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Coffin from Civil War uncovers mystery

Scientists hope to identify the remains found in an iron coffin that dates back to the Civil War.
Anthropologist Kari Bruwelheide, right, and Doug Owsley, head of physical anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History, center, and others, examine the remains of an iron coffin at the museum in Washington.Smithsonian / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The rusty iron coffin stubbornly resisted hammer and chisel as researchers in a warm Smithsonian laboratory sought a glimpse of an American who lived more than a century and a half ago.

An electric drill, its orange cord snaking around the pre-Civil War artifact, finally freed the lid.

"This is a person and we want to tell this person's story. She is our primary obligation," anthropologist Doug Owsley said as the lid was lifted to reveal a young body wrapped in a brown shroud.

The scientists hope to identify the remains so they can have a properly marked grave. In the process, they have a chance to learn about mortuary practices of the period, what disease and trauma people may have suffered, their diet, past environments, clothing and perhaps even social customs.

Based on the small size, they had expected the coffin to contain a female body. On examination, it turned out to be a boy, about age 13.

The coffin was found in April by utility workers digging in Washington.

Owsley, head of physical anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History, said the body was well preserved. The young man wore a shirt and vest, pants and drawers, all hand-sewn, as well as a pair of socks. Only the socks appeared machine-made, Owsley said Thursday.

"I think ultimately we'll be able to determine who he was and what the cause of death was," he said. Owsley said the young man's right lung had adhesions indicating an infection, possibly pneumonia, and calcifications of the lymph nodes from infections.

The cast iron coffin was shaped a bit like an Egyptian mummy and is of a type called Fisk style patented in 1848. This particular model was popular in the early 1850s among the well-to-do, Owsley said.

Because they are sealed, cast iron coffins tend to yield well persevered bodies. Indeed, the young person looked not unlike an ancient mummy, even though he had not gone through the Egyptian embalming procedures.

The Washington iron coffin was one of three opened this week in Owsley's lab.

Two others are from a Caswell family cemetery near Kinston, N.C. Their grave markers have been lost and the museum is helping the family identify the remains — comparing them with family records — so they can be reburied in newly marked graves.

Water had gotten into those coffins, causing the remains to deteriorate.

Nonetheless, anthropologist Kari Bruwelheide said researchers had identified two gallstones in one body that might have contributed to death. The other showed no signs of sickness or trauma, said Bruwelheide, a specialist in skeletons.

Both sets of remains were of middle-aged women. Both had dental work, including gold fillings, and in one, a porcelain crown.

The Washington remains are in much better condition, with skin and soft tissues intact. Researchers were using long cotton swabs to get samples they could test for toxins and bacteria.

Human remains from burials are a rich source of information about the past. Owsley's team has studied many of them over the years, though only a few have been from cast-iron coffins, which were rare and expensive.

On hand for the opening, in addition to Owsley's research team, were scientists from other museum departments and students from East Carolina State University.

After the Washington coffin was opened the body was carefully removed for CT scanning. An autopsy will be performed.