Inside the Capitol

Saturday, June 06, 2009

6-10 Exhumations on the Rise

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Now they're wanting to dig up Meriwether Lewis, a leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to scout the Louisiana Purchase.
A group of Lewis' descendants have established an Internet site, hoping to generate enough support to convince federal officials to exhume the explorer's body and investigate his death.
So far, the National Park Service, which owns the Tennessee property where Lewis is buried, has denied the request despite intervention from state and national political figures.
Most historians figure Lewis shot himself but the family hopes modern scientific techniques can prove he was murdered. And it appears they expect the National Park Service to pay for the investigation.
The Lewis family evidently is worried about their ancestor's reputation. But in my opinion, the general public doesn't care how Lewis died. He is famous for his major role in exploring the American continent.
Ever since CSI shows hit the tube, the general public believes that those people can solve anything with modern scientific techniques. So we've had numerous efforts of late to dig up graves of famous people for one trivial reason or another.
You've read numerous comments in this column, and a subsequent book, about the recent efforts to dig up Billy the Kid in Fort Sumner and his mother in Silver City. Those efforts were largely defeated in court but the judge in Silver City left the door open a crack. So that chapter isn't over yet.
You've also seen in this column about the effort to dig up Geronimo's bones at Fort Sill Oklahoma and bring them back to his birthplace in New Mexico. That issue is in court.
Some exhumations do receive permission. Recent ones include outlaw Jesse James, President Zachary Taylor, Lincoln conspirator Samuel Mudd, civil rights leader Medgar Evers, Eva Peron, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Lee Harvey Oswald.
Requests have been made for exhuming an unknown soldier buried at Arlington Cemetery, Lincoln assassinator John Wilkes Booth, President Jack Kennedy, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Clinton Commerce Secretary Ron Brown and Clinton White House counsel Vince Foster.
Unfortunately, digging up the dead has been a practice throughout the history of mankind. It has been done for religious reasons throughout the ages. Grave and tomb robbing were rampant in the days when a king's riches were buried with him.
Anthropologists and archaeologists have disturbed the dead to find out about ancient cultures. Old graves have been dug up in already-full cemeteries to make room for new bodies. For centuries dead bodies were exhumed to provide cadavers for medical study and teaching purposes.
In modern society corpses are disinterred to identify a body, to determine cause of death, to prove relationships, to relocate graves or entire cemeteries or to see if a body really is in the grave.
A century ago, grave robbing became a fad. Native American corpses were especially popular for study at archaeology labs and museums. Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires the return of human remains and objects to the tribe from which they came.
And sometimes the collection of skulls and bones was done on a lark. How cool to have a cadaver hanging in your den, dorm room or clubhouse. The infamous Order of Skull and Bones at Yale University is the most notorious example of that practice.
Fortunately that sort of thing is behind us. But pathologists report that the number of exhumations has sharply increased in the last three decades with scientific advances in DNA testing that result in more requests to dig up corpses for criminal trials.
And adding greatly to recent exhumation totals are the war crimes trials in Bosnia, Rwanda, Chile and other countries in which evidence of mass graves is presented.
WED, 6-10-09

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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