By CLAUDIA JOHNSON
How I came to be present in the scientific research area of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History when a 19th century iron burial case was opened by a team of prominent scientists started as a routine story for the Citizen/Press.
In covering the removal of the Mason Cemetery from Industrial Park South to Amos Hamlett Road, I prepared three stories. First, I covered the legal and logistical aspects of the move. Next, after six metal coffins were discovered, I prepared a story about burial cases and their local availability. Finally, after I had seen bones, coffins and the discolored earth where wooden caskets and Giles Countians once lay, I tried to answer the question, “Who were these people?”
As I related to Discovery Channel producer Kathy Abbott just before leaving DC on May 29, I approached these stories like a reporter. I researched, relied on old newspapers, court files and census records and consulted my historic resources like Clara Parker, Elizabeth White, Frank Tate and George Newman. I posted inquiries on the Internet’s genealogical sites, hoping someone would respond. Someone did. From Texas the wife of a Mason descendant emailed and introduced herself. In July Fran and Guy Mason visited the reconstructed cemetery and met with Nick Fielder, the state archeologist who had been in contact with the Smithsonian about examining the coffin.
Abbott explained that Discovery became involved when Harper-Collins was set to publish the book, No Bone Unturned, by Jeff Benedict, about forensic anthropologist Dr. Doug Owsley. Discovery had hoped to produce a show about Owsley, and everyone was urging that Discovery as well as another interested show, ABC’s 20/20, coordinate their Smithsonian visits with release of Benedict’s book.
The first I heard that the Smithsonian details were being ironed out was in mid-May when Fran Mason called from Texas saying she had forwarded my stories to the Smithsonian, and Owsley was interested in me being there when the coffin was opened and the body was autopsied for identification purposes. Since the grave marker was missing, there was some question as to whether the body was a Mason family member. The Smithsonian scientists believed they could confirm that.
Local attorney Stan Pierchoski was retained to prepare all application and supporting documentation necessary to obtain a disinterment permit from the State Registrar upon receipt of a written affidavit signed by the next of kin, Guy Mason, and the person who is in charge of the disinterment, the state archeologist, as required by state law. No court order was required to obtain a disinterment permit for identification purposes.
Department of Health Policy Planning and Assessment Division of Vital Records attorney Richard Russell reviewed Pierchoski’s legal brief in support of the disinterment, and within 72 hours of taking the case Pierchoski had obtained the proper documents. Two days later the coffin was exhumed and on its way to Washington D.C. transported personally by Fielder and Steve Rogers of the Tennessee Historical Commission.
In the meantime Owsley had emailed me asking if I could make arrangements to be there on Wednesday, May 28. When I returned his call, I never imagined that Pulaski Publishing would actually send me to the Smithsonian, but the powers deemed it a worthy trip, and I was booked to fly out on May 27.
Owsley told me and my editor, Scott Stewart, that I was needed as the historic resource, but I made it clear that I am no historian, just a reporter who likes history and knows a lot of good sources.“I’m a bone man,” he said. “To me, you’re a historian.” Bear in mind that at this point I had no idea I was talking to the man who identified the corpse of David Koresh and fit back together the parts of dozens of tragedy victims from the Branch Davidian Compound to Bosnia to the Pentagon on 9/11, where, incidentally, his daughter was working that day but was, thankfully, not a victim.
When I arrived Wednesday, May 28, at the Smithsonian, I was to report to security for a check of my briefcase, an official visitor’s badge and clearance for the winding trip through a confusing maze of hallways, stairs and elevators to a large third-floor examination room.
Teeming with television camera, sound and production crews from ABC and NBC and white-coated scientists, the central focus of the room was the simple cast iron burial case I’d last seen pulled from Giles County soil days earlier. Also present were Fran and Guy Mason, Fielder and Rogers, reporters from the Washington Post and USA Today, author Jeff Benedict, Smithsonian photographer Chip Clark and volunteers preparing laptop computers to type observations as researchers talked.
The rusted bolts securing top to bottom of the two-part case had been removed, with four left to be drilled out for TV cameras. After offering a brief overview of the project, explaining that he had only examined six metal coffins in his career and stating his expectations, Owsley introduced everyone in the room to television officials, even volunteers and research assistants, taking time to explain each person’s importance.
“This is the way you learn,” he said. “You learn best by doing.”
I was introduced as representing Giles County, invited as a historic reference as questions arose that required viewing against their historic backdrop.
With excitement we gathered around the table, as the preceding bustle took on a reverential air. Everyone was aware that a real person was inside the casket, a person buried 141 years earlier.
“Our primary obligation is to this individual,” Owsley said, and in silence the lid was hoisted and the body exposed.
Owsley motioned for Fran Mason and me to move in closer.
I am no relation to the man in the coffin and whether it was or was not proven to be Isaac Mason was of no consequence to me. However, as a person who loves history and Giles County, the fact that this man was one of us afforded me a connection that no other person in the room, not even the distantly blood-kin Masons, could know.
This was a young man of the first generation to be born in Giles County. He was one whose family had cleared the cane and worried of Indian attacks and buried loved ones killed by disease. Like numerous other early Giles Countians, he had worked and prospered and survived the county’s first half century only to see his homeland invaded and occupied by Union soldiers. Like many able young men of his time, he enlisted in the service of the Confederacy and left his home and family in effort to preserve their lives. For that, he returned home for burial in the family cemetery.
This man in the coffin died before this 35th birthday, and only two of his six children lived to adulthood. His wife remarried, and his property, after being pillaged by federal forces, became the home of others. In actuality, he was no different than hundreds, thousands of other Giles Countians, except it just so happened that his grave was moved and his rare coffin was intact and the Smithsonian wanted to study him.