Online Supersleuths There’s an estimated 40,000 unidentified human remains in the United States. When writer Deborah Halber heard this figure, she did some research and discovered a thriving community of internet sleuths who spend hours trying to attach names to these John and Jane Does.
Brooke Gladstone, On the Media (July 12, 2014)
WNYC’s radio programme, On the Media, has been an invaluable resource for the Death Reference Desk these past five years. I never created an ‘On the Media’ tag, but I know that I’ve used its shows a number of times.
This week is a great example of the stories that OTM runs. Brooke Gladstone interviews Deborah Halber about her book Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths Are Solving America’s Coldest Cases and the volunteers who work on unsolved and cold cases involving unidentified human remains.
I have to imagine that some of Death Ref’s regulars, particularly the librarians, might already know about this online crime solving.
Feel free to send the Death Reference Desk examples of cases that were helped and/or solved through online volunteers.
This is a Death Reference Desk post which begins in December 2007.
At that time, I was contacted by Minneapolis based filmmaker and writer Susan Marks about her new documentary film. She was working on a film about the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, located in Baltimore, Maryland. I had never heard of the “Nutshells” (as they’re called by those in the know) but once Susan brought me up to speed on the project, I wanted in.
The Nutshells are an astoundingly detailed set of miniature dollhouse dioramas, some 18 in total, and each of them represents an unexplained death. All of the dioramas were painstakingly created by Frances Glessner Lee, a wealthy woman who went a long ways in founding the field of modern forensic science. All of this during the first half of the twentieth century. Harvard University (where Frances Glessner Lee was based) originally kept the Nutshells but then sold them to the Maryland Department of Health in Baltimore.
Here’s the rub: the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death are so exquisitely detailed that police departments still use them today for crime scene investigation training. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, nothing beats a well built diorama!
This all brings me back to 2007. Susan wanted to interview me about representations of death, dying, and dead bodies in popular culture, film, art, and science. Making a documentary film about the Nutshells was pretty straightforward (more or less) but what Susan wanted to ponder was a bigger question. She wanted to understand how the Nutshells might shed light on the current fascination with all things dead, dying, and CSI.
I have never seen the Nutshells, only photographs, but in those images I was struck by the following thought: We humans aren’t looking at the dead dolls for crime scene clues. No. We humans look at those dead dolls (and the dolls look back) in order to find some kind meaning, if that’s even possible, in death.
The Nutshells aren’t about unsolved deaths. They’re about the human imagination grappling with the postmortem insecurities which surround the dead self.
There was a bit of a dead body tug-of-war this week in Chicago. According to an October 4 article in the Chicago Tribune, any dead body left unclaimed for two weeks in the Medical Examiner’s office will be handed over to the Illinois Anatomical Gift Association.
But wait, that’s not totally true.
According to an October 5 article in the Chicago Tribune, the Medical Examiner’s office will not donate any unclaimed body to the Anatomical Gift Association when the ME’s office knows that the next-of-kin cannot afford to have the dead body claimed and the next-of-kin want a burial.
Here is the bigger issue in this story: the overall costs for retrieving a body from a Medical Examiner’s office have become too expensive for many families.
We started covering this situation in 2009, when the Death Reference Desk launched. You can look over all those previous posts in the Death + the Economy section.
More and more county morgues across America are dealing with not only unclaimed dead bodies, but unclaimed dead bodies and families who know exactly where said dead body is located but can’t afford to do anything about it.
As a result, the Cook County story is hardly surprising.
Given the economic difficulties more and more American families face, this story represents not an anomaly but the future.
Go Go Frontline. There are moments in this documentary on postmortem examinations in America and the attached medical-legal investigative personnel that made me physically groan.
And then slap my forehead.
None of the dead body images elicited any kind of response from me (shocking, I know). Rather, the interviews with some of the coroners and autopsy investigators were so painful to watch that I wondered if they really knew what kinds of documentaries Frontline makes. One of Frontline’s best investigative reporters, Lowell Bergman, is the on-camera interviewer and his abilities at making interview subjects squirm, especially those who lie or get caught in a certain-kind-of-truth-stretching, are phenomenal.
The interview with Dr. Frank Minyard, the coroner for New Orleans, Louisiana, is some of the most cringe-worthy television that I have seen in a long time. A number of Death Reference Desk readers might know Dr. Minyard from his interviews about dealing with post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Minyard is a complex figure, to be sure, and he doesn’t end up looking so good in this documentary. Ironically, he has been interviewed in other Frontline pieces, so it’s not as if he had no idea what could happen.
