When the Dead Rise

PHANTOMsA Broth of Betrayal opens with a very old crime — the murder of a Revolutionary War militiaman whose body is discovered in present day Snowflake, Vermont.  I needed to do some research on what the skeleton of a young Caucasian male would look like after more than two hundred years in the ground and how exactly the experts would go about discovering who this young man had been.  The authorities were aided of course by some personal possessions including a powder horn carved with the man’s name (a little literary license here) but I still needed to describe how those bones might appear.

I learned a lot:  With an intact adult skeleton, it’s easily possible to determine sex, age and height.  After puberty, specific gender changes take place.  The diameter of the head of the humerus (upper arm bone) and radius (lower arm) and femur (thigh bone) are larger in males than females.  Growth changes in the long bones of the legs and arms can easily determine if a body is younger than twenty-five.

The pelvis and sciatic notch is wider in females than males and the rear of the public bone may have pitting or scarring from the tearing and regrowth of ligaments during and after childbirth.  Ribs are smooth and rounded in youth, but become sharp and pitted with age.  Thicker muscles can indicate whether a person was right or left handed.  Height can be easily determined.  A person’s height is generally five times the length of their humerus bone.  Age estimates are more accurate for younger bodies because children’s teeth and bones follow very predictable growth patterns, but even so, age can be determined to within five to ten years.

Thomas MacMillan/New Haven IndependentI did some web surfing to see if other ancient bodies might have resurfaced.  I found nothing! At least nothing about two hundred year old bodies.  But then, months after the manuscript had been submitted to the publisher, I was delighted to discover some news articles.  Just as in A Broth of Betrayal, a skull and other bones were found by a passerby on Halloween, no less, in the roots of an oak tree felled in New Haven, Connecticut during Superstorm Sandy.

New Haven’s two hundred year old skeleton is female.  She was a probable victim of yellow fever or smallpox and was likely buried between 1799 and 1821.  You can read about New Haven’s Halloween skeleton here.

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And then, in January 2013, on an even more ghoulish note, articles appeared in the Huffington Post and NBC reporting that a landslip and erosion had exposed layers of human remains from the graves at St. Mary’s Cemetery in Whitby, North Yorkshire, England.

WhitbyDracula fans will recall that Whitby was the town in which Bram Stoker lived for a time and which he used as the English setting for his famous vampire story.

Whitby Abbey is a suitably haunted site.  The abbey was established in 647 A.D. and overlooks the North Sea on the East Cliff above Whitby in North Yorkshire, England.   Today Whitby is still a mecca for Dracula fans hoping to find the final resting place of the fictional Count.

How surprising and gratifying it was to see real life imitating events in Snowflake, Vermont!

 

 

 

 

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