Body buried 132 years ago studied

January 06, 1995|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- John Brown's body may have mouldered in the grave, but John White's body survived nearly intact in an iron coffin for 132 years, to the delight of scientists at the Smithsonian Institution.

They are studying samples of tissues taken from the Laurel railroad engineer, hoping to extract proteins, DNA and disease antibodies that will help them perfect ways of learning about the health of people who lived long ago.

With good techniques and the right remains, "it means you can actually . . . look at disease processes over hundreds, or even thousands of years," said Dr. Douglas Owsley, a forensic anthropologist with the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History.

John White died in his 50s, on Jan. 8, 1861, in a train collision near Salisbury, N.C. The story of his death and the rediscovery of his grave in Laurel was told yesterday in Washington at the 28th annual meeting of the Society for Historical Archaeology.

Donald K. Creveling, an archaeologist with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, said he was called in by the Prince George's County school board to conduct a survey of 10 acres in Laurel where the Scotchtown Hill Elementary School was to be built.

Nineteenth-century maps showed a family cemetery, and descendants of the original Scottish-immigrant property owners had agreed to have any remains at the site removed to another cemetery in Laurel. But there were no headstones or other visible indications of burials.

On July 28, 1993, with permission from the Aitcheson family, members of which once owned the land, the archaeologists began probing the spot with a backhoe. Before long, Mr. Creveling said, "there was a metallic scraping sound, and the area quickly flooded with a foul odor."

If that wasn't startling enough, they soon realized the iron coffin they had uncovered had a glass window. Through it they saw a man with a full beard and black hair.

Such 19th-century coffins offered an airtight seal against the odors of decomposition, with a window to permit viewing. Only seven or eight have been unearthed for study in the United States, Dr. Owsley said, but they have turned out to be extremely interesting to scientists because their contents are so well preserved.

The remains in the Laurel coffin, he said, were "the best preserved we have ever seen."

When Mr. Creveling called to report the find, Dr. Owsley said, "we needed to deal with it quickly. Because of the preservation, we wanted to test some procedures that were coming on line in burials where we have remains in good condition," he said.

He summoned a team of Smithsonian and U.S. Army experts in forensic anthropology, forensic pathology, 19th-century clothing and other fields. The 300-pound coffin and its contents were moved to Washington for what turned out to be the first autopsy conducted in the railroad accident.

Mr. Creveling had learned from family records that one of the people buried in the old Scotchtown cemetery was John White, who had married into the Aitcheson family. More research turned up a newspaper account of the train wreck.

The Carolina Watchman reported an express passenger train headed from Charlotte to Raleigh at 11:10 p.m. collided head-on with another train near Salisbury. Railroad officials blamed a stuck throttle. One train engineer was killed.

Dr. Owsley's examination of the Scotchtown body revealed crushing injuries to the chest that convinced everyone involved that the remains were those of Mr. White. He had sustained broken ribs, a ruptured diaphragm and a great deal of internal bleeding, which probably killed him.

Dr. Owsley said the examination also showed that Mr. White suffered from several congenital deformities of his spine, including scoliosis, and probably walked with a pronounced stoop. He had no heart disease.

His clothes included a dress shirt "typical of a middle or upper-class man," Mr. Creveling said. He wore white cotton knit gloves, a common sort of white socks, three-button long-john underpants, and a white cotton robe thought to be a burial shroud.

The long johns were of particular interest to historians, Mr. Creveling said. Catalogs of the day didn't picture them for reasons of "modesty," and hardly anyone saved them. They are conspicuously missing from the Smithsonian's collection.

Except for tissues collected for study, Mr. White's remains were reburied in Laurel.

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