Public Release: 

Smithsonian experts put a name to a face in pre-Civil War era forensic case


A team of researchers led by Doug Owsley, forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, has determined the identity of a pre-Civil War era individual buried in a cast iron coffin that was discovered in Washington, D.C., in 2005 by a utility crew. After a complete forensic examination in 2005 and two years of genealogical research, the boy in the iron coffin has been identified as William Taylor White, a 15-year-old from Accomack County, Va., who was buried in a Columbian College cemetery in 1852 in what is now the district's Columbia Heights neighborhood. Continued tracing of the White family has resulted in identifying that the boy's lineage leads back to Anthony West, one of the Jamestown, Va., settlers.

Columbian College was chartered in 1821 by an act of Congress and was the precursor to The George Washington University. The college relocated to Foggy Bottom in 1912. It has been concluded that the grave was inadvertently left behind when the cemetery was moved. White had been a student in the college's preparatory school and was highly esteemed by his instructors and associates.

Deborah Hull-Walski, anthropologist at the museum, led the genealogical efforts to identify the boy. She was assisted by historians, librarians, genealogists and college interns, including graduate students attending The George Washington University. After carefully reviewing census records, obituaries and other public documents, the team was led to several candidates. DNA testing of known living descendants through the maternal line enabled the researchers to make the positive identification.

"The mystery of this young boy's life and a strong sense of responsibility to properly identify him kept me and the entire team focused and determined. This was not a one-person project. It took more than three dozen people nearly two years to make the ID," said Hull-Walski.

Forensic imaging experts at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Va., worked with David Hunt, anthropologist at the museum, to produce a facial reconstruction of White, based on photographs of the mummified remains and a computed tomography scan of his skull.

Pathologists and forensic anthropologists examined the well-preserved mummified remains that--although 150 years old--allowed for tissue and DNA analysis. The scientists determined the boy had congenital heart disease, a ventricular septum defect (hole) that contributed to his death. An obituary notice published in the Daily National Intelligencer newspaper (Washington, D.C.) Jan. 28, 1852, confirms White died Jan. 24, 1852, after a short illness. Clothing historians were able to determine that he was dressed in a shirt, vest and pants that are consistent with clothing styles of the early to mid-1850s. The coffin is most likely a Model 1 version made by Fisk and Raymond Co. (New York) in the early 1850s.

"Thus is cut off, in the morning of his days, one in whom many hopes were centred--and who had the fairest prospects of happiness and usefulness in life."--Excerpt from White's obituary, published Feb. 8, 1852, in the Religious Herald newspaper (Richmond, Va.).


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