But I digress…
Here, then, is the take away information from Post Mortem. 1.) The overall training, accreditation, and educational standards for American Medical Examiners needs to be uniform, rigorous, and regulated. As with the American funeral industry, for example, the education and licensing requirements are all state-by-state. This means that some states (and regions within states) are far more competent than others. In a nutshell, if you died and your death required a full investigation, then it’s better to die in some states than others.
Frontline produced a map of America which shows what kind(s) of postmortem investigation system(s) exist in each state. Check it out here.
The documentary’s other key point is that medical examiners and investigators need more money to do their work. This hardly comes as a surprise, since everybody wants more money to do their work, but the investigative labor being done involves guilt and innocence. I would always hope that the individuals given the power to provide evidence about either guilt or innocence, had the necessary funding to do the job. In some cases, this is not the case.
So watch this documentary. You can either view it right here or go to the Frontline website (linked at the top of this page).
It’s worth the 52 minutes and provides an opportunity to begin contemplating which American state you would want to die in…
This episode of BBC Documentaries explores forensic entomology: “the investigation of insects recovered from crime scenes and corpses.” Guests include Amoret Whitaker of the Natural History Museum in London, who studies the flies and maggots that congregate on corpses to find clues about the time and nature of death. She also analyzes the decomposition of pigs, a “good model for humans.”
They also speak with Bill Bass, anthropologist at the Body Farm, a facility at the University of Tennessee for researching the decomposition of bodies. According to Professor Bass, “I went to the Dean in November of ’71 and I said, ‘Dean, I need some land to put dead bodies on.’ ” And land he did receive. (John posted last fall about the Body Farm needing to refuse unclaimed bodies because of the growing surplus resulting from the poor economy… yikes!)
Have a listen — 22.5 minutes of homicide-solving maggots is bound to brighten any day.
Regular readers of the Death Reference Desk will recognize that the nationwide increase in indigent burials is a significant trend. Since this summer, when Death Ref launched, we have routinely posted articles on the uptick in unclaimed dead bodies under the Death and the Economy category.
The lead from this most recent New York Times article sums up the entire situation:
Coroners and medical examiners across the country are reporting spikes in the number of unclaimed bodies and indigent burials, with states, counties and private funeral homes having to foot the bill when families cannot.
What makes this article a little different than the others is that it presents some hard facts and figures on the wave of unclaimed bodies.
Oregon has seen a 50 percent increase in the number of unclaimed bodies over the past few years.
About a dozen states now subsidize the burial or cremation of unclaimed bodies, including Illinois, Massachusetts, West Virginia and Wisconsin.
Financing in Oregon comes from fees paid to register the deaths with the state. The state legislature in June voted to raise the filing fee for death certificates to $20 from $7, to help offset the increased costs of state cremations, which cost $450.
Already in 2009, Wisconsin has paid for 15 percent more cremations than it did last year.
Boone County, Mo., hit its $3,000 burial budget cap last month, and took $1,500 out of a reserve fund to cover the rest of the year.
The medical examiner of Wayne County, Mich., Dr. Carl Schmidt, bought a refrigerated truck after the morgue ran out of space. The truck, which holds 35 bodies, is currently full, Dr. Schmidt said. “We’ll buy another truck if we have to,” he said.
These numbers present an interesting unclaimed dead body index, but the following point really jumped out at me:
In Tennessee, medical examiner and coroners’ offices donate unclaimed remains to the Forensic Anthropological Research Center, known as the “Body Farm,” where students study decomposition at the University of Tennessee. The facility had to briefly halt donations because it had received so many this year…
The Body Farm at the University of Tennessee was specifically built to study how dead bodies decompose in order to assist criminal investigations. The Body Farm needs, by its very definition, dead bodies to operate; even it (a place which requires corpses to function) had to stop accepting unclaimed bodies because there were too many of them.
I want to stress this particular point: There were/are too many unclaimed dead bodies for even the Body Farm…a place solely built to study dead bodies.
It is difficult to say where this situation goes next. I don’t expect to see the unclaimed corpse trend reverse anytime soon and, indeed, I expect it to go even higher. What I do think will happen, down the road, is that more and more of these unclaimed bodies will end up in bio-medical tissue products. But that is a post for another day.