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Unearthing the past

Bob Stewart got a surprise at the cemetery where his aunt was to be buried — a rare casket in the grave
Thursday, July 19, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:22 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Danny Wescott points to the viewing window of the Fisk coffin, which allowed the family of the deceased to look in. This type of sealed, cast-iron coffin helped preserve and protect the body better than cheaper pine coffins. Another selling point of this coffin was its potential to deter grave robbers, although the well-preserved bodies were more appealing to sell for science, Wescott said.

The wood floors squeak as you walk through the second floor of MU’s Swallow Hall. Orange vinyl chairs sit outside the locked door of room 216, while a mystery lies inside.

A paper sign on the door reads “Human Skeletal Identification Lab.”

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The room smells of dirt, everything in it looks tinged by rust and a skeleton model hangs in the corner. Shelves full of skulls and boxes loom around the 25-foot-high walls of the room, but two plastic-lined tables dominate the room. A cracked coffin lies on one, and its remains are laid out on another.

The skeleton’s journey began at the Machpelah Cemetery in ­Lexington last November, when Bob Stewart’s aunt, Clemence Stewart, died.

He arrived early on the Saturday after Thanksgiving to bring in flowers for his aunt’s funeral when an employee of Walker Nadler Fuller Funeral Home approached him.

Stewart then met with a cemetery board member to find out what the problem was.

The grave his aunt was supposed to be buried in was already occupied.

The digging crew struck a cast-iron Fisk mummy case about 6 feet down, a rare coffin manufactured from 1850 to 1853 by Almond Fisk.

In the early 1990s, Doug Owsley, head of the physical anthropology department at the Smithsonian Institute and a Fisk coffin expert, put funeral homes on alert, asking them to report if they found any of the cast-iron coffins.

After the snow cleared in February, and on Owsley’s recommendation, the coffin and its contents — mostly bones, with some teeth, hair, fingernails and pieces of clothes — were shipped to Danny Wescott, an anthropology professor at MU.

So who was in the coffin? Both Wescott and Bob Stewart think it is Elizabeth Stewart, Bob Stewart’s great-great grandfather’s first wife.

John Stewart, Bob Stewart’s great-great grandfather, bought the plot in 1850, according to records passed down through the Stewart family.

Bob Stewart also has a copy of the obituary saying that Elizabeth Stewart died on May 5, 1854. It is unclear whether this date is the day the obituary was printed in the newspaper or the actual date of her death. He also has a map of the plots showing who is buried where, but those were just guesses.

“These were notes my grandfather and his brother scribbled down,” Bob Stewart said.

The old bones may also belong to one of Elizabeth Stewart’s or John Stewart’s sisters.

Wescott is using several methods to uncover the identity of the woman. In one, Wescott will test the skeleton’s teeth, which absorb minerals during childhood. By analyzing those minerals, Wescott can determine what part of the country the mystery woman was from. If it is Elizabeth Stewart, they should match the mineral levels of the Kentucky region where she grew up.

Wescott is also taking advantage of the State Historical Society at MU, which is going through the newspaper records in search of more death notices.

The coffin isn’t any old pine box. John Stewart would have had to spend about two months of his carpenter’s salary for it, according to census data from the time, Wescott said. A nice wooden coffin would have cost around $2, compared with up to $75 for the Fisk coffin.

The woman most likely died from tuberculosis, Wescott said. Tests of the woman’s hair will show if heavy metals and other substances, such as cocaine, are present. If they are, it means she was likely using common painkillers of the period.

Wescott said he expects to solve the mystery by the end of the year. The Stewart family considered displaying the rare piece but decided to rebury the coffin and its contents together in their grave.


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