Mary Manhein

This morning I woke up a little earlier than usual, around 4, due in part to my one-eyed Siamese cat, Maggie, who was nipping at my toes, and the baying of my beagle, Bogey, who wanted to get to the raccoon that nests in the tall tree just beyond my back fence line.

I got up and made coffee (I can never eat before 8). Early mornings are the only times I have to myself. I decided to work on my new novel a little. It’s about a female forensic anthropologist who is assisting with the investigation of a string of mysterious deaths in New Orleans. Setting up the main character for this book is fairly simple, because that’s what I do in the real world. I’m a forensic anthropologist who teaches at a university and who also works with law-enforcement agencies from all over the country.

My job includes examining decaying and skeletonized bodies to try to figure out the person’s identity. We are the bone people. We establish a profile of age, sex, and race by looking at different bones. We use the skull for race and the hipbones for sex and age. We also look at trauma and describe what happened to the person. Finally, we make a statement about time since death. Climate, coverings over the body, weight, and other factors influence the rate of decay. I have seen a body become completely skeletonized in Louisiana after lying on the surface for just two weeks in the summer. In contrast, I had a case where the man was buried in a bag for five years and was so well preserved that we identified him with his fingerprints. Every case is different. I guess that’s one of the things I like about my job. I never know what’s going to happen next.

This morning around 9, I received a phone call from a coroner’s investigator in a south Louisiana parish. We’re the only state in the Union that has parishes instead of counties. The investigator wanted me to look at two bones and tell him whether they were human. The bones had been discovered between the walls of a man’s house when he was doing a little remodeling. He thought they might be human. The coroner’s office was unsure. That’s when they called me. The bones arrived at my office around noon. I took one look at them and told the investigator that he had two ham bones from a pig (probably a joke played by a worker when the house was originally constructed). The man could continue working on his house without fear that a human was walled up inside. But it could just have easily been human; it wouldn’t be the first time we had human remains associated with a house.

In one case, a woman kept noticing that her dog would disappear under the house and return to the front driveway with a different bone each time. When the dog brought out a leg bone, the woman became suspicious and called the sheriff’s office. They called me. Sure enough, someone had buried a body in a shallow grave underneath the raised house. The renter moved out.

I get between 35 and 40 cases a year, but follow-ups on old cases can continue for years. We have worked more than 500 forensic cases in the last 15 or so years here at the FACES Laboratory. The acronym “FACES” stands for Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services. We also do age progressions on missing children and adults by using computer software, and we complete clay facial reconstructions on unidentified persons to try to help get them identified.

I received a case today from Nevada. The skeletonized remains are supposed to be a male who has not been identified. Nevada has requested that we complete a facial reconstruction on the person. First, we start by doing an analysis of the case to determine its age, sex, and race. Our conclusions will help us decide which tissue depth markers to glue to the skull to guide us in making a clay face over the bone. We will place these tissue depth markers across the skull at about 50 locations. The markers are cut to very precise lengths, for example, 4.5 millimeters in length for the area just above and right between the eyes. The length of the markers tells us how thick to place the clay in those areas. Glass eyes, a clay nose (whose length and width are determined by measurements on the skull), and a clay mouth (lips are usually the height of gum line to gum line and stretch across the face from canine tooth to canine tooth) will help to finish the reconstruction. Once we finish, we photograph it and send it to the agency that requested our help. Hopefully, someone will recognize the person when the photograph is publicized in newspapers and on television. We have helped to identify several people with this technique.

During the day, my phone rings constantly. People call requesting my assistance on forensic cases, asking me to give a public presentation about my work, or maybe wanting information on our graduate program in anthropology. I also get calls that I designate as “referral phone calls.” These calls are asking for assistance with things outside my area of expertise, such as DNA analysis, or help with problems where other agencies should be called, such as blood analysis on samples associated with animal cruelty. I redirect these calls to other agencies if I can. I received a phone call recently asking for my help in a civil case. The lawyer wanted me to examine “something like a bone” that had allegedly passed through someone’s digestive system. I respectfully declined, for a number of reasons … not the least of which was the fact that I don’t do civil cases.

I ate a late lunch of a prepackaged sandwich and a bottle of water. I ended my workday with a two-hour workshop I taught from 6 to 8 p.m. to local health-care providers. We covered everything from skeletal anatomy to trauma and provided the group of 20 with continuing education hours they need to help maintain their accreditation. I’m tired. I’m going to bed. I hope the raccoon has gone on vacation.