- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

Researchers have solved the mystery of the boy in the iron coffin.

The cast-iron coffin was discovered by utility workers in the District two years ago. Smithsonian scientists led by forensic anthropologist Doug Owsley set about trying to determine who was buried in it so the body could be placed in a new, properly marked grave.

The body was that of 15-year-old William Taylor White, who died in 1852 and was buried in the Columbia College cemetery, they announced yesterday.

“The mystery of this young boy’s life and a strong sense of responsibility to properly identify him kept me and the entire team focused and determined. This was not a one-person project. It took more than three dozen people nearly two years to make the ID,” Deborah Hull-Walski, an anthropologist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, said in a statement.

The researchers think the coffin was inadvertently left behind when the cemetery was moved.

William, from Accomack, Va., was a descendant of Anthony West, one of the Jamestown settlers, they announced. He was a student in the preparatory school of the college, which later became George Washington University.

William was one of several potential candidates the team focused on after studying census records, obituaries and other public documents.

They then tested the DNA of known living descendants to make the positive identification.

The pathologists and forensic anthropologists reported that William had congenital heart disease, a ventricular septum defect, which is a hole in the heart, that contributed to his death.

They found an obituary published in the Daily National Intelligencer newspaper of the District on Jan. 28, 1852, confirming William died Jan. 24, 1852, after a short illness.

Clothing historians were able to determine that he was dressed in a shirt, vest and pants that are consistent with clothing styles of the early to mid-1850s.

“Thus is cut off, in the morning of his days, one in whom many hopes were centred — and who had the fairest prospects of happiness and usefulness in life,” the Religious Herald newspaper of Richmond said in its obituary.

The cast-iron coffin was shaped a bit like an Egyptian mummy case and is of a type called Fisk style, patented in 1848. This particular model was popular in the early 1850s among the well-to-do, Mr. Owsley said.

Because they are sealed, cast-iron coffins tend to yield well-preserved bodies. Indeed, the young person looked not unlike an ancient mummy, even though he had not gone through the Egyptian embalming procedures.

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