Mary Manhein

I think I have my days and nights mixed up. No dog baying, no raccoon—just woke up at 4 a.m. for no reason at all. It was downhill all the way from there. I wanted to work on my novel but was just not in the mood. I settled for a two-hour read on postmortem decomposition, the topic for my forensic anthropology lecture today.

I dressed in field clothes this morning for the river-victim search and carried “more formal” clothes with me for my afternoon class. We arrived at the sheriff’s office around 9 to go over the details regarding the case and found out that the “victim” had been located … alive and well in another state. Good on the one hand; not so good on the other for the person who called in the false information.

However, as I thought about the river, I remembered one of those cases that have bothered me for years. It was not a river case, but it was associated with the river. In early 1985, a young white woman was found behind the levee on the banks of the Mississippi River in West Baton Rouge Parish. She had been placed under a pile of large rocks that weighed approximately 20 lbs. each and most likely had been there since at least November or so of the previous year. The pile of rocks covering her body had been arranged very carefully, as though the person may have cared about her. If you crawled up on the levee and looked across the road, her body was directly across from a small church, as though that same person had deliberately chosen that spot. No signs of injury were found on the skeleton. She was somewhere between the ages of 24 and 32 and was between 5-foot-3 and 5-foot-5. She was petite, had dental fillings in her mouth, and wore some silver and turquoise jewelry (rings and earrings). She had brown hair. She has never been identified. Over the years, we have compared dental X-rays that we made on her with X-rays that have been sent from across the country, but we have had no match. We also completed a facial reconstruction on her and have published the photo on our Web site and in my book, and still she remains unidentified. For a while, I kept the clay facial reconstruction in my laboratory. At first, when I would go in there at night, I would be startled to see her sitting there; she looked so lifelike. We have now removed the clay and she has joined the 30 or so others who remain unidentified from the hundreds of cases we have analyzed. We want to send her home; we just have to find out who she is and where she lived.

I think one of those cases that I most often wish we could identify is a case we never received. In the early 1970s a woman’s body was found in the Mississippi River in north Louisiana. At that time there were very few forensic anthropologists working in this country. No forensic anthropologist looked at her body. Old photographs show that she is a white female. I could not tell how old she was from the photos, but I might suggest that she was over 30 and under 60. She wore wedding rings on her left hand. The sheriff’s office in the little town still retains the jewelry. She is buried in a small cemetery and the hand-poured concrete slab that rests at the head of her grave reads: “Unidentified white female.” Oh, that the powers that be would allow us to analyze her remains today and try to send her home!

I don’t like it that I have cases that remain unidentified, and I hope that the database we are working on with several researchers across the country will provide a name for some of those who wait in our lab. Good night.