Archive for Saturday, April 1, 2006

Professors receive right to exhume body in 127-year-old unmarked grave

April 1, 2006


Ideally, it will be an intact skull.

Dennis Van Gerven, University of Colorado anthropology professor, and Marianne Wesson, CU law professor, hope to determine the identity of a 127-year-old corpse, shown in the photos they hold, after they exhume it.

Dennis Van Gerven, University of Colorado anthropology professor, and Marianne Wesson, CU law professor, hope to determine the identity of a 127-year-old corpse, shown in the photos they hold, after they exhume it.

"Hopefully, we'll expose a beautiful face - a skull, that's what we're hoping for," anthropologist Dennis Van Gerven said Friday after a judge approved his request to dig up a 127-year-old grave in Lawrence to determine the identity of the remains inside. "It could be dust ... (or) it could be a very well-preserved skeleton."

Van Gerven, a University of Colorado anthropology professor, and colleague Marianne Wesson, a CU law professor, couldn't hide their excitement Friday after Douglas County District Court Judge Paula Martin granted their request to exhume a body in an unmarked grave at Lawrence's Oak Hill Cemetery.

The professors hope to determine as soon as next month whether the person in the grave is John Hillmon or Frederick A. Walters - a century-old controversy that led to the creation of an important piece of federal evidence law in the late 1800s.

The dig likely will happen in mid-May. Martin gave her approval with the professors' pledge that the remains would be returned to the grave within 48 hours and that the process would be handled in a dignified way.

Van Gerven said crews would dig only two feet into the ground with heavy machinery. From that point on, a team will dig by hand - carefully sifting through each layer until they spot the coffin.

They'll remove the bones - if there are any - and take them to a lab on the Kansas University campus, where they'll clean and photograph them. Van Gerven said that if the skull was in good enough shape, he would be able to take a photo of it and superimpose it on photographs to see which man it matches.

He said the bony bridge of Hillmon's nose was distinctively different from Walters'.

If there's only dust in the grave, a small sample will be taken for DNA testing.

At the time of Hillmon's death in 1879, life insurance companies suspected Hillmon of fraud. They alleged he and a companion had killed a third man - Walters - to collect on Hillmon's life insurance.

The case was tried six times and taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court twice. The court's first ruling created an exception to the "hearsay" rule that allows out-of-court statements by third parties to be used as evidence if they describe the intentions of the speaker or the writer.

The piece of evidence in question was a letter that lent support to the theory that it wasn't Hillmon in the grave. Wesson said she believed the Supreme Court's decision to allow the letter was based partly on the justices' belief that Hillmon was not dead - and that the court had wanted the letter admitted to help prove it.

Scholars will view the court's decision differently, she said, if it turns out to have been Hillmon all along.

Oak Hill Cemetery


angel4dennis 12 years, 1 month ago

I would like to know how the families feel about this. Is it right to dig up someone after they have rested in peace for so long? With all of todays technology, couln't you take an inferred camera and snap a picture from the top of the coffin and determine the nose structure of this person? I am interested in finding out who this person is only because it will bring closure to someones family. Hopefully, the insurance company will stay out of it and not want their money back. Good luck professors!

geekin_topekan 12 years, 1 month ago

It's about time they dig up a white person just for funzies. They've been doing it to the native's for years.Hope they put the person in a shelf in a cardboard box at KU.I guess equality isn't dead in this great country. Let's dig up a bunch of white people and put whatever clothes they're buried in on display and call them"antiques".

geekin_topekan 12 years, 1 month ago

Let's welcome the new/old comers. Maybe they'll pick fruit for cheap.

justthefacts 12 years, 1 month ago

Exhuming bodies buried in known graves requires a court order (see article) and if there ARE any next-of-kin that can be found, their input and wishes is not only considered but is heavily weighted.

As for anthropologists digging up natives and displaying them, and those who disapprove of that conduct, the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) headquarted in Boulder Colorado has made its life mission to get that stopped and reversed. And they've done a great job of it over the last 20 years.

In Kansas, the Unmarked Burial laws now (late but now in place) were enacted to specifically address and prohibit digging up native remains. The statutes create an unmarked burial board that includes representatives/members from all the tribes in Kansas.

Remains in unmarked graves (who are not suspected homicide victims!) are under the authority of this board (and those are usually native graves. Such remains cannot be disinterred without permission and good cause (E.g. if a creek bed is washing away the remains, the board may approve moving them to a safer resting place). Next of kin is always sought, and if found, consulted. No display of human remains is allowed. The NARF attorneys (especially Walter Echohawk) were instrumental in writing this law and getting it passed through the Kansas Legislature. This law also got the Salina Burial pit closed for good.

This specific situation evidences how the current Kansas laws work; no matter what race the deceased was, or what kind of burial it is/was, people cannot legally dig up a human body, buried by someone other than a murderer, without the permission of some government over-sight/entity (a court or the unmarked burial board).

Shardwurm 12 years, 1 month ago

Go visit the catacombs of just about any church in Europe sometime.

You'll find skulls stacked like cordwood.

Doesn't bother me a bit to exhume long as there is a valid reason and the family doesn't object.

Godot 12 years, 1 month ago

Ditto, thanks for the links, derf. This is a fascinating story.

classclown 12 years, 1 month ago

Narf? Anybody watch Pinky and The Brain? That's what Pinky always says. HAHA

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