Beth Murray is a rare breed of scientist: one of only about 70 board-certified forensic anthropologists in North America. That means she works with mysterious bones.
There’s not that much of a need for us. I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I only get prob-ably 15 to 25 cases a year. How often do you hear of a skeleton being discovered somewhere?
A dead person is, in a sense, the last witness to what happened to them. I’m trying to look at their skeletal remains and coax out their life story. I can’t give you their name, but I can tell you their sex, how old they were, how tall they were, and how they may have died just by looking at their skeleton.
It’s any situation where there’s not enough left of a body to do a traditional autopsy—skeletonized remains, dismembered body parts, badly incinerated remains, or decomposing bodies.
It’s estimated there are more than 40,000 sets of unidentified remains in the United States. With NamUs [National Missing and Unidentified Persons System], we’re matching missing persons to remains in morgues and public burial grounds. There are no happy endings—just endings. Just answers for people.
Four years ago we identified a lady after 38 years. After we had a forensic artist do a facial reconstruction, they put it in the newspaper, and the lady’s elderly aunt recognized her. She went missing in 1970.
I didn’t start college until I was 21—with a 2-year-old. I was a single mom. I tell students that it doesn’t mean you can’t live out your dreams. I did a sabbatical with the military; I lived in a tent in the jungle of Laos for a month excavating a Vietnam War plane crash site; I’ve done TV shows with National Geographic.
It’s kind of like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. Sometimes you don’t have to look any further than your own backyard.
Just the FactsNonfiction author is another hat Murray wears. Her most recent science title for young people, Forensic Identification: Putting a Name and Face on Death, will be published in 2013.
Old Bones Murray is working on a comparison study of the bones discovered in 1988 in a 19th-century potter’s field under Music Hall and those more recently found in upper-class burial sites in Washington Park. “You’re telling a story about Cincinnati’s history through the bones of these people,” she says.
Longtime Lion Murray teaches human anatomy and physiology at the College of Mount St. Joseph, where she has been a biology professor since 1989.
Household Names She has worked on a number of high-profile crime cases, including serial killer Anthony Kirkland, the disappearance of Carrie Culberson, and the murders of Kristan Strutz and Marcus Fiesel. But don’t ask her about them. “I don’t like to make it seem like any of those were more important than other ones,” she says.
Photograph by Jonathan Willis.Originally published in the August 2012.
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