Welcome back to MedHum Monday! Today we present a review of Skeleton Crew by Deborah Halber, science writer for MIT. Taking a good look at forensics history, but also at how technology today helps to re-open unsolved cases, the book invites us to question what counts as expertise in a modern, digital world.
Deborah Halber’s The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases (2014, Simon & Schuster)
Review by Danielle Nielsen
Deborah Halber’s The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America’s Coldest Cases (2014, Simon & Schuster) explores the networks of part-time Internet detectives who use databases, missing person reports, and often gut instincts to identify decades-old unidentified bodies. Alongside these part-time sleuths are the law enforcement agencies and officers, from local police to coroners to state forensic anthropologists, saddled with the remains but often hesitant to work the public to solve these cases.
Halber’s interest in the Skeleton Crew stems from a May 2010 news story in The Boston Globe that included a sketch of the Lady of the Dunes, a young, unidentified female victim, found in the mid-1970s in Provincetown, Massachusetts. In her own Internet research about the Lady of the Dunes, Halber discovered a network of websites populated by photographs, drawings, and clay and digital re-creations of unidentified bodies and their faces, networks that Halber deemed “a Facebook for the dead.” Halber’s driving question of the book, “Who, I wondered, would go out of their way to create or peruse an Internet morgue?” led her to discover those people, the Skeleton Crew, who spend their available hours perusing these Internet morgues looking to identify these bodies.
Through fifteen chapters, a prologue, and epilogue, Halber deftly interweaves stories about unidentified bodies and the civilians or citizen-investigators who have helped identify remains. The framing narrative for Halber’s investigations is Tent Girl, a young woman whose body was found in eastern Kentucky on May 17, 1968, by Wilbur Riddle, a local well driller. She was wrapped in a tarp and dumped next to a major highway with no identification. Tent Girl would not receive a name or be returned to her family until April 1998 after Todd Williams, a Tennessee factory worker and Riddle’s son-in-law, devoted years searching for clues about Tent Girl’s identity. It was not, however, until the advent of the Internet and easily accessible and searchable databases that Williams would be able to solve the case.
In addition to the Lady of the Dunes and Tent Girl, we meet other unidentified persons and their Internet champions, and Halber chronicles the stories of the Doe Network, one of the most well-known sleuthing communities, the National Missing and Unidentified Missing Persons System, or NamUs, a site for which Todd Matthews now serves as an administrator, and dead sites like the Missing Persons Cold Case Network, Websleuths, and ColdCases.
Halber speaks not only only with the citizen-sleuths, but she also interviews government employees and law enforcement agents like Dr. Marcella Fierro, Virginia’s chief medical examiner and early pioneer and advocate for the unidentified; Mathew Hickman, a statistician for the Bureau of Justice Statistics tasked with determining the number of unidentified remains in the United States; and Mike Murphy, the Clark County, Nevada, coroner.
Home of Las Vegas, Clark County recovers ten thousand bodies every year, a number of which remain unidentified. In his role as coroner, Murphy posted the first government-issued website with photographs or drawings of the unidentified housed in the Clark County morgue, encouraging other states and municipalities to do so and allowing the Skeleton Crew to more effectively match missing persons with unidentified remains.
Part detective non-fiction, part ethnography, Halber introduces readers to a community that is not without its own internal drama. By the final chapters, we learn of the internal fights within the Doe Network over procedures concerning the ability to contact families and law enforcement officials. We understand the suspicious nature with which some law enforcement officials view members of the Skeleton Crew, both named and unnamed. We also see Todd Williams, an administrator for both Doe Network and NamUs overthrown at the Doe Network and banned from the community, as well as others rejected by their community members.
A science writer for MIT, Halber tells the story of these fascinating web sleuths, both humanizing the searchers and the unidentified remains, some of which, like the Lady of the Dunes, remain unidentified by the book’s end, and the scientific research and clear explanations resonate with a general audience. Halber’s Skeleton Crew reveals often unnoted or unnoticed citizens who devote countless hours to skimming missing person boards, looking through photographs and drawings, and using their instincts and research skills to make connections and return these bodies to their families.
About the Reviewer:
Danielle Nielsen is Assistant Professor of English at Murray State University where she teaches courses in composition and rhetoric, professional and technical writing, and British literature.