washingtonpost.com
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
Or, How to Get a Head in Politics Without Really Trying

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.

"Nothing," Fecke remembers replying. "Is there something I should know?"

As Fecke tells the story, the caller said he possessed a bizarre collection, owned by a man who'd recently died, of 40 skulls, including that of William Wirt, who was buried in Congressional Cemetery in 1834 after dying, it is said, of a cold.

"He said, 'What do you know about a grave robbery in your cemetery 18 years ago?' " Fecke recalls. "He said, 'Would you be interested in getting William Wirt's head back?' I said, 'If it belongs here, we would.' "

The man called a couple times but never produced the skull. Curious, Fecke checked Wirt's tomb, an underground crypt topped with a grand marble column.

"I confirmed that somebody had broken into it," Fecke says. "The front door was completely gone and a lock was broken."

The grave had been closed by placing a heavy slab of granite over the entrance. Lifting the granite would require many strong backs, so Fecke could not get inside to see whether Wirt's head was missing.

About a month later, in January 2004, Fecke got a call from council member Jim Graham.

"Are you missing William Wirt's head?" Graham remembers asking.

Graham told Fecke that he had the skull in his office, in an old metal box painted with gold block letters reading "Hon. Wm. Wirt." Graham said he got the skull from someone who preferred to remain anonymous. The mystery man had asked Graham to call the cemetery to determine whether it was really Wirt's head.

Fecke said he didn't know but hoped to find out soon. He promised to call Graham back.

Months went by. Impatient, Graham called the cemetery several times.

"Are you missing his head?" he remembers asking again.

Fecke still didn't know. He'd informed the cemetery board about the skull mystery and the board had decided to convene a "conservation task force" to lift the granite stone off the entrance to the burial vault and inspect the eight coffins inside.

"It sort of fell through the cracks," says Patrick Crowley, a member of the cemetery board. Despite its name, the cemetery is a private entity run by a board of volunteers. "We didn't get to it for a year."

Finally, this May, the cemetery's task force, including Fecke and Crowley, entered the tomb.

"And we discovered," says Fecke, "that, yes, somebody got in and opened a bunch of the coffins and had strewn remains around the site. . . . Obviously, grave robbers had been in there and ripped up caskets for whatever reason."

The tomb was so chaotic they could not tell which casket belonged to Wirt, and therefore could not determine whether his head was missing.

"We didn't really take inventory because we're not anthropologists," says Crowley. "We said, 'Let's get Owsley.' "

When Owsley agreed to take a look at the mysterious skull, Crowley went to Graham's office to pick it up. But Graham wasn't there, and in his absence one of his staffers refused to hand it over.

"The staff would not give it up without me being here," Graham says.

So it sat in the red box on a shelf in Graham's office for several more weeks until Crowley finally picked it up and delivered it to Owsley.

During that time, a local newspaper, the Dupont Current, got wind of the skull story and published an article June 29. The headline read:

D.C. cemetery wants Graham to return skull

Graham was irate, fearing that his constituents would read the story and conclude -- erroneously -- that he was somehow refusing to return a stolen skull to the cemetery where it belonged.

"I don't collect skulls," he says, audibly peeved. "I'm not into body parts. I have no thumbs of saints, no locks of Napoleon's hair. . . . There are very few instances where I'm 100 percent innocent but this is one of them."

This week, still incensed that he might be perceived as a wacko skull collector, Graham revealed who gave him the relic: Allan Stypeck, owner of Second Story Books, a local used-book emporium.

Stypeck says he found the skull in the collection of Robert L. White, a cleaning supplies salesman from Catonsville, Md., who died in October 2003. White achieved minor celebrity in the 1990s for his collection of thousands of pieces of Kennedy memorabilia -- JFK's passport, his credit card, a paper cup he sipped from in 1960 -- which White exhibited in a makeshift museum in his mother's basement.

