mengele's dental X-rays were located and compared to the teeth in the skull.  They proved a match, supporting the video superimposition.  Then a DNA analysis confirmed once again that the methods of anthropology had proven reliable and accurate.   

From two dimensions to three, let's have a look at forensics culture.


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