Bones of Contention James Starrs, exhumer of the infamous, embarks on a sensitive expedition: to dig up Meriwether Lewis and decide once and for all, murder or suicide.


With a yellowed and snaggle-toothed skull in his hands, Professor James E. Starrs struts before his George Washington University law students like Hamlet at the grave of Yorick.

He's discussing physical anthropology. But you almost expect him to declaim: "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy ..."

Dr. Starrs does have a lot of the theatrical about him. He's easily one of America's most famous forensic scientists, an academic sleuth investigating historical mysteries with everything from ground-searching radar to exhumation.

For Starrs, the question has always been to dig or not to dig.

The answer was "dig" for Jesse James, Hollywood's favorite outlaw; dig for Carl Austin Weiss, the purported assassin of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long; and dig for Alferd Packer, the notorious Colorado cannibal. Starrs has exhumed them all.

But he argued against people who wanted to unearth John Wilkes Booth from Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery, gave up on exhuming Lizzie Borden and he thinks it's pointless to dig up Edgar Allan Poe because his bones won't indicate disease.

Right now he's most interested in disinterring Meriwether Lewis who, with William Clark, led the first great exploration of the American West. Today, before a special panel of the National Park Service, Starrs will argue the case for exhuming Lewis to resolve the question that's become topical again nearly 190 years after his death: Was he murdered or did he commit suicide?

The current best-selling paperback "Undaunted Courage," by Stephen Ambrose, and the Ken Burns documentary that aired last month both buy the suicide argument. Starrs indignantly complains that they didn't seek forensic evidence.

Lewis' death came three years after the Lewis and Clark expedition. In the autumn of 1809, he was governor of the Louisiana Territory. Thomas Jefferson was no longer president. He had been Lewis' patron and friend and promoter of the expedition across vast land that the nation had acquired through his Louisiana Purchase. But now the War Department was questioning his expense vouchers.

He decided to plead his case in Washington and headed east from Memphis along the old Indian and pioneer trail called the Natchez Trace. On the night of Oct. 10, 1809, he arrived at a gloomy frontier outpost with the morose name of Grinder's Stand. The next morning he was dead, shot in the head and chest, apparently with his own pistols, and perhaps slashed with a knife or razor.

His death was immediately called suicide. And that's what the retired Thomas Jefferson was told. But rumors and suspicions of "assassination" and murder began almost immediately. The historical debate has continued ever since.

Starrs believes he can help settle the question by digging up Lewis, who lies under a monument on land the Park Service controls, along the Trace about 25 southwest of Nashville.

"I think a man in his position in this country deserves a better deal than he's gotten with respect to his death," he says. "I've done so much research of a scientific nature I just come away aghast at the fast-and-loose way in which historians treat history."

He likes an aphorism he attributes to Voltaire: "God in all his omnipotence couldn't change the past and that's why He created historians."

A lean, wiry man with a white beard, Starrs looks something like George Bernard Shaw, and he has the Irish playwright's acerbic wit.

A colleague once declared: "You'll never dig me up, Starrs. You'll never get me."

"I said, 'Bill, don't worry about a thing. You're completely exempt. I only exhume important people.' "

Starrs is quite Irish, too. "Purebred," he says, as is his wife, Barbara. Although born in Brooklyn, he carries both Irish and American passports. Guinness stout is his drink: "James Joyce called it 'black gold.' " He likes the Irish turn of phrase. He spent a sabbatical year in Ireland.

Wheels turning

At 67, Starrs rides his bicycle 15 miles each way between his home in Fairfax County, Va., and classes at GWU in Foggy Bottom in the District of Columbia.

A professor of law and forensics, he's been at GWU since 1964. He's co-author of a standard textbook on scientific evidence, a distinguished fellow of the Academy of Forensic Sciences and an ardent admirer of that pioneer consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes.

He's so casual in class that when he wears a necktie he explains that he's meeting his wife for a birthday dinner. But he holds the skull with both hands and consummate care. When he's finished explaining the arcana of sutures and the foramen magnum and the various trauma of bullet holes and hatchet wounds, he places the skull gently on a specially made, padded cloth collar.

The skull was provided by a colleague in Oregon who asked for help in identifying it. The skull was one of a small ossuary he brought to class to illustrate his points.

He's sometimes tagged as the quirky, if not nutty, professor.

In the John Wilkes Booth case, the attorney for exhumation tried to exploit Starrs' reputation for kookiness. Starrs was arguing that nothing could be proved by digging. At the hearings, the lawyer asked about the time Starrs ate breakfast on Ernest Hemingway's grave in Ketchum, Idaho. Starrs cheerfully acknowledged that he had. In a fit of whimsy, he had begun a cross-country bicycle trip at Papa's grave.

