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The Bone Lady

Life As a Forensic Anthropologist

Mary H. Manhein

Publication Year: 1999

“On the first day of the search, I failed to find the body.” So writes forensic anthropologist and bioarchaeologist Mary H. Manhein—or “the bone lady” as law enforcement personnel call her. In this, one of dozens of stories recollected in her powerful memoir, Manhein and the state police eventually unearth a black plastic bag buried in the banks of the Mississippi River containing the body of a man who has been missing for five years. After the painstaking process of examining the remains, confirming the victim’s identity, and preparing a formal report for the police, Manhein testifies for the prosecution at the murder trial. The defendant is convicted (due in no small part to Manhein), and the bone lady has helped solve yet another mystery. As director of the Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services (FACES) Laboratory at Louisiana State University, Manhein unravels mysteries of life and death every day. In The Bone Lady, she shares, with the compassion and humor of a born storyteller, many fascinating cases that include the science underlying her analyses as well as the human stories behind the remains. Manhein, an expert on the human skeleton, assists law enforcement by providing profiles of remains that narrow the identification process when the traditional means used by medical examiners or coroners to conduct autopsies are no longer applicable—simply put, when bones are all that are left to tell the story. She assesses age, sex, race, height, signs of trauma, and time since death, and creates clay facial reconstructions. The case studies Manhein includes in The Bone Lady highlight the diversity of the field of forensic anthropology. She presents some of her more lighthearted cases, such as that instigated by the suburban man who discovers a box of bones buried in his backyard labeled “Patsy Lou Bates—Sis.” A coroner, police investigators, and swarms of media are present when Manhein identifies Patsy Lou as a dearly departed family pet. One of her most chilling cases concerns a husband who murdered his wife, buried her in their yard, planted a rose garden over her grave, and continued to garden there for eight years until his deed was discovered. Manhein’s involvement in historic cases includes her participation in the exhumation of Dr. Carl Weiss, the alleged assassin of Huey P. Long. Although Manhein enjoys solving high-profile cases, her personal crusade is identifying the John and Jane Does who wait in her lab. Manhein’s own words perfectly characterize her mission: “Identifying a victim can bring peace of mind to the family and can help them to go on with their lives. Some-times, peace of mind is the only gift that I can give.”

Published by: Louisiana State University Press


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pp. 1-7


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pp. 8-13

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pp. xiii-xiv

For almost two decades I have worked with hundreds of law enforcement agents, locally, nationally, and internationally. Though too numerous to name, they often played vital, even heroic roles in the ...

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pp. 1-10

"The Bone Lady" is the nickname I acquired from law enforcement personnel while working with authorities from most of the sixty-four parishes in Louisiana, several counties in Texas, Arkansas, and ....

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1. Behind the Levee

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pp. 11-21

ON the first day of the search, I failed to find the body. The informant said we would find the man in a black plastic bag. Willie Dulac* thought he knew where he had dug the hole for the man in ....

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2. Lost from the MV Mollylea

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pp. 22-26

I gently removed the fragile bones from the brown paper bag. The sheriff's deputy shifted his footing to get a little closer to the table as I...

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3. Sis

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pp. 27-30

PEOPLE often ask me, "Just what is a forensic anthropologist?" We are physical anthropologists who are trained in the human ...

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4. Kevin Paul

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pp. 31-33

OFTEN I am asked why I do what I do. Since forensic anthropologists deal with death on a daily basis, I'm not always clear whether that question arises from the desire to know why a woman is in the ...

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5. Beneath the Corn Crib

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pp. 34-36

A few years ago, a very pleasant lady arrived at my laboratory one afternoon carrying a small wooden box, approximately eighteen inches long. It was well constructed, hinged, and lined with velvet, probably...

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6. Under the Porch

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pp. 37-41

THE phone rang early that morning back in 1991. To reach it, I pushed aside the alligator osteoderms recently delivered to my office as yet another unidentified "something." As they spilled across the ...

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7. The Rose Garden

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pp. 42-44

ON a cold March day I stood at the side of Antoine Hebert's former house on Lutcher Street, staring down at the skeletal remains of his first wife wrapped in the frayed remnants of a polyester mattress ...

