Correction to This Article
A caption in the Oct. 20 Style section gave an incorrect first name for physical anthropologist Kari Bruwelheide.

Tale From the Crypt

Dr. Douglas Owsley Holds Mystery Skull
Forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley and the mystery skull turned over to him by D.C. Council member Jim Graham. (Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 20, 2005

When the stone was pulled off the tomb, Douglas Owsley peered down into the burial vault. He could see rotted coffins that had been dragged off a shelf and bones strewn around the floor.

"It's a mess," he said. Then he climbed down into the grave.

Owsley is a forensic anthropologist at the Smithsonian, a bone expert so famous that he is regularly summoned to inspect bodies from Guatemala to Croatia to the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Tex.

Yesterday he drove to Congressional Cemetery in Southeast Washington and climbed into the family crypt of William Wirt, who was U.S. attorney general from 1817 to 1829, the presidential candidate of the Anti-Masonic Party in 1832, and a prosecutor in Aaron Burr's treason trial. Owsley was hoping to determine whether a skull that had been sitting on a shelf in D.C. Council member Jim Graham's office for a year and half is Wirt's stolen head.

Down in the burial vault, where Wirt and seven relatives were laid to rest, Owsley, 54, hung a lantern on a root that crept through the crypt. He looked around. The lead liners of long-rotted coffins littered the floor, along with the bones they once held. Other coffins sat on three shelves in various stages of decay.

"There is evidence of vandalism," Owsley said. "The three coffins on the lower shelf have been pulled off the shelf. On this lower shelf there's a coffin pulled halfway out."

He studied the bones in that coffin for a few moments.

"That's a female," he said.

* * *

The mystery of the missing skull is a macabre tale that includes grave-robbing, an eccentric collector, a Washington politician, a former attorney general and a mysterious skull sitting in an old tin box.

It all began around Christmas of 2003, when Bill Fecke, then manager of Washington's Congressional Cemetery, got a phone call from a man who wouldn't identify himself.

"What do you know about William Wirt's skull?" the mysterious caller asked.

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