Clyde Snow, one of the nation’s foremost forensic anthropologists who discovered the hidden stories told by skeletal remains and helped identify Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele and countless victims of accidents, crimes and state-sanctioned abuses of human rights, died May 16 at a hospital in Norman, Okla. He was 86.
The death was confirmed by his wife, Jerry Snow, who said Dr. Snow had cancer and emphysema.
As a forensic anthropologist, Dr. Snow was a medical detective, a kind of latter-day Sherlock Holmes, who used keen observation, encyclopedic knowledge, and a thorough understanding of human experience and the human skeleton to overcome the silence of the grave.
With decades of scientific knowledge in his head, and a leather satchel filled with specialized tools, he solved many notorious crimes and historical mysteries. In addition to identifying the body of Mengele in South America, Dr. Snow helped to tell the story of Custer’s Last Stand; confirmed the identity of X-rays taken after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; and refuted theories that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were buried in a grave in Bolivia.
“There are 206 bones and 32 teeth in the human body,” Dr. Snow often said, “and each has a story to tell.”
In a career that spanned continents and decades, he helped give names to murder victims and to people whose remains were found after airplane crashes. He was called the country’s best-known grave-digging detective.
“Bones can be puzzles,” Dr. Snow said, “but they never lie, and they don’t smell bad.”
In 1985, as Dr. Snow’s achievements became increasingly known, he was engaged by the Simon Wiesenthal Center to identify remains found in a cemetery near Sao Paulo, Brazil.
In one of his most exhaustive studies, Dr. Snow and his examiners matched hair samples, noted a telltale curved left index finger, verified the dead man’s hat size and determined that the fillings in his teeth were from Nazi-era German dentists.
The person who had lived for years in Brazil as Wolfgang Gerhard, Dr. Snow concluded, was, in fact, Mengele, the notorious doctor who carried out gruesome medical experiments and killings in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
“There was a mountain of evidence,” Dr. Snow said in 1991. “It was just overwhelming.”
In another mission, Dr. Snow was sent in 1985 by a scientific group to Argentina, where a “dirty war” conducted under the rule of military juntas led to the mysterious disappearance of as many as 30,000 people.
After leading a team that found and identified the bodies of many death-squad victims, Dr. Snow served as a witness at the trials of several high-ranking military officials accused of the killings.
There was a reason, he suggested, to sift through graves and scrutinize the skeletons of those long dead.
“If you can make people feel they’re not going to get away with it,” he said, “that’s all we’re asking.”
Dr. Snow could glean names and stories not only from bones but also from the ground under which executioners, in a variety of countries, tried to conceal their deadly acts.
“The ground is like a beautiful woman,” he told The Washington Post in Guatemala in 1991. “If you treat her gently, she’ll tell you all her secrets.”
Those secrets, which he worked to understand, included the deaths of tens of thousands of Mayan Indians liquidated in a bloody Guatemalan counterinsurgency program in the 1980s.
In the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, Dr. Snow and his forensic team determined that more than 200 victims found in a mass grave had been killed in an execution-style act of ethnic cleansing.
Dr. Snow said he was driven by the pursuit of law, justice and human rights, as well as scientific curiosity.
“His first passion in life,” his wife said, “was human rights.”
In his 1991 interview with The Post, Dr. Snow said, “People will never respect the law until there’s justice. And a good place to start is with murder . . . It’s very difficult to argue with a skull with a bullet in its head.”
Clyde Collins Snow was born Jan. 7, 1928, in Fort Worth and grew up in the town of Ralls in the Texas panhandle. His father was a physician, and his mother, although not formally trained, often served as his nurse.
After being expelled from high school for pranks, Dr. Snow graduated from a military school in Roswell, N.M., then dropped out of several colleges before graduating in 1951 from Eastern New Mexico University.
After graduate work, which included a stint in medical school, he served as an Air Force officer before enrolling in a doctoral program in archaeology at the University of Arizona. He later switched to anthropology and received his doctorate in 1967.
Before receiving his PhD, however, Dr. Snow had been enlisted by the Federal Aviation Administration to help find ways to enhance the safety of airplane passengers and eventually headed the FAA’s physical anthropology laboratory.
In 1979, Dr. Snow helped identify victims of a fiery airliner crash at O’Hare International Airport near Chicago. Of the 273 who died, 50 were unidentified when he began work. Dr. Snow and his team examined more than 12,000 body parts and used X-rays, photographs, computers and interviews with survivors to find such revealing signs as fractures, or indications of left-handedness that might help give names to the unidentified remains.
In 1995, he helped identify many of the victims of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. For a PBS Nova program in the early 1990s, Dr. Snow traveled to South America in search of the remains of the outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A grave where they were suspected of being buried in a remote Bolivian mountain village turned out to contain only the body of a German prospector.
Throughout his career, Dr. Snow pioneered a number of techniques, including facial reconstruction, or creating a portrait of a human face from skull bones. He helped reconstruct the face of the ancient Egyptian king, Tutankhamun, but the practice also proved useful in solving crimes.
Drawings based on recovered facial bones helped lead to the identification of some of the 33 victims of Illinois mass murderer John Wayne Gacy in the 1970s.
Spurred in part by Dr. Snow’s work, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences made a formal specialty of forensic anthropology.
After retiring from the FAA in 1979, Dr. Snow did consulting work in forensics and taught at the University of Oklahoma, where he was an adjunct faculty member at the time of his death.
In addition to his wife since 1970, Jerry Whistler Snow, survivors include five children from three earlier marriages that ended in divorce; eight grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
Dr. Snow, a chain smoker who spoke in a slow Texas drawl, was a witty man, not given to pretense. Once in Guatemala, he was asked about how he avoided troublesome confrontation with those who did not welcome his investigations.
He responded by drawing from a pocket a large metal badge, carrying the words “Illinois Coroners Association.”
Members of the civil patrols in Guatemala, who might have caused him difficulty, carried only small badges, he said.
“I always carry it around,” Dr. Snow once told The Washington Post, “because whenever you get into a confrontation with police, the guy with the biggest badge wins.”