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8. Among the Shadows

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pp. 45-49

IN my first semester of graduate school, I was especially inspired by Doug Owsley, a new professor at LSU at the time. Volunteering to work in his bone lab led to an assistantship there, where I put together ...

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9. In the Woods

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pp. 50-53

DOUG OWSLEY inspired me during my early years in the field, But it was Ann Marie Mires, one of his former research associates, who guided me. In 1997 Dr. Mires became Director of the Human ...

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10. The Cast-Iron Coffin

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pp. 54-57

OVER the years, my friends have often asked if I ever felt spooked when dealing with someone's bones. "Usually not," I say. But ...

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11. Fire in the Sky

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pp. 58-62

ON a hot and humid August day, "field recovery" in one of Louisiana's industrial plants took on a new meaning for me. A raging fire had raced through a section of the plant and filled the sky with ...

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12. Lost and Missing Children

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pp. 63-69

In any death case, whether it is a child or an adult, assessing cause of death is a necessary part of the examination process. Cause of death refers to the action or condition that results in death and can include...

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13. Capitol

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pp. 70-76

THE forensic scientist from the State Police Crime Laboratory stood waiting for me in the cool shade of the small grove of trees that covered the southeastern edge of the State Capitol grounds in Baton ...

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14. Indian Woman

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pp. 77-81

I like to use myself as an example of what our wonderful melting pot in America is like. Hill dirt may be in my blood, but ethnically, and even racially, I am a mix with ancestry among the...

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15. Voodoo Woman

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pp. 82-84

A sheriff's deputy called me one day in 1989 to ask if I could look at a skull and tell him something about it. This one wasn't found in the woods or in a grave or along the side of a road, but in a plastic bag...

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16. Prophecy

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pp. 85-87

I could not get a positive identification on 91-14. The remains had been transported to my laboratory at LSU by the sheriff's department, and my profile of the white, petite female under the age of thirty had...

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17. The Boat

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pp. 88-90

THE ocean seemed really calm that day in 1994. Sidney Johnson lazily cast his line hoping to catch just one more fish before heading home. Then off his port bow, he spotted a small boat drifting in the ...

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18. Clouds and Horses

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pp. 91-93

THE approaching storm sent lightning zigzagging across the sky and thunder roaring at our heels as the other anthropologists and I headed ...

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19. Bugs

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pp. 94-97

PERHAPS it is the smell of death that draws them toward us in the field; perhaps my O-positive blood, long thought to be attractive to things that bite and sting, makes me an especially popular ...

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20. The Lake

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pp. 98-100

THE human skull with the three cervical vertebrae still attached to it stared back at me. Its fishy odor confirmed the officer's story...

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21. The Bat-Wing Filling

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pp. 101-103

SHE was just seventeen," the detective from north Louisiana said. What distinguished his call to my lab from the several others I received that month in 1992 was the mileage...

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22. Bayou Bleu

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pp. 104-106

HOW long can a six-week-old baby last if thrown into a bayou?" the assistant district attorney calmly asked me on the phone one ...

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23. Who Killed Huey Long?

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pp. 107-110

THE crowd that gathered at the cemetery on North Street in Baton Rouge that day back ...

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24. A Witch's Tale

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pp. 111-120

HISTORIC cemeteries dot the landscape across this country, and I am drawn to them, from the smallest, overgrown plot along the side of the road to the largest, manicured city of the dead. Cemeteries or...

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25. Duralde's Return

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pp. 121-124

THE cemetery caretaker stumbled as he walked across the grass that day in early 1991. Where had the hole come from that caught his boot and almost made him fall? After a peek into the opening and a fast ...

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26. Civil War on the Bluff

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pp. 125-132

ON a Pleistocene bluff that rises high above the abandoned floodplain of the Mississippi River north of Baton Rouge lies a small cemetery with direct ties to the American Civil War. The Port Hudson ...

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27. For Those Who Wait

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pp. 133-137

WHAT famous cases are out there that you would like to solve?" is a question people often ask me. My answer sometimes surprises them. Media attention immediately focuses on any new or rehashed ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780807155608
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807124048

Page Count: 152
Publication Year: 1999