Mystery man from 1800s 'Old burial': Remains found buried on Eastern Shore farm are thought to be those of a man who died between 1840 and 1880.

January 06, 1996|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

CHESTERTOWN -- They don't know who he was, but they know this: He was buried with his boots on.

The remains of a man buried in the marsh on the west fork of Langford Creek were found by a farmer and his wife. Based on the boots in the coffin, which were surprisingly intact, some buttons, cloth and the remains, forensic experts are theorizing that the man died between 1840 and 1880.

Expert or not, theories abound. But nobody knows.

"That he would pick this place for his eternal rest is amazing to me," says Alan Joiner. He and his wife, Emily, saw the top of the coffin sticking out of the marsh when they went for a walk on their 130-acre farm in Kent County on Christmas Day, and they partly excavated it before calling authorities.

"Maybe he was a waterman. If his subsistence came from the water, rather than the land. " His voice trails off as he looks across the icy reach of the Langford as it wraps around the marshy spit of land where the pine boards of the coffin's top


The Joiners' discovery brought a stream of law enforcement officials, county authorities, onlookers and even two forensic physical anthropologists from Philadelphia to view the remains last week.

"Everything says that this is an old burial," says Thomas Crist, one of the Philadelphia forensic experts who came to Kent County to look at the Joiners' discovery. He and his partner, dental forensic expert Arthur Washburn, consult for medical examiners and coroners. They were called by a Kent County archaeologist.

"The bone preservation was very bad. It was not well preserved skeletally," Mr. Crist says. About all that was left for examination were a few bones and about eight teeth. Based on that preliminary examination, he and Mr. Washburn think the body was that of a male, about 6 feet tall, who had at least two childhood illnesses and was between 30 and 40 when he died.

The height estimate was based on the coffin length of about 76 inches, Mr. Crist said, and the size of the femur. The gender determination came partly from the size of the femur, a bone joining the hip and the knee (men's bones are bigger than those of women). They also looked at the boots, which are 12 inches long.

The rest of their theories come from the teeth.

"We looked at the amount of wear" on the teeth to determine age, Mr. Crist says.

A curved "pipe-wear fault" on two teeth suggests that the man smoked a pipe. The stress lines in the teeth suggest at least two childhood illnesses that interrupted enamel development, he said.

"Those were very well preserved boots," Mr. Crist says.

The boots, and the fact that the body was buried alone in a remote spot rather than in a graveyard, make the find unusual, he said.

"Individual burials very rarely tell us anything meaningful about the past," Mr. Crist says. "However -- and it happened in this case -- it engenders a lot of local interest. So many people were so enthusiastic. The landowners did the right thing; so did the detectives, the funeral director."

The remains are at Fellows-Wells Funeral Home in Chestertown, and several people have stopped by to see the boots and the other remains, said owner Gary Fellows.

The forensic experts have sent a scrap of cloth and two buttons to New York for evaluation, but they will be returned in two weeks or so, he said.

The remains then will be returned to the banks of the Langford, although Mr. Joiner plans to move them inland so they can rest undisturbed.

"That's a pretty place -- you know that's where he wanted to be," Mr. Joiner says, referring to the burial site on the property, which has been in his wife's family since 1952.

"As this mystery unfolds, we've come to feel a kinship with him. I'm trying to imagine what it was like for that fellow to exist on

this land. He's our spiritual ancestor."

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