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William R. Maples Popularized Forensic Anthropology Long Before CSI

Maples worked on a number of high-profile cases that helped to bring the field of forensic anthropology to prominence

William Maples holds a bone fragment during a presentation about the Romanov Investigations, circa 1992. (Courtesy Florida Gulf Coast University Library Archives and Special Collections)
smithsonian.com

Although forensic anthropology has been around in some form or another since the 1200s, it wasn't until the scientific developments of the nineteenth and twentieth century that it really came into its own. "Although there were famous grisly murders of the nineteenth century solved through examination of bones and body fragments, it wasn't until the 1930s that the relationship between anthropology and the police was formally acknowledged," writes PBS.  In this decade–on this day in 1937, to be exact–William Ross Maples was born. His subsequent career as a forensic anthropologist helped to bring that field to prominence by helping to bring justice and peace to families as well as clear up some high-profile historical crimes.

Maples was involved in more than 1,200 forensic anthropology cases during his career, according to the Maples Center for Forensic Medicine at the University of Florida. Because he was an expert in analyzing human skeletal material, he worked on a number of cases that had historical value: For instance, he led the team that identified the remains of the Romanov family and Czar Nicholas II. He worked on the remains of Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro. But he also worked on cases that had current import–most prominently, the cold case of the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers. Here are a few of the cases where Maples’s touch was helpful:

The Romanov Family

Maples had been interested in the fate of the Romanovs since he was a child, writes author Robert K. Massier. In 1992, he and a team of colleagues–among them Michael Baden, the forensic pathologist who would lead the Medgar Evers investigation–headed to Russia to examine some remains that had been discovered there. The team confirmed that the remains were the Romanovs–minus Romanov daughter Anastasia and heir Alexei. DNA testing later confirmed their work.   

Zachary Taylor

The former U.S. President died in July 1850. He was exhumed 140 years later in an attempt to lay to rest rumors that he was murdered because of his stance on slavery. Taylor had died suddenly, leading some–including humanities professor Clara Rising–to speculate that he had been poisoned. “Right after his death, everything he had worked against came forward and was passed by both houses of Congress,” she said when his body was exhumed, according to Michael Marriott for The New York Times. Maples worked with coroner Richard Greathouse to examine the body, concluding that Taylor was not poisoned. His cause of death was listed as gastroenteritis.

Taylor was the first president whose remains were examined, though not the first to be exhumed. JFK’s coffin was exhumed and moved from one burial site to another in the 1960s. Although there was some negative backlash to Taylor’s exhumation, Maples said it was important to conduct arsenic testing and lay the rumors to rest. “If the possibility even remotely exists that one of our presidents was murdered, it is something that would have changed history,” he said.

Medgar Evers

Maples was part of the team that examined the remains of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers, who was murdered in 1963. Forensic evidence from Evers’s body was used to help finally secure a conviction against white supremacist Byron De La Beckwith for shooting Evers in his own driveway.

“He was one of the few forensic anthropologists who could understand the needs of the justice system,” forensic dentist Lowell Levine told The New York Times for Maples’s 1997 obituary. “He could lead and conduct investigations where he would point to the crucial evidence to be shown at trial.”

Maples died of brain cancer at the age of 59. He didn’t have the opportunity to conduct his dream investigation, writes David M. Herszenhorn for the Times: examining several skeletons, held in Europe, that were possible candidates for being the remains of Christopher Columbus.

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