Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Forensic Anthropology:

The Bone Lady, Part I

Alice Penny Taylor died at the age of 19, and the year was 1859.  She was buried in the only above-ground vault in the cemetery, not far from Zachary, Louisiana.  According to recent adolescent lore, she'd been a witch, and rumors had spread that she roamed during the night hours as a spirit.  Sitting on her grave was a test of courage, but in 1990, something more extreme began to occur.

One night, someone opened the vault.  The following morning, the cemetery crew found her remains lying out in the open.  It seemed impossible, but the marauder had shoved aside the heavy marble slab that covered the grave and opened her metal coffin. The crew re-interred her and replaced the cover, but the grave was soon violated a second and third time.  At that point, the cemetery board called in a forensic anthropologist, Mary H. Manhein.  Carefully, she picked up the remains and took them to her laboratory.  This was now a person whose past she cared about.

Manhein decided to treat Alice as she would a modern forensic case.  She and her assistants profiled her probable weight and height according to her delicate anatomy.  There were no signs of physical trauma, but her cropped hair bespoke an illness, so they looked into archival data to find out more, and then decided to create a sculpture of her face.

A skull with tissue depth markers.
A skull with tissue depth markers.

From her skull, they made a mold to cast a plaster likeness.  To fill it out, they attached tissue markers—they look like pencil erasers—for uniform skin and musculature depth.  Then they sculpted a face, added a brown wig, and from that took photos.  While Alice's bones went back into her crypt, which was covered under protective cement, her likeness remained available for gathering more information.

This story comes from The Bone Lady, Manhein's book on some of the many cases she has investigated.  The title is based on the nickname given to her by the law enforcement agencies with which she works.  She teaches at Louisiana State University and directs their Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services Laboratory (F.A.C.E.S.).  She's also the deputy coroner of East Baton Rouge Parish in Louisiana.  Over the past twenty years, she's worked on upwards of 600 medico-legal investigations.

In college, she opted to combine physical anthropology with archaeology for applied anthropology, which eventually involved her in forensics.  "I like solving puzzles," she says.  "We're part of the puzzle.  We put the bones back together again and see if they've been traumatized.  Our work adds a new dimension to the analysis process."

Having for years been the only forensic anthropologist in the Baton Rouge area of Louisiana, she gets a lot of calls from law enforcement officers.  She might get invited to examine aged skeletal remains or to help with a recent ambiguous trauma. "We get called in at all stages."


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