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Solving History’s Mysteries
Solving History’s Mysteries - Columbian College of Arts and Sciences

Mar 05 2010

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It was a simple enough question: Was the fragment of hair and skin from an animal—or a human? But for Walter Rowe, chair of the Department of Forensic Sciences, the answer would be an important one, adding valuable information to the scientific effort to determine when outlaw Jesse James was killed and where he had been buried.

“They knew that someone was buried at the site, but the whole issue was whether this person shot in St. Joseph, Mo., and buried at the James family farm was actually Jesse James,” Rowe said. “There long had been rumors that James faked his own death and assumed a new identity, and someone else was buried in the grave.”

Rowe, a microscopy specialist and history buff, teaches students how to handle evidence as they prepare for professions in law enforcement and related fields. But there’s a personal thrill whenever he’s called in to use the same procedures to solve mysteries of history. When working on the case focused on bank and train robber James, Rowe determined that it was human scalp that had been taken from the grave—and that the hair had been colored. Research into historic documents found a reference to James dying his hair, usually with boot polish, to provide a disguise.

That discovery in the 1990s, and later use of teeth for mitochondrial DNA comparisons with modern-day members of the James’ family, determined that James had been buried in the grave, debunking folk legends that the Wild West outlaw had survived an 1882 shooting.

In another case, Rowe examined fabric scraps from the infamous “Colorado Cannibal.” In 1874, gold miner Alfred Packer emerged from a blizzard-battered area of the Colorado Rockies with a story of a snowstorm so brutal that the five other prospectors in his group starved to death. But Packer’s story didn’t hold up under scrutiny and he was charged with murdering and then eating his companions to survive.

Rowe was among the experts who examined materials exhumed from a mountainous area where the dead miners had camped. “I looked at swatches of clothing. There were rubber buttons. There was an overcoat and one of the issues was determining when it was made, because these guys were murdered in 1874,” Rowe said. He found stampings on the backs of the buttons indicating that they came from a company that began operations in the 1850s. He concluded that the buttons probably came from a U.S. Army overcoat. Some of the miners were former members of the army.

“I examined a knife that a collector had and that might have been used by Packer to kill or dismember his victims,” Rowe said. “If you looked very carefully, there were initials scratched on the brass guard above the handle and—except for a middle initial that didn’t appear in any account of the case—they corresponded to one of the victims.

“We took it apart and found crusts of blood between the guard and the blade but, unfortunately, we couldn’t determine whether it was human or not,” Rowe added. “The blood was too badly oxidized.”

Rowe said the challenge with researching the past is that there may be only one chance to test the fragments of evidence that remain. “But it’s fun to go back, because we have tools that allow us to look at things that haven’t been looked at before,” he said. “You just need the right set of circumstances, the right evidence preserved.”

Bullet casings and cartridges were the evidence Rowe looked at when he, his students, and other researchers attempted to recreate the movements of U.S. army troops during the so-called Fetterman Massacre, the deadliest killing of Army troops at the hands of Native Americans prior to General George Armstrong Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876.

The Fetterman Massacre took place in Wyoming Territory at a time when Indian war parties were attacking outsiders traversing their lands. Four days before Christmas in 1866, U.S. Army Capt. William Fetterman and a column of 78 men and two civilians were dispatched to protect a team of woodcutters supplying nearby Fort Phil Kearney. Although Fetterman had been told not to engage or pursue any Native Americans, he reportedly gave orders to attack a group of Sioux warriors. The Sioux led the military column to a clearing where 2,000 Indians had amassed. All the soldiers were killed.

“We had the Indian accounts of what happened but there were no survivors to provide the other side. And some of the Indians weren’t in a position to know everything that happened,” Rowe said.

Their assignment was to see if he could recreate some of the soldier’s movements. “One thing we could confirm was that Fetterman’s men were at least temporarily able to establish a defensive line. They weren’t ambushed while in motion going down the Bozeman Trail,” Rowe said. “My best guess is that they probably ran out of ammunition, although they were up against such a large force that they would have been overwhelmed anyway.”

GW’s geographic location in the heart of the nation's capitol opens up opportunities for forensic scientists focused on historic incidents, such as the Fetterman Massacre project. Employees from the Smithsonian Institution’s conservation lab, for example, have taken Rowe's classes. And a former student now works on archaeological sites for the U.S. National Park Service.

For more information about Columbian College's Department of Forensic Sciences, visit www.gwu.edu/~forensic.