William Taylor White:
finding the boy in the iron casket

A rambling by Tom Knapp

The mystery of a cast-iron coffin found by utility workers in Washington, D.C., has led on a meandering path to Lancaster County, Pa.

Forensic researchers at the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of Natural History announced Thursday that the remains of the 15-year-old boy unearthed in 2005 belong to William Taylor White -- and his closest living relative is quite likely Linda Dwyer, a 64-year-old convenience store clerk from Lancaster.

"It's you! It's you!" was the message Dwyer received from ecstatic researchers after confirming the connection through a DNA test.

"I think it's awesome," Dwyer said. "The whole technology of finding me and putting it all together ... it's so cool."

Dwyer is thought to be White's great-great-great-grandniece.

White, an orphan from Accomack, Va., was a student in the preparatory school at Columbia College, now George Washington University, when he died, researchers said. He was buried in the college cemetery after his death from lobar pneumonia on Jan. 24, 1852; his remains were somehow left behind when the cemetery was later moved.

Dwyer said she visited the Smithsonian a few weeks ago, although she wasn't able to see White's body. "They wouldn't let me see the remains," she said. "I did see the casket and his clothes. But they made it clear ahead of time I wasn't going to see him. He's pretty nasty. He's been autopsied."

The revelation about her connection to White has led to a host of other news about Dwyer's family. White, researchers learned, was descended from Anthony West, one of the original Jamestown settlers. And, Dwyer added, "the Smithsonian found a whole bunch of cousins I didn't know I had."

Deborah Hull-Walski, an anthropologist and genealogy researcher at the Smithsonian, said feelings ran high when White's first living descendant was found.

"Linda was our fourth try. Every single person I talked to, it was the same reaction. They were all interested and wanted to know more," she said.

Hull-Walski and a colleague visited Dwyer Aug. 1 and, sitting in a Denny's restaurant, took a DNA swab from Dwyer's mouth. The DNA was compared in State College to a sample taken from White's shin.

"There was a great deal of elation (when the DNA match was confirmed)," Hull-Walski said. "We felt we had been entrusted with a responsibility to determine his identity," she said. "It was important to continue the effort. So when we did find out who he was, it was really a feeling both of elation and relief."

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children also got involved, using photographs of the mummified remains and a tomography scan of the skull to construct an approximation of White's face at the time of his death. "We have a photograph of Linda and a photograph of William, and you can see it. You can see a family resemblance," Hull-Walski said.

The work isn't over, she added. Researchers are still looking for more living relatives, she said, and are also trying to get a better feel for White's place in history.

"We feel like we have a good understanding of his family, who his father and mother were, his siblings and their children," Hull-Walski said. "But we'd like to know more. We get the feeling he was a very special child. He was well-liked by his fellow students and he was esteemed by his professors."

The Religious Herald, a Richmond, Va., newspaper, wrote in its obituary at the time: "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 research, which involved a team of more than three dozen people, helped Hull-Walski create a family tree for White that included 788 people and filled a wall in her lab. "We're trying now to expand his story and place him in that time period," she added. "We want to know more about his life."

David Hunt, a forensic anthropologist with the Smithsonian, was the first person called when the casket was found. He said he didn't have high hopes in 2005 that the boy's identity would ever be learned.

"For somebody that was from a period this early, probably not. It was an unknown entity," he said. "It was a pretty cold case, and the tracks were going to be pretty hard to follow."

The anthropology team first studied the casket itself and the location where it was found, he said. Only later did work begin on the body itself.

Pieces of White's identity came together bit by bit, he said. For instance, the state of his teeth and the growth of his bones helped them pinpoint his age in his mid-teens.

The elegant iron Fisk & Raymond casket, which was patented in 1848, helped to determine the time of his death, as did the style of the clothing -- a white burial suit including a pleated shirt, a vest with cloth-covered buttons, flared trousers, darned socks and ankle-length underdrawers -- he was wearing. Researchers said White's remains were well preserved because of the airtight seal on the casket. They also discovered White had congenital heart disease -- a ventricular septum defect, or hole in his heart, that could have contributed to his early death. He was just over 5 feet tall.

The forensics team also studied census records, newspaper obituaries and other public documents in its efforts to trace White's identity, Hunt said. Various possibilities for the boy were considered and rejected as lines of investigation were ruled out.

Dwyer said Thursday that, as White's closest living relative, "it's possible that the decision about his burial will end up in my lap."

Hull-Walski said her team will certainly worth with any surviving family members, as well as George Washington University, to make arrangements for the body's final disposition. "The boy was originally supposed to go to Oak Hill Cemetery, since that's where all of the other bodies went when they moved the cemetery in 1866," Hunt added.

Hull-Walski said her team is still trying to figure out why White's remains were left behind when the cemetery was moved. "It's a possibility that something had happened to his headstone," she said, noting that two military hospitals sprawled over the site during the Civil War. "But I don't think we're ever going to know why."

by Tom Knapp
21 September 2007