Monday, February 13, 2006

Finding Private Mason: Confederate Soldier's Metal Coffin Opened at Smithsonian

In 2002 when I began covering relocation of the Mason Cemetery, I never imagined that a year later I’d be in the Smithsonian Institution as the remains believed to be that of planter and Confederate soldier Isaac Newton Mason was examined by a team of experts in forensic anthropology, forensic pathology and historic costuming. This was the first in a series of stories in upcoming issue of the Citizen/Press focusing on how the discovery of a cast iron coffin will bring Giles County to the attention of the nation on the television news program, 20/20 on Aug. 1 and a Discovery Channel documentary called "Skeleton Clues" featured during July 2003. I was interviewed by the documentary producer and parts of that interview appeared in the special, which is still airing as an occasional rerun on Discovery Channel. (photo by Chip Clark)

Staff Writer

Early in 2002 the Giles County Economic Development Commission began the legal process of removing an abandoned cemetery from the center of a large tract of land in Industrial Park South on Highway 31 South to an area 1000 feet northwest alongside Amos Hamlett Road.
An archeological firm was hired to identify grave locations and exhume the remains from the 200-foot by 150-foot cemetery. In addition to the 22 marked graves, archeologists found 17 unmarked burials. Known as the Mason Cemetery because of its location on property owned by the Mason family for decades in the 19th century, the burial site was used for some 50 years with the last marked burial in 1875.
Many of the stones and box tombs were in deplorable condition from years of neglect. One of those had only the base of a headstone, which is not unusual in old unkempt cemeteries. Situated among with the marked graves of early Giles Countians Isaac and Nancy Mason, their sons, daughters and grandchildren, the reasonable assumption was made that the grave was that of Isaac Newton Mason, who was born June 8, 1826, and died in the spring of 1862.
From the surface I.N. Mason’s grave appeared no different that the thousands of graves in old cemeteries throughout the county. However, its contents will brought Giles County national attention when ABC’s 20/20 aired on Aug. 1, 2003, and a Discovery Channel documentary ran throughout the month of July, 2003.
Found in the grave was a cast iron coffin, which according to advertisements appearing 1850-60 editions of newspapers, were readily available from local furniture/undertaking establishments. At a time when wooden coffins cost a dollar or two, these lined and boxed burial cases, with designs ranging from plan to very elaborate could cost up to $53. In the Mason Cemetery, the cases were placed for burial inside their original wooden packing crates, which had disintegrated over the years, leaving only a rectangular-shaped “lens” of organic material around the cast iron coffin.
Five other heavy iron coffins were discovered in the Mason Cemetery containing the remains of three of I. N. Mason’s brothers and two of his nieces, but only the one believed to be I.N. Mason was, after 140 years in the ground, still sealed and intact.
State Archeologist Nick Fielder reported the find to the Smithsonian Institution, and soon arrangements were underway to have it transported to the research facility for examination by Dr. Douglas Owsley, Curator of the National Museum of Natural History, his assistant, Karin Bruwelheide, Shelly Foote, Costume Historian of the National Museum of American History and Dr. Larry Cartmell, a forensic pathologist and amateur archeologist who has been testing South American mummies for nicotine and cocaine for more than a decade.
“We were asked to provide assistance with the identification of the individual contained in the coffin so that the members of the descendent family could properly mark the relocated burial,” states a report by Owsley, Bruwelheide and Foote in explanation of the Smithsonian’s interest in the coffin. “As few cast iron coffins have been examined and because this burial dated to the time of the Civil War, we agreed to provide assistance. The study was a rare opportunity to supplement our ongoing research on body preservation in historic period burials, burial customs of the 19th century and skeletal remains from the time of the Civil War.”
In May the Smithsonian was ready to open the coffin, examine the body and add findings to the institution’s extensive research databases. Since Owsley was the subject of a newly published book, No Bone Unturned, by investigative journalist Jeff Benedict, that captured the attention of 20/20 and Discovery, the timing clicked. Mason’s coffin would be opened in the presence of television cameras with only reporters from the Washington Post, USA Today and The Pulaski Citizen/Giles Free Press present.
And Owsley was just the man to open it.
Owsley, studied at the University of Tennessee under famous body-farm scientist, Bill Bass, and has worked with America's historic skeletons from colonial Jamestown burials to Plains Indians to Civil War soldiers to skeletons tens of thousands of years old.
The scientist has participated in landmark studies of 17th and 18th century U.S. colonies in Maryland and Jamestown, examined the ancient remains of the Spirit Cave mummy and the Kennewick man, both found in the United States and carbon dated to be nearly 10,000 years old.
Benedict’s book explores how Owsley became involved in a seven-year legal battle against the Justice Department and Indian tribes who claimed a 10,000 year-old Caucasoid skeleton found on a riverbank in Washington state was Native American and should be buried without being analyzed. Scientists worldwide joined Owsley in the a suit, and finally 2002 a federal court issued a landmark decision declaring that the federal government violated laws when it tried to bar Owsley from studying Kennewick Man.
The decision will impact repatriation laws and have a significant impact on the classic views of “native Americans,” migration patterns, anthropology, as well as our understanding of pre-history, according to No Bone Unturned, which chronicles the case in depth and offers vignettes of Owsley’s other involvement with the federal government. Owsley is often enlisted by the State Department, the FBI and other federal agencies to identify remains. He and his scientific team have helped identify the remains of Bosnian war victims, American journalists murdered and burned in Guatemala, David Koresh’s remains and the other Waco victims and Pentagon victims from 9/11.
On May 28 he opened the coffin of a Giles Countian.

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