The Outlook Interview: Ellis Kerley Talks to Stevan Allen; Ellis R. Kerley, 61, is one of some 35 certified forensic anthropologists in the United States. A forensic anthropologist uses scientific means to analyze human remains (particularly older bones) to determine age, sex, cause of death and personal identification. During his career, Kerley has examined the remains of more than 5,000 humans and worked extensively in the area of skeletal identification. He has been involved in a number of significant cases including the 1978 congressional subcommittee for the Investigation of Assassinations, some aspects of the Howard Hughes estate settlement and the remains of American servicemen who died in a helicopter crash in the Iranian desert during the disastrous hostage rescue attempt. He has also reviewed the work of a 1905 French identification team that examined the bones of John Paul Jones. More recently, Kerley represented a group of American scientists sent to Sao Paulo, Brazil, to examine the remains suspected of belonging to Josef Mengele. He is presently working with the mayor's commission in Philadelphia identifying bodies in the MOVE case. Kerley fought as an Army rifleman in Europe during World War II and worked in Japan from 1954-55 identifying bodies from the Korean War. He has also worked with the CIA, FBI and numerous police and sheriff departments nationwide. He was the first person to become a board certified forensic anthropologist in the United States and in 1972 helped to establish a section for physical anthropology in the American Academy of Forensic Science which provided a disciplinary identification for the field.TKerley, who received his B.S. from the University of Kentucky and Ph.D. at University of Michigan, has taught at the University of Kansas. He is teaches anthropology at the University of Maryland, where he has been a professor since 1972. He lives with his wife in University Park, Md. Stevan Allen writes the Weekend Carousel column for The Washington Post.
Q: What's your reaction to the phrase: Dead men tell no tales?
A: They surely do! They tell me a lot. It depends on what you're looking for and if you know how to look for it.
Q: How did you deal with all the pressure surrounding the Mengele case?
A: I was aware of a great personal and professional responsibility. I'm satisfied, not only with what I did, but with what all the other people on that (international) team did. For the rest of the century, people are going to be looking with great scrutiny at that case. As long as there are survivors of Auschwitz, there are going to be those who don't believe that Mengele is dead. He just won't be. Some of them have said they can't believe that he is dead. He was too arrogant, for one reason. But even the arrogant die eventually, as far as I can see.
Q: Did you begin with skepticism? How do you approach something like that?
A: I went with skepticism. I don't necessarily doubt that I'm going to find one thing or another. I had not expected that it would be Mengele. But after a few days of working on the remains, everything indicated that that was the person.
Q: So when you first picked up those bones what ran through your mind?
A: I wished I could say, "Don't drop it." That wasn't really true. I wanted to look at his skeleton to see what I could find. Indeed, what this particular set of bones would tell me. And I went through, perhaps to form an opinion generally as to sex and so forth within a couple of minutes of looking at them. There are indications of sex that were fairly obvious to the trained eye. The whole world was concerned with what this is or was not. If it had not been Mengele, that would have been fine with me. But (I wanted to be) as positive as possible as to whether or not.
Q: So, could you tell the cause of death? Did he actually drown?
A: I couldn't tell you the cause of death from a skeleton. But from the description the Bosserts gave, he was wading in the water about chest high and having difficulty staying with the undertow. He had disappeared and came back up and was swimming desperately with one side of his body. He'd go down, come up gasping, choking, down again, and up again. The description is that of a man who has had a stroke and can't fight effectively enough to stay above water. Bossert describes him lying there on the beach with foam all around his mouth and nose, which is fairly typical of a drowning victim. A doctor pronounced him dead and the cause of death was drowning.
Q: You worked on the JFK, the Howard Hughes, the Mengele cases. You're now working on MOVE. How does it feel to have a part in determining history?
A: I don't know if I determine history, as much as determining who was involved in it. It's satisfying. It's a good feeling to know that you've done something well, particularly if it's something that you do that many other people don't, and perhaps, even better to think that it's been significant for many.
Q: Is there one body, one historical character that you would like to see dug up?
A: I'd be curious to look at Abraham Lincoln's body, to see if he had Marfan Syndrome, which could be identifiable. It's a spider finger, a very long slender bone. Bones grow rapidly in length, but not very much in diameter.
Q: That hasn't ever been substantiated?
A: It's simply been suggested that he suffered from it because he was quite tall.
Q: I was just curious how the Mengele case stacked up as far as its significance.
A: It was of great significance, perhaps more to the rest of the world than any of the others I've worked on, because there are people in virtually every country who are concerned as to whether or not Mengele has eluded justice and is living like a prince in Paraguay, high on mountaintops surrounded by beautiful girls and Doberman pinschers. Or was he really this pathetic old man who spent his last years hobbling around with arthritis? He also had a fracture of the scapula, which was healed and he complained about pain in his shoulder, couldn't even write for any length of time. He didn't trust the people with whom he lived. He felt the world had missed the significance of the Nazi movement and of his experiments. He wrote a diary and sat around playing Nazi band music. He was just generally sort of isolated. He wasn't an outcast, but he didn't have much to do with people outside of his own Nazi group.
Q: What's it take to feel comfortable working with a dead person?
A: Dead people, burned people, decomposing bodies. I've worked with (some) that look like someone's just lying there asleep. They're that recent and well-preserved. On the other hand, I've been able to establish the identification of a piece of bone on the basis of age and where it was found. I studied gross anatomy. I've seen a fair amount of dead people and parts of them too. One never quite gets used to the smell of dead bodies in certain stages. You might become accustomed to it, but each one is unforgettable.
Q: Do you have any idea how many human skeletons you've studied or examined?