White specialized in Kennedy memorabilia but, as a 1996 article in this newspaper pointed out, he collected other things, too -- a letter from Boris Karloff, a seltzer bottle autographed by two of the Three Stooges and "four shelves lined with skulls and a glass cabinet filled with a couple of dozen shrunken heads."

After White's death, Stypeck says, he was hired to appraise the collection. He found some Wirt memorabilia -- letters, pictures and a red metal box.

"I opened the box," he recalls, "and I saw a skull."

When Stypeck learned that Wirt was buried in Congressional Cemetery, he says, he asked his friend Graham for advice on how to return it, and Graham said, "Bring it over and I'll call them."

Stypeck says he is not the mystery man who first called the cemetery in 2003, and doesn't know who it was. (Efforts to reach White's relatives were unsuccessful.) Stypeck says his only interest is in returning to skull to wherever it belongs. "I hope this person can rest in peace," he says.

More Bodies Than Heads

Meanwhile, the skull has been resting since July in the Owsley's lair at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History, a suite of offices where tables are piled with skeletons from around the world.

On Tuesday, Owsley sat at a table in front of the tin box that had sat in Graham's office for so long. He opened the container, revealing a bright purple cloth. He pulled it back and picked up a brown skull with a big hole on the left side.

The skull came from a white male, he said. The hole was made after his death.

He pointed to the teeth, which looked pretty good, all things considered. Only three were missing.

"This is a young male," he said. "With an older male of that era, there's usually more tooth loss."

Cemetery records show that eight people were buried in the tomb, Owsley said. Five were women: Wirt's wife, three daughters and a granddaughter. The men: Wirt, who died at 62, his son-in-law, Adm. Louis Goldsborough, who died at 72, and Goldsborough's son, a Marine lieutenant also named Louis Goldsborough, who died of tuberculosis during the Civil War at 24.

Sitting in his office Tuesday afternoon, Owsley looked at the skull in his hands.

"We're probably talking about a male who's 24 to 30 years old," he said. "He's not old enough to be the admiral and he's not old enough to be Wirt. If it came from that tomb, it's the lieutenant."

But that was Tuesday. Yesterday afternoon, as Owsley crawled around Wirt's tomb on his hands and knees, pushing bits of bones and rotted wood into a dustpan, he wasn't so sure.

With the help of anthropologist Laurie Burgess and others from the Smithsonian, Owsley had managed to identify each of the bodies in the crypt.

The admiral was up on the top shelf, his head still in place.

The lieutenant was on the middle shelf, 15 buttons from his Marine uniform tarnished but identifiable. Most of his skull was missing, but a piece of the jaw was still there. So the skull in the tin box was definitely not his.

Wirt's coffin had rotted, but a shield-shaped metal plate bearing his name remained. His bones had been pulled from the lead liner and scattered on the floor. But the skull was missing.

Could the skull in the tin box be his?

"Let's get the skull and take a look at it," Owsley said.

He walked to a parked car, took the tin box from the back seat and carried it to a table where Wirt's bones were spread out for closer inspection.

Owsley opened the box and picked up the skull. It had the same brown color as Wirt's bones. And the dried plant roots stuck in the skull, near the back of the mouth, looked like the roots clinging to Wirt's leg bones. Owsley looked for neck vertebrae to see if they fit into the skull but they, too, were missing.

He returned to the tomb to look again, crawling on the floor, sweeping up rotted wood, looking for Wirt's vertebrae. He didn't find them. But he did find, tucked beneath the old metal ladder leading down into the chamber, the bones of a newborn baby.

No infant is listed in the cemetery records for the tomb. Owsley suspects that the baby was placed there more recently, perhaps sometime after the grave robbers broke into the crypt.

When the long day was over, Owsley inspected the skull and Wirt's skeleton more carefully. The color matched perfectly, he concluded. And so did those little roots caught in the bones.

"My best professional judgment," he concluded, "is that the skull matches the skeleton."

So that mystery is cleared up: The head in the box is Wirt's. But other mysteries remain:

Who stole the skull?

Who made those mysterious phone calls to the cemetery back in 2003?

And who is the baby in the tomb?

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company