The book tells the stories of ordinary citizens who take on the grim task largely abandoned by law enforcement: helping identify the estimated 40,000 unidentified human remains languishing in morgues and potters fields around the US.
For DCC, Deborah wrote this book alert post:
In May 2010, I saw a photo in The Boston Globe of a woman with well-shaped eyebrows and a sensitive mouth. She had deep-set eyes and luxurious auburn hair swept back off her high forehead.
She looked familiar, like someone I might have seen in my suburban neighborhood, but the colors in the picture struck me as garish and her expression eerily bland. I realized I was looking at a digitally constructed approximation of what a murder victim looked like before her face decomposed.
In 1974, a woman had been found on a beach in Provincetown, Massachusetts, her hands chopped off at the wrists, her skull bashed in. She was nude, lying on a thick beach blanket, a pair of Wrangler jeans neatly folded under her almost-severed head. Her toenails were painted bubble-gum pink. She had been dead for days, maybe weeks. The local police chief called the murder horrific, particularly shocking for Provincetown, an artsy community at the stunning Cape Cod National Seashore.
How could no one miss her? How could she have ended up in a quaint Cape Cod town one bright summer day, never to be heard from again, and how could her disappearance have raised not the slightest alarm among her relatives, friends, co-workers? Why did no one ever report her missing? And if someone had, how had no one made the connection?
It was distressing to learn the horrific details of so many cold cases–by some estimates, there are tens of thousands–and to imagine all the bodies languishing in back rooms of morgues and buried in potters fields. It’s one of saddest examples of national neglect I’ve ever come across.
But I was privileged to meet those who are bypassing law enforcement, taking matters into their own hands, trying to match the missing with the unidentified. The surprises are (1) that anyone would take on such a bizarrely morbid hobby where the chances of actually accomplishing anything seemed infinitesimally small and (2) that they are actually succeeding.
I have the utmost respect and admiration for the web sleuths, who, on top of their own career and family responsibilities, volunteer countless hours, poring over gruesome images and details, mired in other people’s misery and horror, with no guarantee that they will get anywhere, or if they do, that they will receive any recognition or reward beyond the knowledge that they helped provide closure for a stranger. Meet THE SKELETON CREW: a street-wise police dispatcher from Quincy, Mass., whose nephew had been brutally murdered; a tough one-time pig farm manager whose remarkable Internet research skills make her indispensable to law enforcement; a craftswoman in South Carolina whose foster sister had mysteriously gone missing and turned up more than 25 years later, a skeleton with a bullet through her skull; and a Mississippi hobby store clerk who takes on only the most challenging cases and manages to solve one in which the only clue was a man’s head encased in a bucket of cement.
The Lady of the Dunes was buried under a flat stone engraved “Unidentified Female Body Found Race Point Dunes” along with the date she was discovered: July 26, 1974. Of the many resolved cases I describe in THE SKELETON CREW, sadly, hers is not one of them. In May 2013, she was exhumed for a third time. I’m hoping the third time’s the charm.
Deborah Halber started out as a daily newspaper reporter, then worked as a writer and editor for Tufts and as a science writer for MIT, where she chronicled everything from quantum weirdness (that’s the technical term) to snail slime.
A freelance journalist since 2004, her writing has appeared in The Boston Globe, MIT Technology Review, the graphic news magazine Symbolia, and many university publications.
Her narrative nonfiction book, THE SKELETON CREW: HOW AMATEUR SLEUTHS ARE SOLVING AMERICA’S COLDEST CASES, is coming from Simon & Schuster in July 2014.
A member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and the National Association of Science Writers, she lives near Boston in a house with a lot of former pets buried out back.