We all know my passion is paranormal research AND genealogy. I thought for something a little different, I would share an article I wrote back in 2008 relating to genealogy and forensic anthropology. I believe it is relevant to what David and I do because it is a different way of hearing from the dead. I hope you enjoy and learn something!!
In December of 2007 I found an article detailing the development of an interesting news story, well interesting to me. It was titled “New found descendants of boy in iron coffin gather Smithsonian unveils image of what orphan would have looked like” written by Carol Vaughn for the Delmarva Daily News. (Unfortunately the article has disappeared from their website in the last 7 years)
Right away I was fascinated since this seemed to combined two big interests to me, genealogy and forensic anthropology. The article tells the story of the search to identify remains buried in Virginia over 150 years ago and long forgotten until they were accidentally dug up by utility workers and turned over to the Smithsonian.
Captivated, I immediately began searching out more information and found a few other news articles on the subject and immediately posted everything I could find on my genealogy forum because it was just too awesome not to share. I mean what genealogist in their right mind wouldn’t just love this? How many times have we sat and wondered what some ancestor we are researching looked like and this person’s family was going to know.
Thankfully I found this article and I was able to get a little more information on the processes that had gone on.
I also found a write up on the Smithsonian’s website about it. This was all great information. But, yes there is always a “but” with me, it didn’t tell me the things I was really wanted to know and the geek in me was screaming out to be fed more information. It was like I have been given a hundred calorie snack pack when I wanted the whole box of cookies. So I began a quest, I’m sure some people are familiar with this kind of quest, the kind where you sit on every search engine you can find to find more information. Unfortunately, I had found just about everything there was on it and was coming down from a big research high when I had a brilliant thought!
I would write to Ms. Vaughn and ask her if there were any more details that maybe my googling skills could not find!! I was so proud of myself at that moment. I emailed her using the contact information from the first story I read and asked the “is there more” question. She politely emailed me back and suggested I might contract Deborah Hull-Walski at the Smithsonian to see what she might tell me.
I learned a long time ago, the worst that can happen if you ask someone to help you with something is that they say no, and I have gotten to do and see some pretty amazing things in my life living by that. So here we start the quest….little did I know how difficult it was going to be to track down contact information for Ms. Hull-Walksi, I should have known though, as much as I research, that I never find what I’m looking for the first go around and it took me the better part of a morning to find an email address for her online that didn’t bounce back as undeliverable.
Basically what I was looking for was pictures of the facial reconstruction from beginning to end. One of the newspaper stories had a picture but it wasn’t all that great and I wanted more.
I was not really expecting to hear back from her, she is after all a very busy woman with a position at the Smithsonian, but I had to try. So, on December 18 2007 I sent her an email detailing what it was I wanted and why and you could have knocked me over with a feather three days later when she answered me.
Unfortunately she did not have what I was looking for, but told me who I could contact that would have it, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Now, I was really hesitant to bother them, they do very important things and in my mind what I wanted was very very trivial in the bigger scheme of things, but the devil geek on my shoulder would not let me pass this opportunity up and Ms. Hull-Walski assured me it would be ok to contact them, but once again I had to find the contact information on my own. Joy of joy’s a googler’s life is never dull.
Looking at the website for NCMEC I finally decided to use their media email address and fired off another missive of what I was looking for and why and two days after Christmas I got a response. No, response is an understatement, because what I got was so much more. Not only did I get a picture, I was told that it could be arranged for me to actually speak with the people in charge of the facial reconstruction.
For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in two things that I never really thought I would get a chance to be involved in, the first was going on an archaeological dig and the second, watching a facial reconstruction and this was as close as I was going to get to the reconstruction or so I thought at the time.
I had to think quickly because there was no way I was ready to talk with them, I needed to get my head together so that I didn’t sound like some giddy high schooler when I did talk to them. Luckily, I could use the holidays as an excuse and explained to the person that emailed me back that I would get my thoughts together and get back with her after the holidays to set up a time and she said that was fine, just to let her know when I was ready.
I spent weeks thinking of questions, I asked other people what they would want to know if they were in my shoes. I have a friend that is a journalist and her input on it was invaluable to me and she helped get the questions I had in my head out in a way that sounded more “professional” and for that I am forever grateful.
I typed up my list of questions and I contacted Mr. Joe Mullins via email to set up a time to talk and asked him if he would like me to go ahead and send them to him so he could get an idea of what I wanted from him, and in all actuality I thought this would help with my nerves in talking to him. I don’t know why I was nervous, I really never have a problem talking to people but this was a “big” deal to me.
Joe was very nice and had me go ahead and send them and he actually answered them all and sent them back so that I could read it over before I talked to him and gave me exactly what I was wanting to know. I also got something totally unexpected. He told me if I was ever in the Alexandria area to let him know and he would let me come and watch what he does. Can we say I just about fainted and immediately checked to see how many miles it was from Atlanta to Alexandria! My poor husband, I think he already knows where our next vacation is going to take place. This is just one opportunity I cannot pass up, it’s a dream too big for me to not take advantage of.
I struggled with the best way to write this up and I have decided to just take the simple approach, state the question and his reply, this will keep the geek in my from oohhing an ahhing in the middle of it.
So, without further ado, please enjoy the information I have gathered today.
1. How did you come to be involved? How far into the process was the Smithsonian when they called you in? Is this a kind of service you have provided before (ie, not a missing person per se)? Did the Smithsonian come to your organization for help or did you approach them?
We work with Dr. David Hunt at the Smithsonian. He donates his time to come over and asses our skulls for us. His expertise in Forensic Anthropology is crucial for us to reconstruct the features on our unidentified skulls. We approached him, probably been almost 10 years ago, to help out with our skulls and his been doing it ever since. So that’s how we got involved with them. With the William White case all the work was already done. They had a name, his ancestry, cause of death etc. We were asked to do some images of how he may have looked in life.
