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DNA Evidence Identifies Headless Corpse in Cave as 1916 Axe Murderer

Joseph Henry Loveless murdered his wife with an axe more than 100 years ago. Now, his dismembered remains have been identified

An undated composite sketch of Joseph Henry Loveless, whose headless torso was found in a remote Idaho cave 40 years ago (Anthony Redgrave/Courtesy of Lee Bingham Redgrave via AP)
smithsonianmag.com

Move over, Sherlock Holmes. DNA evidence has cracked yet another case—and this time, the findings are especially gnarly.

Last week, officials in Clark County, Idaho, announced that a dismembered body, first discovered decades ago in a remote cave, belongs to an alleged murderer who disappeared more than a century ago: Joseph Henry Loveless, a tragically and aptly named outlaw who escaped custody in the spring of 1916 after being arrested for killing his wife, Agnes Octavia Caldwell Loveless, with an axe.

The revelation reaches the remains after more than 40 years of anonymity. In 1979, a family searching for arrowheads in eastern Idaho found the torso buried in a burlap sack. Twelve years later, the body was joined by a hand, an arm and two legs, all wrapped in the same material and dug up from the same cave system. Though investigators (literally) pieced together what they could in the intervening years, without the boon of advanced genetic analysis the bones themselves only said so much: That the victim was a white man with reddish-brown hair who had been about 40 years old when he died, according to Gillian Brockell of the Washington Post.

Then, in 2019, the remains finally made their way to the nonprofit DNA Doe Project. Researchers from the Texas-based Othram Inc. lab managed to extract genetic material from one of the leg bones—so remarkably preserved that an accompanying sock remained intact—and uploaded a DNA profile to several databases to search for a match. Within months, they had their man: specifically, an 87-year-old in California who turned out to be Loveless’ grandson, though he’d had no prior knowledge of his grandfather’s criminal past.

Per Heather Murphy of the New York Times, Loveless’ clothes ended up clinching the matter. Still draped in tatters over the body were the remains of a hat, coat, sweater, overalls and trousers that fit the description for the murderer’s outfit the day he’d last been seen, suggesting Loveless had died shortly after he fled—a feat he typically accomplished by hiding a blade in his boot and cutting his way out of his cell. The visit wasn’t the bootlegger’s first stay in prison, nor his first escape, but it was likely his last.

With his 1916 death date, Loveless is officially the DNA Doe Project’s oldest find yet, Anthony Lukas Redgrave, a team leader at the organization, tells Murphy.

Born in 1870 to Mormon pioneers in the Utah Territory, Loveless eventually made his way to Idaho, where he became a bootlegger and counterfeiter who used a bevy of aliases throughout his storied criminal career. As Rebecca Boone reports for the Associated Press, these false names included Walt Cairns and Charles Smith. The unfortunate Agnes was Loveless’ second wife, marrying him after he was granted a rare divorce from his first wife, Harriet Jane Savage.

Still missing are Loveless’ head, his jailbreaking saw and a suspect for his murder. But some experts think they’ve found the motive: revenge. As Clark County Sheriff Bart May tells CNN’s Christina Maxouris and Amanda Watts, “Back in 1916, it was the Wild West up here, and most likely the locals took care of the problem.”

Samantha Blatt, a bioarchaeologist at Idaho State University, tells Murphy she suspects the culprits may have even been Agnes’ family, who’d come into town around the same time to grieve her death. Having seen her body “hacked to pieces” and her head nearly severed, they might have been inclined to give Loveless the same treatment.

About Katherine J. Wu
Katherine J. Wu

Katherine J. Wu is a Boston-based science journalist and Story Collider senior producer. She holds a Ph.D. in Microbiology and Immunobiology from Harvard University. Previously, she served as a Digital Editor at NOVA Next and was Smithsonian magazine's 2018 AAAS Mass Media Fellow.

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