Tuesday, August 02, 2005


5:19 a.m.

Very often in "real life" forensics you don't get resolution on cases. You can only speculate as to what happened to somebody and whether those responsible got their comeuppance. You have to learn to come to terms with not knowing.

I have lots of cases in that category that still bother me. The child's jaw bone some kid found in the woods. There's never been a break in that case. Or there's the headless, limbless torso that was stashed in a gas station dumpster right off the freeway... To this DAY I still search the missing persons files from time to time hoping to find a match for the torso. Somebody has to be missing him. He was only about 16-years-old. But, it's been ten years now and still no clues. I don't imagine I'll ever really know who he was and how he came to such a grisly end.

And then there's Circus Boy. When I first started working at the MEO the place was a disorganized mess. There were boxes and bags and bones and tissue samples that had accumulated over years and years. Part of my job, in addition to my unidentified work, was to go through the rooms of "stuff" and determine what needed to be disposed of, what needed to go into police custody, what should be returned to family, etc...

It was unbelievable. I found clothing. I found scene photographs. I found loaded guns, drug paraphernalia, heroine, bones that were misclassified as animal bones when they were actually human. I found dental arcades from unidentified cases years past. I found Native American artifacts.

And I found a long metal box that resembled a casket. It was lined in red velvet and there was a tattered mummy inside.

The skin and muscle tissue on the face was mostly gone, leaving the garish grin of a darkly stained skull. There were areas on the rest of the body were bone poked through and other places were dessicated flesh resembled beef jerky.

I was curious about how we obtained such a strange set of remains and why we hadn't given it a proper burial years ago. So, I went up into the case archives from the mid 1980's to dig up the file. I sat down on a footstool and read the investigative report.

The MEO got a call from a woman who was cleaning out her uncles mobile home after he'd passed away. She found the remains and called the police. She said years ago a strange man came to her uncles door. He was selling a lot of various junk and the mummy was among his wares. The man said the mummy was genuine from Egypt had been part of a circus show back around the turn of the century. Her uncle bought the mummy and would take it out at Halloween to scare the neighborhood kids. The niece didn't want to keep it for some reason...

I walked back over to the other building to see what I could find out about Circus Boy. I love doing skeletal analysis. It is the ultimate puzzle for me. I am like a kid at Christmas.

I glove my hands and kneel down over the remains. Almost immediately I realize this was no Egyptian mummy. This skeleton was Negroid. African. You can tell because the mid-facial region (from the nose down) is highly prognathic...meaning it juts out from the rest of the face. Also, the facial bones are not as sharply angular in Negroids as they are for Caucasians and Mongoloids.

Hmmm. I examine the teeth... The third molars had not yet erupted. Several teeth had fallen out of the sockets, but that was after death. The remaining teeth exhibited no sign of dental work. No fillings. No sealants. That and the fragility of the bones lend credence to them being at or around a century old.

Now how did a a young African boy end up a sideshow in a circus? Odd. I am starting to feel uneasy about this. I continue my analysis.

The femur has not yet fused on this boy. He was probably only about 13 or 14 years old. He was tall, around 5'10", and would have been taller had he lived long enough to reach his full stature.

So, he's an African male, 14 years old, 5'10" tall. He's been dead for over 100 years. How did he die?

I start looking for evidence of cause of death. I see no evidence of a disease, chronic or accute, causing his untimely death. He had a broken left arm, but it had healed years before he passed away.

I examine the cranium and notice there is a fracture. I follow the fracture line to the point of impact. An oblong indent about the size and shape of a sledge hammer is clear in the back of his skull. I get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. This was not a post-mortem injury. The interior of the fracture lines has weathered at the same rate as the rest of the bones. I am certain this happened at the time of death and is the reason this boy died.

I take a little more time going over the rest of the skeleton, now. I find two severely broken ribs...as if the same weapon that broke the boy's skull was also used on his body.

I also find a perfectly round hole drilled out of the side of the temporal bone. This is almost surgical looking. I believe this hole was made as a portal for removing the brain after the boy had died. They didn't want to damage the skull any more than it already was.

I sat back on my heals. I feel slightly sick to my stomach. Suddenly I find it unacceptable to have him in that box another minute longer. I go into the store room and bring out an acid-free cardboard box that I carefully place him in until I can arrange a proper burial.


kitty said...

Any idea of why the brain was removed?

Polly P.I. said...

So it wouldn't rot. The inside of a skull is a closed, wet place and in most cases the brain must be removed to perform a proper mummification.

Nancy said...

That is an amazing story. How much tragedy is concealed and when will justice be accomplished??!

You doing taking time to care for this poor kid reminds me of these two Scirptures:

Matt 25:35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

40“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Keep up the good work, Polly!

Olga said...

Have you ever read the book, "The Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold? It's a great book, about a girl who was murdered and her afterlife and how the family mourns and copes with not knowing what's happened to her. Very sad, but very good.

I needed a break from the trashy romance- er, intellectual non-fiction that fills my shelves and found this a good read.

kitty said...

Phew! I thought there was some kinky reason why it was removed.

kibby F5 said...

Suppose it was a murder in order to GET a mummy for the circus?

Obviously it was mummified afterwards (no simple task in itself) so that it being an after-thought would only be a method for disposing of the body.

Frankly, in the mid 1800's disposal wouldn't have been that difficult in any case.

MOTW said...

"I love doing skeletal analysis. It is the ultimate puzzle for me. I am like a kid at Christmas."

I am grateful there are people with the gift and talent for such work.

Polly P.I. said...

I've often wondered about that myself, Kibby.

This is only speculation, but I believe his murder had nothing to do with his eventual mummification.

I think that he was killed and there was nobody to claim his body so he was donated to science or became part of a hospital's collection.

I think that he was purchased later on by the circus.

I have no basis in fact for that belief other than the hole in his skull looks surgical and that makes me think that it was done with the distinct purpose of mummification.

JD Rhoades said...

This could be the first chapter of that book that the world needs you to write.

Polly P.I. said...

Still trying to convince a literary agent to take me on. Nobody wants to read unsolicited stuff.

Thanks, Dusty, for the encouragement. I just keep on writing and hope that someday something will come of it.

Brat said...

Polly - somewhat off topic.

If you've seen the movie "Suspect Zero", do you have an opinion on the probability of a serial killer like their bad-guy?

If you haven't see it.....Don't.

Talk about giving someone the heeeby jeeebies.

Tamara said...

Case study: Mimi Smartypants

Her journal/diary/whatever was picked up by Harper Collins & published practically against her will. ;) She's good. Very good. But so are you, Pollster! :)

B-Dubbs said...

I saw something very similar to this on Ripley's Believe It Or Not. Some guy had what he thought was a fake mummy in a haunted house... turned out it was real! A robber on the Old West railroad. Bizzare. Such tragic stories... (shakes head)Thanks for another well-told story Polly!