Monday, February 13, 2006

Examination Helped Confirm Mason's Identity

Preliminary findings were revealed in a draft copy of “Mason Cast Iron Coffin Investigation Summary” by forensic anthropologist, Dr. Douglas Owsley, and Karin Bruwelheide, a physical anthropologist for the National Museum of Natural History.

Story and Photo by CLAUDIA JOHNSON
Staff Writer

When the heavy cast iron lid was hoisted from the coffin of what was believed to be Isaac Newton Mason’s remains in the Anthropology Conservation Laboratory on the third floor of the Smithsonian Institution on May 28, the only sound was the mechanical whirring of television cameras and the occasional click-click of Smithsonian photographer Chip Clark’s shutter.
I arrived early that morning during preparations by the scientific team and set-up by ABC and NBC, but the coffin had been moved into the lab a day earlier, having been brought from Tennessee in a state vehicle by State Archeologist Nick Fielder and Steve Rogers of the Tennessee Historical Commission. The anticipated moment came at 10 a.m. when the last antiquated bolts were removed, the lid was lifted and a perfectly preserved skeleton dressed in a dark broadcloth suit was exposed to human observation for the first time since the spring of 1862.
When the casket was excavated and reburied during relocation of the old Mason Cemetery in 2002, it was sealed. However, after re-interment, the faceplate cracked, presumably by the weight of saturated earth after several recent floods, so it was drained in the lab by making a small hole in the bottom of the coffin prior to the May 28 opening.
Scientists found that due to the water-filled environment of the coffin and exposure to air, little soft tissue was preserved, but body and head hair adhered to some of the bones. There was no odor other than the smell of stagnate water. Earlier, one of the scientists held a flashlight to the glass viewing plate for me to look into the still-sealed coffin, but the expected bare skull was not visible. The body had shifted, leaving the head and shoulders to the left of center. The lower jawbone was separated from the skull, and the upper skull had rolled back with eye sockets toward the upper end of the casket. Dr. Larry Cartmell, a paleopathologist from Ada, Oka., who has gained an international reputation as an expert in mummy hair research, collected samples, placing large pieces of soft tissue and strands of the fine brown head hair, two and one half inches long, and lighter-colored body hair into plastic specimen bags while extracting smaller tissue samples with swabs or syringes. This process took several hours, during which time top Smithsonian officials visited with Dr. Owsley explaining why the project was being undertaken and how the team was planning to proceed.
Later he and other scientists noted how rare it is that the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution would appear in the research lab, let alone spend half an hour asking questions. The broadcloth suit appeared as though it would be hard to the touch as a layer of silt had settled over it when the water was drained. One official asked if he could touch the suit, and when granted permission noted how pliable the material felt.
Much discussion was initiated by the leather boots on the body, which could be seen from anywhere in the room on the feet crossed at the ankles and wedged carefully into the casket’s narrow end. After the dignitaries cleared, the research team settled on how to best remove the body from the coffin. Carefully maneuvered onto a makeshift sheet fashioned of heavy plastic, the body was lifted with special attention not to disturb location of the bones. It was zipped into a body bag for transport to a radiology room where it was x-rayed and CAT scanned while we all went to the staff cafeteria to eat lunch. During this time all residue was removed from the bottom of the coffin using a large plastic cup. Each scoop was washed through sieves until buttons and buckles, tissue and hair samples and teeth emerged. Several hours later when the body was wheeled back into the lab Owsley, Bruwelheide and Cartmell began to identify Isaac Newton Mason. The scientists slowly removed the skull and pulled each bone from the clothing. Foote was eager to begin cleaning and examining the suit and boots. Don Kloster, a Smithsonian curator emeritus of military history with a specialty in military uniforms, stopped by to consult with Foote.
The skeleton was in excellent condition and was uniformly black in color due to iron-sulphide staining, Owsley noted, adding that ribs and vertebral bodies displayed erosion from contact with the coffin floor.
Observing characteristics of the skull and pelvis and the relatively large joints and teeth, scientists identified the body as male. Age was placed at 35-39 based on such factors as age-related features of the pelvis area and dental and bone pathology. Further identified as being white and of European ancestry based on features of the skull, he had a slightly squared chin and a slight overbite, as indicated by patterns of tooth wear and location of the lower jaw in relation to the cranium. His forehead was moderately low and sloping. Features of the skeleton indicate that this individual was above average in stature for the mid 19th century, approximately 5'10", but somewhat slight of build. Because the right clavicle was a little larger than the left and showed greater development of the muscle attachment sites and the right arm was longer and larger than the left, Owsley concluded that the man was right handed. When I left the lab late on Wednesday, Owsley and the other researchers were planning for a long night. I later found that Owsley often spends the nights in the Smithsonian, sleeping on the floor of his skull-filled office. When I returned the next morning, the autopsy was finished, the skull and teeth had been reassembled and the bones were being laid out for photographing and discussion among the scientists. All bones were present and intact. With the exception of slight degenerative changes like arthritis in some joints and vertebrae, no other evidence of disease or trauma was noted. There was no physical evidence of the cause of death. Both Cartmell and Owsley mentioned the possibility of a soft tissue injury based on information provided by Mason’s daughter that her father died as a result of the fall from a train. Owsley took me aside to show me some of the forensic evidence that could help him positively identify Mason. Picking up pelvic bones he pointed out dark semi-circles on the inside of each side of the pelvis at the muscle attachment sites of the hip bones and legs as well as some of the shape features of the hip sockets. Pointing to vertebrae, each with a little lip-like extensions, Owsley explained that they were herniated and consistent with traumatic compression of the spine. “You know what this tells us?” he asked. “It tells us that this man was a horseback rider.” Owsley said the man did not routinely participate in heavy physical labor, but horseback riding was an activity in which he was long engaged.
I mentioned to Owsley that Mason owned 1,640 acres by the time of his death, had 27 slaves and had been relatively wealthy, so riding to oversee his farm would have been a daily activity.
“What crops did he grow?” Owsley wanted to know. I told him that people in the part of Giles County where Mason lived often raised cotton and probably some tobacco. “Corn?” the scientist asked. The only evidence I had of corn as a Mason crop was in an old lawsuit list of personal property taken or destroyed by the federal army and thieves that included 130 acres of corn, 60 head of hogs, six horses, four mules, 23 head of cattle, 26 stacks of fodder, two horse wagons and all farming implements. “I bet he ate a lot of corn,” Owsley said. “The sugar in corn is very hard on teeth.” Owsley said that in life the man in the coffin had suffered from severe periodontal disease, losing 11 teeth. The remaining teeth, most of which had fallen into the coffin, had heavy calculus deposits, periodontal abscessing, marked build-up on the tooth roots and in some cases, only a root or remnant of where a tooth had been.
Before I left Washington, Owsley asked me to sit with him and his research intern, Skye Chang, to discuss the historical backdrop against which Mason would have lived in early Giles County. Chang is compiling all facets of the project into a final report that will also be featured on the Internet.
As we talked Mason became real… flesh covered the bones. He was in the saddle, riding across soft rolls of land in his special cut leather boots and tailor made suit, his fine brown hair blowing as the warm Southern wind ruffled the rows of corn. Through the convergence of historic research and forensic science, I could see Mason, finally, and like Owsley, I knew that the man in the coffin was the Giles County planter, soldier, father and husband who had died too soon.

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