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Modern sleuths attempt to solve mystery of 130-year-old skeleton
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Modern sleuths attempt to solve mystery of 130-year-old skeleton

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DEADWOOD | Contemporary sleuths are employing modern scientific techniques straight from “Bones” and “CSI” to unravel the 130-year-old mystery of a young man buried on the western frontier in a remote, rich and ribald gold camp long before the law arrived.

The man was buried in Ingleside Cemetery sometime between Deadwood’s earliest origins in 1876 and the latter part of 1878. At that time, with the staccato sound of hammers striking nails still signaling a burgeoning new town, local officials recognized the need to move the city cemetery up the hill, away from encroaching residences.

With some fanfare in 1879, community boosters moved Deadwood’s most famous permanent resident — James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok — to his new resting place in the pines known as Mt. Moriah Cemetery. The well-intentioned town folk also did their best to locate the graves of others, disinter their remains, and re-bury them in the city’s new cemetery.

But they missed at least one man.

For 13 decades his lonely plot rested in a residential neighborhood, unmarked and unknown. Just last year, he made a reappearance.

Wall to the past

As construction crews worked on a retaining wall at 66 Taylor Ave., in the town’s Presidential District in mid-March 2012, they uncovered the skeletal remains of the man about two feet below grade. Because of the likelihood that a burial site would be located, staff from the South Dakota State Historical Society’s Archaeological Research Center were on-site and alerted Deadwood Historic Preservation staff of the discovery.

Over the next two days, state archaeologists and city personnel, assisted by a local archaeologist, sifted through the site, collecting bone fragments and the remnants of a cranium. They found 99 percent of his skeleton, save for one tooth and a few small finger and toe bones. And they discovered clues to his life and burial on a hillside in Dakota Territory.

“We discovered quite a few personal effects,” said Katie Lamie, repository manager and burial coordinator for the state Archaeological Research Center. “We could see the outline of the coffin and we found coffin wood, coffin nails and real simple coffin hardware used to cover the coffin nails. They were fairly decorative and were likely commercially made. The undertaker was probably ordering this hardware from a catalog.”

In addition, investigators located fabric remnants indicative of a longer coat with pockets at the waist, as well as a buckle and metal and ceramic buttons that likely came from the coat, Lamie said.

“The most interesting thing we found, in the pockets of the coat, were three cartridge cases that were really corroded and had no markings,” she said. “That’s something we continue to research. What we figured was there were probably three shots fired at his funeral and those spent cartridges were placed in his pockets.”

Subsequent investigation, aided by experts in firearms and ammunition, revealed the cartridges were from an externally primed .44-40-caliber bullet common to that time period, Lamie said.

Gold fillings offer hints

Although relatively few personal articles were found with the skeleton, Deadwood Historic Preservation Officer Kevin Kuchenbecker said last week the remains have yielded some vital clues to Will’s background and identity.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever find out who this individual was, but based on dental records we believe he may have been from a more influential family,” the historian said. “He had six fillings, four of which were tin and two of which were gold.”

City Archivist Mike Runge noted that the skeleton in question, identified as that of a Caucasian male in his mid-20s, was one of two individuals discovered at the site in the past six years and he agreed with Kuchenbecker’s assessment that this latest set of remains belonged to someone who likely came from an upper-income household.

“It was somebody who had some money or someone who came from a family that had some money because this was early dental work which was unusual,” Runge said. “Most people would probably have had their teeth pulled at that point in history.”

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In addition to the intact fillings, Lamie said there were holes in the teeth where other fillings probably had fallen out prior to his death.

“He had so much dental work for a man of that age,” she said. “The thing we’re interested in is perhaps there is a military connection, or perhaps he grew up in a city that had a lot of dental schools at that time.”

Modern methodologies

Kuchenbecker said his office and the Archaeological Research Center are currently exploring a partnership with the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology to conduct a molecular analysis of the gold found in the deceased’s teeth.

Those studies may yet offer clues as to where in the country that metal originated and by extension, where the man lived before he joined the crush of miners, mule skinners and madams who flocked to the Hills in the 1870s.

“We’re trying to have a better understanding of the original pioneers who helped settle Deadwood,” Kuchenbecker said. “We have a lot of information in writing, but this will help us broaden the understanding of the how and who and where these individuals came from to strike it rich in the Black Hills.”

Last Monday night, the Deadwood City Commission unanimously approved $3,825 in funding to have a Fort Collins, Colo.-based anthropologist provide forensic identification and cranial casting from Will’s remains.

“It’s bringing historic preservation and science together,” said Kuchenbecker. “I don’t believe that many preservation offices have been involved with this type of activity — using `CSI' science on 130-year-old skeletal remains to begin to solve the mystery.

“Deadwood has an opportunity to lead the nation in historic preservation work, combined with modern science, to better understand the origins of those individuals who came here in search of their own Eldorado — to strike it rich,” he added. “One begins to wonder who this individual was, how he died, what happened? These are unanswered questions and we have an opportunity to piece together the facts of this individual’s life.

“Through this work we will be able to identify the gender, the race, the approximate age and the look of this individual through forensic science,” Kuchenbecker said. “We will be doing a facial reconstruction based on the skeletal remains, specifically the cranium.”

When combined with other information, Lamie said she hoped their investigation would ultimately lead to identification of the mystery man before his remains are re-buried at Mt. Moriah.

“The forensic anthropologist will be able to tell us how he died,” she said. “It’s a needle in a haystack, but if we can get enough information together, from the anthropologist, from newspaper headlines, from the victim’s age, we might be able to find out who he was.”

Putting a face on history

Dr. Diane France, an adjunct professor at Colorado State University affiliated with the Human Identification Laboratory of Colorado, is the forensic anthropologist assigned the task of putting a face on history.

“Over the past 30 years, I’ve had several cases like this, historical bodies,” France said from her Colorado lab. “This will be kind of fun. Even though the cranium is fairly deformed and fragmented from ground pressure, I’m going to make a mold of each fragment and then I will glue them together and warp the plastic so that all the pieces fit back together again. It is like putting together a 130-year-old puzzle with a lot of jagged edges.”

Once she has re-created the skull in plastic, France said she would send it to Texas artist Karen Taylor who will put a face on one of Deadwood’s earliest pioneers. 

“She’s a magnificent artist who makes skulls come to life,” France said. “She will make this a real person with a real face. She will try to re-create a personality for this person.”

France said she, Deadwood and South Dakota historic preservation officials are expending the necessary time, money and expertise to unravel a mystery more than a century in the making.

“We are trying to narrow down the list of persons and who this actually is,” she said. “It would be nice to bring him back from the unknown and solve this mystery.”

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