2. Did you ever actually get to see the all of the remains, and if so what condition were they in?
He was very well preserved. Looked like a mummy, best way to explain it. The photos showed him with hair, ears, lips lots of details were still present. So with the photos of the face an image was done to sort of fill in the blanks and add color and detail using that original photograph.
3. How did you get the skull to work with (if not what exactly did you work with ie measurements from the skull) and what process did you use to work with the skull (or specs from the skull). Also, how would you explain to the average person the basics of how you create an image from remains?
We also did a skull reconstruction from a C/T scan of the remains. We use a software that reads the C/T data and rebuilds the skull in a virtual environment. If you’ve ever seen a Forensic Artist reconstruct a skull in clay … It’s the same process only we use virtual clay and a software called FreeForm Modeler Plus from SensAble Tech. Each skull is just as unique as a face so it’s just a matter of understanding what the skull is “telling” you and translating that into features that bring out the characteristics of how this person may have looked in life.
4. Are these the oldest remains you have ever worked on? If so, what was the next oldest case, and if not, how much older remains have you ever worked on? Are there any challenges on working on older bones, how would this case differ from remains that were, say, five years old?
So far this is the oldest skull we’ve worked on. 2nd place would be a Mongolian Monk skull I did for Dr. Hunt. That one was from the 1930’s when Stalin executed thousands of Monks. The process works basically the same for old or new skulls.
5. In what ways did modern technology assist them in being able to do this?
Modern technology is great in doing these reconstructions. With the FreeForm software what used to take weeks now only takes days.
6. How did it feel working on this case (versus most of their cases, which presumably would be rather sad/potentially violent deaths, etc.) Was it a more “fun” use of your expertise?
This was definitely more of a “fun” case to work on. Most of the skulls we work with are of unidentified children who have been killed. Knowing that William had died of natural causes was somewhat of a relief, still horrible that he died so young of course. Maybe “fun” isn’t a word to describe it. Maybe it was just an “interesting” case to be a part of … I think that sounds better!
7. Were you surprised by the similarity in appearance of the descendants?
Always a plus to see photos of family members to see if we were close with our reconstructions.
8. Obviously, the focus is on the skull/face, but what kinds of things can the rest of the body tell us about an individual?
If a complete skeleton is found with the remains it makes our work easier because there’s more information to work with. For example if clothing is found with the remains it gives us an idea of the stature of the individual, or if hair is found we can digitally put the hair style back on. Without these details we have to work with only the information given. We can’t use any artist license with these images because making assumptions can be misleading and may result in a image that does not resemble the victim.
9. Were there unique aspects of his skull shape that stood out to you? If so, what?
The only thing feature that really stood out in William’s skull was his crooked teeth.
10. On a more personal note, what got you interested in this field of work and do you find it to be satisfying?
My background is in Fine Art & Graphic Design. I got my foot in the door here when a friend said there was a position available. So I came over here to NCMEC to check it out. While on a tour I stepped into the Forensic Assistance Unit and spoke with one of the artists, who was working on a skull. I was fascinated with what he was doing. So I took the open position and a year later I was offered the job as the 3rd Forensic Artist … Been here going on 9 years now and I absolutely LOVE my job. I help find missing kids … how awesome is that?
Is this guy amazing or what? After reading over this, a few more questions popped in my head so when we talked I went over those.
1. How long does the reconstruction process usually take? Are some more difficult than others and if so why?
A normal case now takes about 3 to 4 days, the William White case took about a week as it was not a priority and was not worked on when other pressing reconstructions needed to be done. The difficulties lie in the condition of the skull. If pieces are missing it naturally takes longer to get a finished result than when you have the entire skull as was the case of William.
2. Are all reconstructions done virtually now?
Again it depends on the case…most are done virtually utilizing the C/T scan specs. Sometimes, in some cases depending on the skull they are still done “old school” style by actually applying the clay to the skull.
3. Did you get to meet William White’s descendants?
No, we were not invited to the meeting, we wish we had been as it would have been cool to be in on that, but our feelings are not hurt that we were not.
4. Where is William’s body now?
As far as I know the Smithsonian still has it. There are discussions going on with where he will be re interred and who will handle it, and of course the wishes of the family are being taken into consideration, but nothing has been finalized yet.
We chatted a bit about how much he enjoys doing this kind of work for such a good cause but how sad it is at the same time, because every child he works with has passed away. I told him I totally admire someone that could do a job like that because I couldn’t, I would spend the entire time crying. I told him if I could get a job working on the remains in cases like William White’s I would be going back to school in a heartbeat to learn how to do it.
When we were hanging up he again said I was welcome to come and visit anytime and I assured him that I would be figuring out how to get my butt up there (yes I used the word butt) because this was just too good of an opportunity to pass up, and he told me to please feel free to call him anytime if I wanted any more information.
So this concludes the tale of my quest. I am so excited to have been able to get actual firsthand information on the case of William White and I hope you enjoy and learn something from the information I got.
January 23, 2008
**Footnote – in April of 2008 The History Channel aired a show called Save Our History – Written in Bone and part of the story was about William White. Joe was kind enough to send me a version that had been edited to only include the parts about William, and if you are interested, you want watch it here. I have stayed in contact with Joe all these years, but I still have not made it up to the center to take him up on his offer, but it is still on my list!! Shortly after I completed my article, Deborah was kind enough to put me in touch with William’s descendant that had provided the DNA sample they use to help confirm his identity so that I could obtain a comparison photo to see if there is a family resemblance, you can be the judge.