"One of my former students, then the county attorney, set up a grill so that I could have breakfast at the gravesite before I left. My student said he thought Hemingway would approve."

Then the John Wilkes Booth attorney asked him why he slept with the bones of Carl Weiss, Huey Long's alleged assassin down in Louisiana. In 1935, the governor's bodyguards gunned Weiss down in the statehouse when Long was shot. Starrs exhumed Weiss in 1990.

"Well, they were wet," he recalls. "They had to dry. About every hour you had to turn them over. Otherwise, mildew would start setting in and they would get moldy and all. It would destroy our possibilities of analysis.

"So all night long I set the alarm and every hour I turned them over. In the morning people asked me 'how did you sleep?'

"I said 'fine.' And they said, 'How did he sleep?' I said, 'Oh, he slept in pieces.' "

Starrs proved that Weiss had defensive wounds and was not on the attack when he was shot, and that the bullet that killed Long probably did not come from his gun.

After all his digs, Starrs remains a devout Roman Catholic who regularly attends Mass and a devoted family man who helped raise eight children Catholic.

"I have belief in the resurrection of the body," he says. That's part of the Apostles' Creed, one of the church's central tenets. "When I dig up bodies, I treat them with utmost respect and dignity.

"I tell the students that's what you're supposed to do when you have human remains. That's part of not only anthropology but of my religious beliefs. That this was and will be a person again, by reason of the Resurrection.

"I don't want it to come back and kick me in the teeth," he adds, with his typically incurable irreverence.

Starrs says he's not convinced either way about Meriwether Lewis. But he thinks there's enough reasons to suspect homicide and begin digging.

"There's no doubt in my mind that if you find a bullet hole in the back of his head, it's not only unlikely, but impossible, it was suicide.

"We can kick these ideas around as historians have for 200 years. The answer could well lie in the grave of Meriwether Lewis."

He has found lots of answers underground.

He believes digging into Jesse James and Alferd Packer resolved their cases "once and for all." He proved that the bones in Jesse James' grave were actually the outlaw's.

Murder and myth

In the Alferd Parker case, his exhumation of five victims proved they had, in fact, been hacked up and eaten.

It was a gruesome case. In the fall of 1873, Packer marched into the high reaches of the San Juan Mountains with his band of prospectors. After a long, hard, winter in the mountains, Packer returned alone, well-heeled and well-fed. He was convicted of murder, sentenced to death and became part of the mythology of Colorado.

"The judge said," says Starrs, recalling the old anecdote, " 'There were seven Democrats in Hinsdale County and you et five of them, goddamn you, and I sentence you hang by the neck until you're dead, dead, dead -- as a warning against reducing the Democratic population of the state.' "

That's not historical fact, Starrs says. But it's great story.

Printed invitations were issued for the hanging. But the conviction was set aside and the party ruined.

After a second trial, Packer served 15 years for manslaughter. He never was convicted of cannibalism, Starrs says, which is not a crime any place in United States.

But he did earned a unique place in the state's folklore. Phil Ochs wrote a ballad about him. His grave and the massacre site are tourist attractions. There's an "Alferd Packer Wilderness Cook Book." And, in the Alferd Packer Grill at the University of Colorado, you can eat "El Canibal, Boulder's biggest burrito."

In 1989, Starrs dug up the remains of the victims, which he found laid out pretty much the way Packer left them after dinner. The bones bore many marks of the hatchet Packer used to kill them. Starrs shows his class slides.

"Here you see in the bone 120 years after they had been put in the ground," Starrs says, "the actual cut marks of de-fleshing."

Starrs is certain digging up Meriwether Lewis would be just as fruitful.

The National Park Service has pretty much stonewalled him. They say it'd be a bad precedent, and they don't want indiscriminate exhumation around and about the parks. They point out they have nine presidents in their care.

Starrs has the support of 161 of the 162 relatives of Lewis that he's found. Some believe Lewis killed himself, others that he was killed. Some don't care. They just want to give him a Christian burial.

"They want to exhume him so they can properly package him in a coffin and rebury him properly."

Lewis was buried without ceremony or benefit of clergy the first time.

The district attorney down in Tennessee is sympathetic and is pressing his own case in the state courts.

"It's a rolling stone and I started the stone rolling," Starrs says.

At the end of his class, he retires for a Guinness and a dozen oysters across the street at a place called Kincaid's.

HTC "One thing I normally get from students," he says, about halfway down his stout, "which I didn't get tonight, is: 'What are you doing with those bones? Shouldn't they be buried? By what right do you have those bones and that skull?'

"My answer to them is that if I had the choice I would prefer to be skeletonized and used in class. You last forever that way."

Pub Date: 12/16/97

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