“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?
— Edgar Allan Poe’s “Premature Burial”
Just under the Broadway Bridge near Kaw Point, Kansas City’s original municipal airport sits on land that juts into the Mighty Missouri like a downturned thumb, forcing the river into a u-shaped contortion and roiling its muddy waters into treacherous currents.
In the 1800s, the river swallowed at least 11 steamboats here — fire canoes, the Indians called them — among them the Bennett, the Boonville and the Cumberland Valley.
On the north bank of that watery gravesite, a 400-acre floodplain under the airport makes up part of our city’s fertile crescent; land near the city’s original settlement, once deeded to some of its founding fathers. Men with names like Chouteau and McCoy.
This peninsula-like plot — now frequented by corporate jets and hobby flyers — has been the scene of historic events, including the 1927 dedication of the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport by Charles Lindbergh.
It was there, in the summer of 2013 at the edge of Runway 1, that construction worker Jeremy Burke came face to face with a flinty relic of our past.
Staring back at him from the wall of a trench he was digging for a drainage project was a human skull.
Burke had just discovered one of Kansas City’s oldest unsolved mysteries: the remains of a man known for now — and perhaps forever — as “Unknown Human Remains, Case Number 13-01412.”
Was he one of the city’s original settlers? A Chouteau perhaps? Did he wash ashore from the wreck of the Bennett, or was he the victim of a ’30s-era mob hit during the Pendergast regime, as local media speculated when the skull was found?
Since they were unearthed, the skull and other remains have been photographed and measured, the teeth have been analyzed and X-rayed, DNA samples obtained and details of the case added to a national database created to help find America’s 80,000 missing persons.
Despite those efforts, we can still do little more than speculate. Even with recent advances in forensic science, the kinds of results we’ve come to expect from crime scene investigation dramas aren’t always so easy to come by in the real world.
“We took some DNA and put it in the system just in case, but it will be a miracle if we get a match.… Maybe somebody way back drowned, or maybe it was an old cemetery, or the river washed it inland,” said Kansas City homicide Detective Richard Sharp.
He believes the remains could have been there for as long as 150 years, and said, “The case is pretty well closed.”
But could we know more? Was enough done to unravel the mystery?
Sharp and others say they found no evidence that a crime was committed.
But, in words attributed variously to astronomer Carl Sagan and former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”
How the death occurred is one thing. Pinpointing when the death occurred — natural or otherwise — is yet another. It’s not always easy to determine the age of human remains — a time period experts call the “post-mortem interval” — with just a few bones and teeth.
Michael Finnegan is a forensic anthropologist who studied the remains for the Jackson County Medical Examiner, who investigated the case on behalf of Clay County, where the airport is located. Finnegan declined to speculate about the age of the bones.
In the only reference to that issue in his report, Finnegan wrote, “these remains are possibly too old to be considered as a forensic case. However, they are probably recent enough to be of significant historical interest.”
A forensic case (usually considered to be a death that occurred in the past 50 years) is one in which science could help us solve a crime, if there was one.
A vague a description
For now, here’s what we do know about the Mystery Man Under Runway 1.
He was a male Caucasian, about 5 feet 9 inches tall, between 35 and 55 years old, but possibly as young as 20, with a bony overgrowth or “button osteoma” that may have been visible above his upper lip.
He died in the spring or summer.
We owe this particular finding to a technique used by Vicki Wedel, who is based at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., and who studied a substance called dental cementum in the man’s teeth.
In her report to the Jackson County Medical Examiner, Wedel’s description of her process sounds like a technical footnote in a “CSI” television script.
Two of the teeth are delivered to her office by FedEx in a signed, sealed plastic evidence bag stuffed inside a sealed jeweler’s box. She cleans them with “tepid soapy water followed by an alcohol rinse.” They are put under vacuum and embedded in resin. She then cuts 500-micron-thick slices of the teeth using a “Buehler low-speed saw” and views them “under polarized transmitted light using an Olympus BX-40 microscope.”
She’s looking for bands of cementum, the substance that holds teeth in their sockets, but which also forms in alternating opaque and translucent bands, like rings in a tree. The bands represent winter (dormant) and summer (growth) seasons.
The method, which some consider to be highly accurate, shows that our man died between April and September, “at a minimum age of 20 years, six months.”
But how can it be that modern science can ascertain the season of his death, but not the year of the season of his death?
Douglas Ubelaker is a forensic anthropologist and curator of physical anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Anthropology. He has extensive experience identifying skeletal remains.
When it comes to estimating the post-mortem interval, Ubelaker advises caution. You can’t tell a book by its cover, or the age of bones by their appearance, he says.
Ubelaker says a radiocarbon analysis — had one been done — could have helped determine when our mystery man died.
The bomb curve
In December, the Hale Center for Journalism, a new local reporting venture at Kansas City Public Television, asked Jackson County Medical Examiner Mary Dudley if she would arrange for such an analysis.
Dudley agreed to the test. The Hale Center paid the $685 fee, and the analysis was finished last month at Beta Analytic in Miami, Fla.
