The world is full of mysteries and some of the most intriguing emerge from the soil –stories lying deep within buried bones. Most people think of the skeleton as a static part of the human body, but bones in the hands of forensic anthropologist Dr. Elizabeth Murray and her crew of experts can reveal clues about peoples’ identities, lifestyles, and even the cause of their deaths.
In each hour-long episode of Buried Secrets, Dr. Murray and experts from the fields of history, archeology, anthropology and forensic sciences solve mysteries by “listening” to what the bones have to say. By identifying hundreds of sets of skeletal remains washed out by a flood, a community is able to rebury their loved ones again. By documenting the wounds of massacred victims buried in haste during a civil war, the crew provides evidence for future prosecutions.
From a crypt of bones uncovered in the basement of a 19th century Music Hall to the exhumed remains of five Colorado miners who may have been victims of murder and cannibalism, each episode of Buried Secrets tells a surprising and entertaining tale.
Buried Secrets is a captivating 4-hour series where intuition, dogged research and advanced anthropological forensic science take a fresh look at old bones in order to solve the mysteries of life and death.
It all begins with the bones…
Episode 01 – Hardin Cemetery Disaster
It was a flood of biblical proportion rampaging for two months, cutting a swath across 9 Midwestern states killing 50 people and destroying or damaging 55,000 homes. Hardin, Missouri, population a little over 600, was a small, close-knit farming community. Residents watched over each other and their history by taking exceptional care of the local cemetery where their ancestors rested. What the inhabitants of this small Missouri town came to realize was that the Great Midwest Flood of 1993 would have the ability to unearth the dead as the Missouri river flowed three and a half miles over its banks. The floodwaters ate through the Hardin cemetery, unearthing hundreds of headstones, vaults and caskets, sending them through the streets and fields of Ray County. As the disaster unfolded, a special team comprised of local volunteers and forensic anthropologists, pathologists and other specialists brought together by DMORT (Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team) came from as far away as Washington, DC in a massive effort to recover, identify, and repatriate the hundreds of individuals exhumed by the floodwaters. On this episode of Skeleton Crew, Dr. Elizabeth Murray and some members of this unique crew will re-explore the extraordinary efforts that were undertaken to once again bring to rest the displaced remains, and provide closure for the living.
Episode 02 – Music Hall Bones
From as early as 1876, there were rumors of ghosts inhabiting the building that now houses the Cincinnati Symphony, so when a night watchman would tell of his sightings nearly 100 years later, many thought he was just adding to lore. But then in 1988 when construction workers were working in one of the elevator shafts, they uncovered hundreds of pounds of skeletal remains in an underground crypt. Dr. Elizabeth Murray was eventually entrusted with the bones and set about to solve the mystery; how did these bones end up where they did and who might these individuals be?
Records would eventually indicate that the original building that would eventually become today’s Music Hall was built atop the city’s nineteenth century public burial ground for commoners and indigents. The bones themselves would paint a picture of Cincinnati’s first settlers. On this episode of Skeleton Crew, Dr. Elizabeth Murray will take us back in time and tell us how she, as a forensic anthropologist, along with the assistance of a small crew of experts, was able to solve this mystery.
Episode 03 – Infamous Colorado Cannibal
In November 1873, a party of 21 prospectors left Salt Lake City and headed towards the mountains. Two months later, they arrived at the Ute Indian encampment where they were urged to wait out the winter. After two weeks, 6 men including 23-year old Alferd Packer who acted as their guide, decided to try to make it to an Indian agency 75 miles away. 65 days later, only Alferd Packer arrived at the agency. Over a year later the remains of the missing men were found and by now Packer had told two different versions of what had happened. Whether he murdered them all or claimed to have killed only one in self-defense, what he never denied was that he ate one of the men. Since there was no law on the Colorado books for cannibalism, Packer was arrested for first-degree murder. Due to legal technicalities, it would take two trials to convict Packer (of 5 counts of manslaughter) and sentence him to 40 years in prison. In July of 1989, law and forensic Professor James Starrs of George Washington University decided to try to prove which version of Packer’s tale was indeed the true one. He led a team including archaeologists and forensic anthropologists and unearthed the 5 graves. He hoped by studying the bones, the truth of how these men died would finally be revealed. The bones were taken to the anthropology lab at the University of Arizona where forensic anthropologist Dr. Walter Birkby and a small team studied them. With the evidence uncovered from the bones, Starrs concluded that Packer was a “murdering cannibal and liar.” On this episode of Skeleton Crew, Dr. Elizabeth Murray will re-examine the evidence and documentation taking a closer look at the most recent conclusions of the forensic anthropological studies to see which version of Alferd Packer’s story may be closer to the truth.
Episode 04 – Mass Graves of Guatemala
Guatemala for nearly 36 years was also a country ripped apart by a brutal civil war between the military government and the rural Mayan population. In 1996, the United Nations brokered the final cease-fire. Mass graves now mar the countryside and efforts sanctioned by the present government have been underway to uncover, identify and properly rebury the dead. Dr. Clyde Snow, a world-renowned forensic anthropologist, has been traveling to Guatemala since 1991, when he first trained local archaeology students and helped set up a forensic lab in Guatemala City. He has invited Dr. Elizabeth Murray to observe and join in on the work being done by the crew there. Snow and Murray will travel into the jungle where one of the Guatemalan teams is presently excavating a mass grave site. They will also spend time in the lab in Guatemala City where Dr. Murray will have an opportunity to examine some of the remains and talk with various “technicians” about the forensic anthropological methods they use to aid in their identifications. For the Mayan survivors, it is of the utmost importance to them that the victims be identified, their injuries noted, and that proper burial take place. For this reason, after remains are studied and documented by the anthropology teams, a repatriation and reburial ceremony is carried out. Dr. Murray, joined by some members of the Guatemalan crew, will be present for one of these solemn testimonials to the importance of this work. On this episode of Skeleton Crew, though decades may have passed, the bones are alive with many stories to tell.