After Years Lost, Identity Reclaimed

Joe Mullins, left, and Glenn Miller create computerized facial reconstructions from a body that was unearthed in the District's Columbia Heights neighborhood.
Joe Mullins, left, and Glenn Miller create computerized facial reconstructions from a body that was unearthed in the District's Columbia Heights neighborhood. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007

He was a sickly orphan who had died of pneumonia as a teenager and then was left behind when the cemetery where he was buried in Northwest Washington moved a decade after his death.

He lay lost and forgotten beneath the sprawl of the city, while six generations and 155 years passed by.

And when his body was accidentally unearthed by a construction crew in 2005 -- still clad in his fine white burial suit and encased in an iron coffin -- researchers at the Smithsonian Institution vowed to find out who he was.

Now they say they have.

This week, after a two-year project that unfolded like a detective story, experts at the National Museum of Natural History said that the mysterious boy in the iron coffin has been identified: He was William T. White, about 15, from Accomack County on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

He had been buried in a cemetery that probably belonged to Columbian College, the precursor to George Washington University, in what is now Columbia Heights, and had been a student at the college preparatory school when he died Jan. 24, 1852.

Smithsonian anthropologist Douglas W. Owsley said yesterday that the boy was just over five feet tall and probably had been an unhealthy youth, because of a hole that was discovered between two chambers in his heart.

The identification was made after museum researchers, led by Deborah Hull-Walski and Randal Scott, figured out that the youth might be White, constructed a 788-person family tree -- a diagram that stretched the length of a wall -- and tracked down a descendant in Lancaster, Pa.

The descendant, Linda Dwyer, 64, a night clerk in a convenience store, agreed to provide a sample of her DNA, obtained via a mouth swab, and when that was compared with DNA taken from the boy's left shinbone, it matched.

She said elated Smithsonian researchers called her with the news, saying: " 'It's you! It's you!' "

"I think it's awesome," Dwyer said yesterday, adding that she believes she is White's great-great-great-grandniece. "The whole technology of finding me and putting it all together. . . . It's so cool."

The museum also had computerized facial reconstructions done by experts from the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children in Alexandria. The images depict a pleasant-looking youth about the age of a high school freshman, who a century and a half after his death again has a name.

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