For legal reasons, Dudley’s office retained “chain of custody” of the test samples and findings were sent to her, then shared with the Hale Center.
The analysis produced surprising results.
Indeed, our mystery man could be vastly older than we thought, and might have died as long as 350 years ago, around 1665.
But those same results also showed that he could have died as recently as 1950, but no later. And that confirms Finnegan’s suggestion that this is not a “forensic case” (less than 50 years old).
That’s a massive, 285-year time span. And it illustrates a peculiar limitation of carbon dating, often inaccurately portrayed on CSI-type television shows as a precise 20-minute process that can pinpoint the post-mortem interval with great accuracy.
Beta Analytic president Darden Hood did his best to explain the process, which relies on analyzing the carbon-14 isotope relative to present-day atmospheric levels.
Carbon-14 exists in all living things. It is created through tiny reactions in the air between nitrogen and cosmic radiation. It is radioactive, but present in only tiny amounts.
It is constantly decaying, but in living things it is also constantly replaced.
It enters plants through photosynthesis and enters animals and humans through the food chain. An equilibrium exists in living creatures that balances the ongoing radioactive decay with the intake.
When someone dies, ingestion (the intake of new carbon) ceases, but the decay continues. This starts the clock used by the dating lab, which measures the remaining carbon-14 and compares it to present-day levels to come up with an “age of death.”
In addition to radiocarbon dating, labs use a critical factor found in plants and animals that lived after 1954. That is excess carbon-14 generated by above-ground nuclear bomb testing during the 1950s.
Each explosion created large amounts of carbon-14, over and above that found naturally, indicating that the person was alive after 1954.
Scientists call this “bomb carbon.” And the “bomb curve” peaked in 1963, when international treaties banned further atmospheric testing. At that time, excess carbon-14 in the air was almost double what nature intended. And even today, it remains about 5 percent higher than pre-testing levels.
It is clear from the analysis that our mystery man did not contain any bomb-carbon and therefore died prior to 1954, Hood said. But he is still young enough to fall into a kind of radiocarbon black hole, broadening estimates of his year of death to sometime between the mid-1600s and about 1954, a frustratingly long post-mortem interval.
In such cases, Hood said, “using radiocarbon by itself has limited application … so other lines of evidence are needed to refine the time of death.”
Narrowing the gap
In the case of our mystery man, there wasn’t much to go on.
No clothing, no tissue, hair or blood. No nearby tools or clues; only parts of a leg, foot bones and a dozen teeth.
But historical factors — and some speculation — allow us to narrow the post-mortem interval considerably.
For example, we know from historians that Caucasians were rarely found in this region before the 1790s.
On the more recent end of the spectrum, we know from carbon dating that he died before 1950.
However, because he was found near or just under a concrete runway first poured in the 1930s by Tom Pendergast’s concrete company, we can narrow that further to somewhere between about 1790 and 1935.
Using those parameters, we can cut down our 285-year radiocarbon time span (1665 to 1950) to 145 years.
(Cautionary note: the medical examiner, who was not available for an interview, has not confirmed any of this, but she hasn’t specifically ruled it out, either.)
Consequently, Mystery Man could still have washed off the deck of a sinking steamboat in the mid-1800s.
He could have witnessed the construction of the Hannibal Bridge in 1867, the first bridge to cross the Missouri, and the one accomplishment that established the city as a major economic and rail center.
He may have been just beneath the muddy runway on which Charles Lindbergh landed the Spirit of St. Louis on Aug. 17, 1927, when he came here to dedicate the new airport less than three months after his historic flight from New York to Paris.
And he could have died during the Pendergast era (but there’s no evidence he was murdered).
At the earlier end of our new post-mortem interval (the 1790s), he could have been one of the first Caucasians to inhabit the area. Local historians say that means he was likely a fur trader who probably traveled here from the east by canoe or keelboat.
Fur trading with local tribes like the Kansa and Osage was the primary activity of the few Caucasians here at the time, said Bill Worley, a history instructor at Metropolitan Community College.
If that’s what he really was, Worley said, he could have been a member of the Chouteau clan from St. Louis, who controlled the fur trade along the Missouri River through the early 1800s.
In fact early maps on file in the Kansas City Library’s Missouri Valley Room show that our mystery man’s remains were found on or near land that was once deeded to Pierre M. Chouteau.
“I think this is a fascinating find,” Worley said of that possibility.
Indeed, our mystery man could have met members of the Lewis and Clark expedition when they camped in 1804 at nearby Kaw Point.
And he could have met with British and Spanish fur traders who frequented Fort Osage on the Missouri River near Sibley, established in 1808.
But given the little we know for sure, these are only possibilities.
Even with the new test results, our man, for now, must remain “Unknown Human Remains, Case Number 13-01412.”
KCPT’s Hale Center for Journalism works with PBS, NPR and regional news outlets to produce stories that matter to Kansas Citians, and which are available for use by anyone through Flatlandkc.org.