1852 Body Linked to the Present

A Smithsonian Team Gives Unearthed Body a Name

William T. White, 14 years of age, from Accomack County on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, died in 1852 of pneumonia. All dressed up in a white burial suit and put into an iron coffin, he was left behind when the cemetery where he was buried in Northwest Washington moved a decade after his death.

And there he stayed, forgotten, while the city continued to grow above him – and 155 years passed by. He was accidentally unearthed by a construction crew in 2005 and researchers at the Smithsonian Institution vowed to find out who he was. But this historical drama / detective story took a couple of wrong turns in the process. Smithsonian anthropologist Douglas W. Owsley stated the boy had been about five feet tall and probably sickly because of a hole between two chambers in his heart. He had been buried in a cemetery that probably belonged to Columbian College, the precursor to George Washington University, in what is now Columbia Heights, and had been a student at the college preparatory school when he died Jan. 24, 1852.

It’s All In The Case

Back to the beginning though – the research began with the coffin; the Fisk and Raymond "metallic burial case" was a big clue. Such airtight coffins were expensive, most affordable by the rich and were popular between 1850 and 1860. It was opened in August 2005 to be examined by a team of pathologists.

The body was extremely well preserved and the fashion of pleated shirt and vest with cloth-covered buttons, flared trousers, darned socks and ankle-length underdrawers seemed to indicate the 1850s. An autopsy concluded that the boy probably died of lobar pneumonia.

The grave was found in the now-residential neighborhood of Columbia Heights. Columbian College had once been there, and a page from a 1970 history of George Washington University stated that the old college had a cemetery. Further research showed that the original cemetery was moved in 1866 from the periphery of the college grounds to the main campus. And it was during this move that the iron coffin was probably left behind.

This might have been because the tombstone was absent or had been misplaced during the Civil War, when the college was the site of two sprawling military hospitals, the researchers said.

Dead Ends

The team began reading lists of obituaries from the 1850s compiled from local newspapers and jumped too quickly at an item in the May 27, 1852 edition of Washington’s Daily National Intelligencer that had an obituary for Lemuel P. Bacon, 12, the son of Columbian’s president, Joel Bacon. It seemed perfect – "seemed." With samples of the dead boy’s mitochondrial DNA ( which can be traced and matched via female descendants over many generations), Hull-Walski and Scott developed a Bacon family tree and located a descendant in Texas. But that descendant’s DNA did not match. Dead End Number One.

It is never that easy, as we genealogical researchers know! Continuing with the obits, the Jan. 28, 1852 edition of the Intelligencer carried a brief obituary for a William Taylor White, of Accomack, who had died "at college hill" four days earlier. In a digest of old wills for Accomack County, they found one in which a guardian had left White money for his education.

This time, Scott said, "we really felt like we had the right person." However, the course of genealogy never runs smoothly – when the researchers saw that the same digest contained the will of a Levin White, who had a son named William T., they "assumed" he must have been the boy’s late father. But when a descendant of Levin White was located in Baltimore and her DNA did not match. Dead End Number Two.

The team had also found an obituary for a William Henry White, who had died Sept. 29, 1852, at the age of 14. There was no connection to the college, but the boy’s father, Mathias, had been a Pennsylvania Avenue undertaker who used Fisk and Raymond coffins. Again a descendant was traced, this time to suburban Maryland – but again the DNA did not match. Dead End Number Three.

The Tide Turns

It was now summer 2006, and the team had been working on the case for a year. The boy’s body was being preserved at the museum, encased in a white body bag inside a metal cooler, but no closer to knowing who he was. That Spring, a clue came by accident. Searching through a computer database of the Washington Intelligencer, Hull-Walski stumbled on another notice of the death of William T. White. Not an obituary, but a heartfelt "resolution" drawn up by his college friends, expressing their anguish at the loss of one who "was bound to us by the tenderest ties of friendship." Somehow it had not turned up in prior research, but it reinforced to Hull-Walski that, despite the DNA, William T. White had to be the coffin boy.

She showed the notice to Scott. "It’s him," she told her colleague. But where had they gone wrong? "So we started again," Hull-Walski said. She appealed to colleagues on the Eastern Shore, where White was born, explaining the problem and asking for help and a local genealogist called her with the news that the Levin White she thought was William’s father, and whose family tree she had traced, was from a different White clan. Later, two acquaintances visiting an Accomack records office found an 1850 court document that referred to White’s status as an orphan — and listed the name of his deceased father, William A. White. There was the research mistake, Hull-Walski realized, and that’s why the DNA didn’t match. "It was a relief," she said.

The Tie That Binds

The identification was made after museum researchers, led by Deborah Hull-Walski and Randal Scott, figured out that the youth might be White, constructed a 788-person family tree — a diagram that stretched the length of a wall — and tracked down a descendant in Lancaster, Pa. Linda Dwyer, 64, a night clerk in a convenience store, matched to a sample of DNA taken from the boy’s left shinbone. "I think it’s awesome," Dwyer said, adding that she believes she is White’s great-great-great-grandniece. "The whole technology of finding me and putting it all together. . . . It’s so cool." Yes it is Linda, yes it is. source: Wash Post Article