July 3, 2011

Mortimer, the Infamous Skeleton of Grumbles Alley

Down in Selma, Alabama, a large, robust skeleton nicknamed Mortimer sits on a barrel in Grumbles Alley restaurant.  His origin is unclear.  Local legend has it that Mortimer was dug up a century ago by a farmer, who bartered the skeleton to the town doctor for medical services.  The skeleton is notable because of his stature - Mortimer may have been a 7-foot-tall Indian, according to stories told to a former restaurant worker.  Or perhaps he was Montgomery pediatrician John Sumner's great-great-great-grandfather, John Ellis Sumner, a minister who was rumored to have stood at 6'6" and died in Selma in 1856.  Sumner was supposedly exhumed and studied because of his extraordinary height, and the family doesn't know what happened to his body.

Mortimer made news over the last couple of weeks because a nurse named JoEllen Roberson travelled to Selma from her home in Columbia, South Carolina, to study the skeleton:




Mortimer, sitting in his usual
spot at Grumbles Alley
(credit: AP photo)
From the video and a photo of the skeleton (right), the skull has all the hallmarks of a male individual: very large mastoid processes, mental eminence, heavy brows, square orbits.  There aren't very good pictures of the pelvis, unfortunately, but overall this individual is quite robust and very likely to have been male.  Based on what I can see of the nose, this person may have been Caucasian.  There's a high, straight nasal bridge and a tear-drop-shaped opening.  Still, the cheekbones give me pause, as they're quite high and flared.  From the pictures and the low-quality video, I can't rule out Native American.

There's no detail in the video or the news reports on how Roberson "analyzed" the skeleton.  It appears that she used a measuring tape and a straight edge(!) to estimate Mortimer's living height.  But she didn't use any of the formulas we osteologists use to approximate living stature.  Roberson admits that Mortimer may have been taller with flesh on him but for some reason only estimates 1/2" extra (where she got that figure, I have no idea).  She doesn't appear to have tried to figure out sex, age-at-death, or age of the skeleton.  However, she did take (break?) a toe bone in order to find someone to do a DNA analysis for her, but this hasn't yet been done.  My guess is she thought a DNA test would be inexpensive (as it is for living people), but if this bone is from someone who died over 100 years ago and was treated as a medical skeleton (the bones look shellacked or something), DNA may be quite difficult to isolate.

The weirdest part of this story to me is that Roberson sent her measurements (which are not in any way precise, since she didn't use calipers or other osteological equipment) to the Centre for Fortean Zoology, which had apparently expressed an interest in the skeleton of the "giant."  The CFZ's trade is primarily in cryptozoology - you know, chupacabras and yetis.  I can't imagine these people do actual science, although I can imagine they'd be interested in a skeleton with greater-than-average height.  I tried to find an email for Roberson, so that I could ask her for her measurements, but I could only find her business phone number.  Maybe I'll call after the holiday, since I'm curious how and what she measured.

At any rate, I'm not sure why Roberson or the owners of Grumbles Alley didn't call a local biological anthropologist - Keith Jacobi at the University of Alabama, perhaps?  I'm going to bug my colleagues who work in Alabama and see if someone is interested in checking out the skeleton.  Or maybe I'll take a nice little road-trip when I move to Nashville, since Selma is only about 5 hours away.  If this skeleton is of a Native American, there are several provisions of NAGPRA that will need to be legally met.  If this is a medical (study) skeleton, it's probably legal for Grumbles Alley to own, but it's rather in poor taste to display it and dress it up for holidays and other events.

Mortimer is not the first skeleton to be handed down over the decades, but he would provide some enterprising graduate student or professor with an opportunity to do a case-study to discriminate among forensic, historic, and ancient contexts.  A great place to start is Dawnie Steadman's article "The Pawn Shop Mummified Head" in her edited volume Hard Evidence: Case Studies in Forensic Anthropology.  It's a great read - students in my forensic anthropology course liked it - and useful for those of us who normally work in one context (I work in "ancient," for example) but are called upon to look at skeletons from the other two contexts.

Finding old skeletons with unknown or unclear provenance is not unusual, particularly as doctors trained in a bygone era pass along the skulls they were required to purchase in med school to their children and grandchildren along with the rest of their estate.  It would be great if there were a way the public could alert a local biological anthropologist of the human remains in their possession.  Perhaps an enterprising graduate student could set up some kind of clearinghouse of information (particularly on the legality of owning human skeletal remains) and/or a list of biological anthropologists interested in these isolated cases.  A website to this effect would be quite useful for people who are unsure what to do with human bones.  Or perhaps people should just contact the police, no matter the seeming antiquity of the bones?  I'd be interested to hear what my readers think the best course of action is.


Reference:

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org
ResearchBlogging.org

D.W. Steadman (2003). The pawn shop mummified head: discriminating among forensic, historic, and ancient contexts. In: Hard Evidence: Case Studies in Forensic Anthropology, pp. 212-226. Prentice Hall.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Am I being really stupid (I'm not an anthropologist) or is his ribcage a strange shape? It looks conical...ridiculously so...

It also really irritates me how this woman's lack of knowledge is now going to lead to a whole load of misinformation to everyone that will be treated as fact by people who don't know better because she is a nurse. Don't get me wrong I admire nurses, but this isn't their area. I'm sure they would be irritated if experts in anthropology decided to hover around the xray department sticking their noses in every day!

Kristina Killgrove said...

The rib cage looks a little wonky, but someone's put plastic or resin or something to approximate the cartilage that attaches the ribs to the sternum. That is, the bones look fine, but the adhesive stuff may have warped over the years.

Nurses are awesome (my mother and brother-in-law are both nurses), but figuring out height, weight, age, sex, etc. from bones is not something taught in nursing or med school (as far as I know). I helped work a couple forensic cases a few years back, in the pathologist's lab in a hospital. The med students rotating in and out had no idea how we were estimating sex and age from the skeleton. I mean, they're working with living people who have fleshy bits, so it's not really germane to their studies. But it still surprised me.

My point is that Roberson is clearly interested in the skeleton but should have contacted someone whose specialty is bones rather than attempting to do it herself. The reporters who covered this story clearly assumed she knew what she was doing, but the video (and the strange mention of the cryptozoology group) made me yell at my computer.

Michelle Ziegler said...

If a clear chain of ownership can be established from say an old doctor's collection, then it could be turned over to a local school for the anatomy lab. It is getting extremely difficult and far too expensive to get real human bones for undergraduate anatomy courses. They would continue in their original function for medical study by training future nurses and medical students.

Kristina Killgrove said...

Michelle - Yeah, I should have said that in my post. (I meant to and forgot!) Rather than creeping out customers, Mortimer could be donated as a study skeleton. Medical-grade study skeletons are quite expensive (upwards of $3k, last I checked), and there are plenty of anthropology departments in which students don't have access to this kind of resource.

David Connolly said...

In Scotland there can be no ownership of human remains, they are, by definition a legal nightmare.

I like the idea of the human remains reclamation and information website. What can you do, who do you contact. however regional differences and cultural/social sensibilities would have to be taken into consideration.

like the idea - for me, the best idea is the police route, then on confirmation of no foul play, then it can move into the next step of a process.

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