Autodidact: self-taught

Nov
09
2013

Dead Men Do Tell Tales

by V. L. Craven

Dead Men do Tell Tales

Recently, an online acquaintance suggested we begin exchanging books through the post. The first book she wanted to send was Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Anthropologist by William R. Maples, PhD and William Browning. ‘And it has pictures too!’ she said. I promptly gave her my address (I’m typing this post two months later, so she wasn’t a homicidal maniac) and shortly thereafter the book arrived on my doorstep. (For those of you playing along at home, I sent her Execution by Geoffrey Abbott.)

Forensic anthropology (what Temperance Brennan does on Bones) has always been something of a passing interest of mine, but this was my first in-depth reading about the subject. The science hasn’t been around all that long and Maples has been a part of a good portion of it. Particularly interesting were chapters on cremation, the truly twisted Meeks-Jenning case, his involvement with identifying the Romanovs and his thoughts upon meeting Ted Bundy, but the book was full of wonderful information. Like this:

The instruments of murder are manifold as the unlimited human imagination. Apart from the obvious–shotguns, rifles, pistols, knives, hatches and axes–I have seen meat cleavers, machetes, ice picks, bayonets, hammers, wrenches, screwdrivers, crowbars, prybars, two-by-fours, tree limbs, jack handles (which are not ‘tire irons’; nobody carries tire irons anymore), building blocks, crutches, artificial legs, brass bedposts, pipes, bricks, belts, neckties, pantyhose, ropes, bootlaces, towels and chains–all these things and more, used by human beings to dispatch fellow human beings into eternity. I have never seen a butler use a candelabrum! Such recherché elegance is apparently confided to England. I did see a pair of sneakers used to kill a woman, and they left distinctive tread marks where the murderer stepped on her throat and crushed the life from her. I have not seen an icicle used to stab someone, though it is said to be the perfect weapon, because it melts afterward. But I do know of a case in which a man was bludgeoned to death with a frozen ham.

Maples also talks about the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, which, at the time of writing, only had fourteen members, and they got together once a year. It sounded rather like a hair-raising hoot. One member would share slides of his most…eye-opening cases and the group would discuss historical problems like whether or not Van Gogh’s color imagery and style was a result of digitalis poisoning or what was the final body count of the legendary feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys.

During the annual meetings, prospective applicants had to undergo rigorous examinations including identifying bones. This involved members transporting skulls to and from the gatherings.

This requires some explanation, particularly at airports. I always make a point of telling the airline ticket agent just how many skulls I have with me in my luggage–not to shock her, but to make sure, in case the plane crashes, investigators will know why there were more skulls than passengers aboard. This is mere professional courtesy to my colleagues, who will have to pick through my remains in the event of an accident.

I can’t help picturing one of the members being late for a plane and not having time to explain what’s in his bag–the plane crashing and the forensics people being completely baffled with the extra bits and bobs everywhere. An extra Asian male tibia hither and an extra African female fibula yon will really mess up an incident report.

But I digress, I’ve taken loads of other notes, all of which will eventually appear over in the left sidebar under Sciences.

Dead Men Do Tell Tales was published in the mid 90s and I would love to know how the field has changed in the last twenty years. The beginning was a little slow and some of the case studies could drag a bit but overall it was an excellent introduction to forensic anthropology by someone who was there. The first-person account of identifying Tsar Nicholas II and his family is worth it if you find a used copy somewhere.

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