“On the first day of the search, I failed to find the body.” So writes forensic anthropologist and bioarchaeologist Mary H. Manhein—or “the bone lady” as law enforcement personnel call her. In this, one of dozens of stories recollected in her powerful memoir, Manhein and the state police eventually unearth a black plastic bag buried in the banks of the Mississippi River containing the body of a man who has been missing for five years. After the painstaking process of examining the remains, confirming the victim’s identity, and preparing a formal report for the police, Manhein testifies for the prosecution at the murder trial. The defendant is convicted (due in no small part to Manhein), and the bone lady has helped solve yet another mystery.
As director of the Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services (FACES) Laboratory at Louisiana State University, Manhein unravels mysteries of life and death every day. In The Bone Lady, she shares, with the compassion and humor of a born storyteller, many fascinating cases that include the science underlying her analyses as well as the human stories behind the remains.
Manhein, an expert on the human skeleton, assists law enforcement by providing profiles of remains that narrow the identification process when the traditional means used by medical examiners or coroners to conduct autopsies are no longer applicable—simply put, when bones are all that are left to tell the story. She assesses age, sex, race, height, signs of trauma, and time since death, and creates clay facial reconstructions.
The case studies Manhein includes in The Bone Lady highlight the diversity of the field of forensic anthropology. She presents some of her more lighthearted cases, such as that instigated by the suburban man who discovers a box of bones buried in his backyard labeled “Patsy Lou Bates—Sis.” A coroner, police investigators, and swarms of media are present when Manhein identifies Patsy Lou as a dearly departed family pet. One of her most chilling cases concerns a husband who murdered his wife, buried her in their yard, planted a rose garden over her grave, and continued to garden there for eight years until his deed was discovered. Manhein’s involvement in historic cases includes her participation in the exhumation of Dr. Carl Weiss, the alleged assassin of Huey P. Long.
Although Manhein enjoys solving high-profile cases, her personal crusade is identifying the John and Jane Does who wait in her lab. Manhein’s own words perfectly characterize her mission: “Identifying a victim can bring peace of mind to the family and can help them to go on with their lives. Some-times, peace of mind is the only gift that I can give.”
Mary H. Manhein is the author of The Bone Lady: Life as a Forensic Anthropologist; Trail of Bones: More Cases from the Files of a Forensic Anthropologist; and the mystery novel Floating Souls: The Canal Murders. She is director of the Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services (FACES) Laboratory at Louisiana State University.
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