WITNESSES FROM THE GRAVE: The Stories Bones Tell by Christopher & Eric Stover Joyce


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A lively look at the science of forensic anthropology, focusing on the free-wheeling Texan who identified Josef Mengele's corpse. Clyde C. Snow is the colorful clean of bones whose life story Joyce (US editor of the British magazine New Scientist) and Stover (a writer/functionary for a science foundation) use as a lens to examine the discipline whose main function is to reconnect death to life by identifying human remains. The authors begin with Snow's early years: born in 1928, son of a Texan physician, he trained in zoology and archeology, shifting to forensic anthropology when, in 1960, he took a job with the FAA that entailed identifying airplane-crash victims. Such identification, the authors next show in a fascinating capsule history of forensic anthropology, builds upon the work of scientists dating back to Nero's time, especially that of French clerk Alphonse Bertillon, who grounded the science by inventing a system of exact body measurements, and that of his rival, Juan Vucetich, an Argentine policeman whose codification of fingerprints became the standard for criminal identification and incidently shattered Bertillon's pride. Despite subsequent high-tech advances, Joyce and Stover explain, forensic anthropology remains an inexact science; for example, experts will ""misidentify sex [of skulls] about 10% of the time."" But one expert who apparently rarely misses is Snow, whose rising star the authors trace through several exploits, including the identification of; victims of serial killer John Wayne Gacy; a cowboy pickled in arsenic; Mengele; a soldier who died with Custer; and, most recently, the ""disappeared""--victims of right-wing repression in Argentina. Nearly a hagiography--but roundly redeemed by the authors' clear, well-informed, and intricate detailing of the arcana of forensic anthropology: a winsome blend, then, of tree crime and popular science.

Pub Date: Jan. 29th, 1990
Publisher: Little, Brown