A: Skeletons or bodies?
Q: Human remains.
Q: In those terms, probably an excess of 5,000. Forensic material, including in the Korean War, probably over 3,000.
Q: Do you receive bones in the mail?
A: Parts of them. Then I make sections and examine microscopically and estimate the age. (They're) shipped as a scientific specimen. I've gotten a whole body. I got one shipped in from the Midwest a few years ago that was in pretty bad shape. By the time I shipped it back, the driver was not very enthusiastic about taking that. It was going to a police department, so he wasn't too worried. It was a full body of a coed that had been dead about five weeks, so it was badly decomposing. I was on a site visit for NIH out in Utah at the time. I got paged at the airport and my wife said, "There are some policemen here with a body they've brought to our home. I don't know what to do with it, but I don't want it here." I said, "Well, just tell them to take it down and put it in the laboratory."
Q: Do your neighbors think what you do is a bit perverse, macabre?
A: I hope not. I never ask my neighbors what they think, but they find the cases that I work on interesting.
A: Have you also dealt with prehistoric bones, or do you primarily stick to forensic purposes?
A: I've had a few prehistoric bones that came in as forensic cases. Forensic means in the public interest, from the same word as "forum." I've had police, provost marshals call frantically and say, "We've got a crew out here putting a road in and they found a skeleton. Can you please take a look at it quick, because we have bulldozers standing by?" Langley Air Force Base at one point had a skeleton that held them up temporarily. Kansas City is where you see this sort of thing. Apparently they are doing a lot of construction there. In one interesting case, a European settler crossing the plains had died and had been buried. The buttons that were found in his rib cage where his shirt would have been had not been manufactured since about 1870 and the nails surrounding the area, he was in a coffin of sorts, were from about 1870 also. He had been buried right down through an Indian burial that was about 2,000 years old. So he turned up with extra hands and feet.
Q: What do you have to know about ballistics to do your job?
A: I have to know a fair amount about wound ballistics. I had to study orthopedic pathology, looking at Civil War specimens, X-rays, photographs and so forth. I've seen plenty of wounds over in Korea during the war and you learn to interpret what you find. You have to know about trajectories and bullet size and what happens when a bullet enters the body, strikes bones. What happens if it strikes an intermediate target before it gets to the body. I was a rifleman in World War II and I'm fairly familiar with firearms.
Q: How does what you do differ from that of a coroner or medical examiner?
A: I usually consult to a medical examiner or to the prosecutor to try to identify remains that are otherwise not identifiable, that the medical examiner cannot identify. I can usually tell a medical examiner more specifically about age, sex, race stature just with the bone.
Q: When did you first become interested in studying the skeleton or human remains?
A: I don't know whether it was when I was in the Army and suddenly saw quite a few of them manufactured, (or) when I happened to go in a class with (a professor) whose whole enthusiasm (was for) identification. Also I did some undergraduate research on the prehistoric Indians. All that fit together and I've been hooked ever since.
Q: Have you ever been in an instance where you didn't have enough to go on and you were unable to identify a body? Was it frustrating?
A: What's most frustrating is to have plenty to go on, be able to give an adequate biological description of the individual at the time of death and to have absolutely no matching records. You can tell them how tall the person was, what the sex was, what the approximate age was and so forth, maybe even find a fracture, and there's no record to match them with. I worked on a case some years back at the AFIP (Armed Forces Institute of Pathology). We had a fellow whose skeleton was found in the Midwest, just laying out on the prairie. He had clothing, he had a belt buckle with the letter Q on it, which was kind of unusual. His lower right leg was atrophic. He had had poliomyelitis when he was younger. He had six holes drilled in the left side of his head, although the area had not been lifted off. We could describe (that he had been) shot through the head -- killed. We put advertisements in the American Journal of Neurological Surgery for a year. Nobody ever claimed him. We could have matched that person exactly against clinical X-rays.
Q: In a sense you bring bones to life by recreating the biological nature of the body, of the skeleton. Do you ever imagine the lives of the people whose remains you are studying?
A: Yes, particularly their deaths because often we can look at the skeletal remains and determine the manner of death at least, stabbing, gunshot wounds particularly.
Q: Why when you're working on a case, do you feel it's best to not know too much?
A: A detective comes in with a box of bones and puts them down on my laboratory table and while I'm taking them out of the box, he says, "Doesn't that look like a 35-year-old woman?" It's going to look like 35-year- old woman, if I'm not careful. I try not to let them tell me what they expect me to find until after I've formed an opinion and committed myself to it either on paper or verbally.
Q: Have any of your findings revealed that a person had been brutally murdered and really made you angry?
A: Sad is probably a better term. I worked on a case (that) involved three infants. The oldest one was 6 months old at the time of death. They had all been battered to death by their parents, by the father at least. He used to throw them down the stairs until they stopped crying. Then he forced the mother -- they were common-law parents -- to help him bury the remains.
Q: Did your findings help put him behind bars?
A: Yes. I was able to determine the ages, the approximate time since death, from burial until they were exhumed. I also demonstrated fractures in various stages of healing, which is the hallmark of the battered child. It's kind of hard to understand why anybody would have to brutalize a small infant like that.
Q: Do you ever feel haunted?
A: Except by thoughts, perhaps. The remains I look at are strictly the inanimate remains of people that used to be alive. I never feel the presence of the deceased or whatnot. I am fully appreciative of the fact that these are the remains of a once-living human.
Q: Are you religious at all?
A: I'm a scientist. I'm given more to questioning.
Q: I was thinking of "Ashes to ashes."
A: Well, I've seen a lot of bones that haven't gotten to ashes yet that have been there a long time.