Bones of Contention James Starrs, exhumer of the infamous, embarks on a sensitive expedition: to dig up Meriwether Lewis and decide once and for all, murder or suicide.

December 16, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

With a yellowed and snaggle-toothed skull in his hands, Professor James E. Starrs struts before his George Washington University law students like Hamlet at the grave of Yorick.

He's discussing physical anthropology. But you almost expect him to declaim: "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy ..."

Dr. Starrs does have a lot of the theatrical about him. He's easily one of America's most famous forensic scientists, an academic sleuth investigating historical mysteries with everything from ground-searching radar to exhumation.

For Starrs, the question has always been to dig or not to dig.

The answer was "dig" for Jesse James, Hollywood's favorite outlaw; dig for Carl Austin Weiss, the purported assassin of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long; and dig for Alferd Packer, the notorious Colorado cannibal. Starrs has exhumed them all.

But he argued against people who wanted to unearth John Wilkes Booth from Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery, gave up on exhuming Lizzie Borden and he thinks it's pointless to dig up Edgar Allan Poe because his bones won't indicate disease.

Right now he's most interested in disinterring Meriwether Lewis who, with William Clark, led the first great exploration of the American West. Today, before a special panel of the National Park Service, Starrs will argue the case for exhuming Lewis to resolve the question that's become topical again nearly 190 years after his death: Was he murdered or did he commit suicide?

The current best-selling paperback "Undaunted Courage," by Stephen Ambrose, and the Ken Burns documentary that aired last month both buy the suicide argument. Starrs indignantly complains that they didn't seek forensic evidence.

Lewis' death came three years after the Lewis and Clark expedition. In the autumn of 1809, he was governor of the Louisiana Territory. Thomas Jefferson was no longer president. He had been Lewis' patron and friend and promoter of the expedition across vast land that the nation had acquired through his Louisiana Purchase. But now the War Department was questioning his expense vouchers.

He decided to plead his case in Washington and headed east from Memphis along the old Indian and pioneer trail called the Natchez Trace. On the night of Oct. 10, 1809, he arrived at a gloomy frontier outpost with the morose name of Grinder's Stand. The next morning he was dead, shot in the head and chest, apparently with his own pistols, and perhaps slashed with a knife or razor.

His death was immediately called suicide. And that's what the retired Thomas Jefferson was told. But rumors and suspicions of "assassination" and murder began almost immediately. The historical debate has continued ever since.

Starrs believes he can help settle the question by digging up Lewis, who lies under a monument on land the Park Service controls, along the Trace about 25 southwest of Nashville.

"I think a man in his position in this country deserves a better deal than he's gotten with respect to his death," he says. "I've done so much research of a scientific nature I just come away aghast at the fast-and-loose way in which historians treat history."

He likes an aphorism he attributes to Voltaire: "God in all his omnipotence couldn't change the past and that's why He created historians."

A lean, wiry man with a white beard, Starrs looks something like George Bernard Shaw, and he has the Irish playwright's acerbic wit.

A colleague once declared: "You'll never dig me up, Starrs. You'll never get me."

"I said, 'Bill, don't worry about a thing. You're completely exempt. I only exhume important people.' "

Starrs is quite Irish, too. "Purebred," he says, as is his wife, Barbara. Although born in Brooklyn, he carries both Irish and American passports. Guinness stout is his drink: "James Joyce called it 'black gold.' " He likes the Irish turn of phrase. He spent a sabbatical year in Ireland.

Wheels turning

At 67, Starrs rides his bicycle 15 miles each way between his home in Fairfax County, Va., and classes at GWU in Foggy Bottom in the District of Columbia.

A professor of law and forensics, he's been at GWU since 1964. He's co-author of a standard textbook on scientific evidence, a distinguished fellow of the Academy of Forensic Sciences and an ardent admirer of that pioneer consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes.

He's so casual in class that when he wears a necktie he explains that he's meeting his wife for a birthday dinner. But he holds the skull with both hands and consummate care. When he's finished explaining the arcana of sutures and the foramen magnum and the various trauma of bullet holes and hatchet wounds, he places the skull gently on a specially made, padded cloth collar.

The skull was provided by a colleague in Oregon who asked for help in identifying it. The skull was one of a small ossuary he brought to class to illustrate his points.

He's sometimes tagged as the quirky, if not nutty, professor.

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