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Smithsonian to examine Kinston caskets July 29,2005Lee Raynor Managing Editor
An occasional breeze tickled stalks of green bamboo and crickets chirped at the night sky while Susan Burgess Hoffman sat quietly at the foot of the cemetery. "I wanted to tell them why we were going to do what we did," she said. "I wanted them to understand."
Hoffman is the five-times great-granddaughter of Gov. Richard Caswell. Historians believe Caswell family members are buried on the hill behind the parking lot between Kinston Clinic South and the Bentley. Two graves in the old cemetery were to be excavated the following day. Hoffman wanted her long-dead relatives to know why.
"I don't think these people planned on coming back up again," she said. "I told them it would be all right. I promised last night that they would never be forgotten again and my children have agreed to keep that promise."
East Carolina University anthropology professor Charles Ewen and his students removed two caskets from their brick vaults Thursday and sent them to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington for examination. Smithsonian expert: Renowned anthropologist Doug Owsley will examine the cast-iron caskets and the bodies inside. Owsley, chief anthropologist for the Smithsonian, is credited with identifying the crew of the H.L. Hunley, the first submarine to engage and sink a warship during the Civil War. The Hunley sank and her entire crew died. The boat was resurrected off the South Carolina coast in August 2000. Owsley also identified victims from the Branch Davidian disaster in Texas and works with the crew excavating the Jamestown, Va., settlement.
Former Kinston resident Martha Mewborn Marble, now living in New Bern, contacted Owsley after another group led by Ewen and Kinston businessman Ted Sampley investigated the grave site in 2000. They wanted to determine if it might be Gov. Caswell's final resting place. The iron caskets were too recent to hold the governor's remains, Ewen said. Owsley was enthusiastic about the find, but the Smithsonian had no time and no money to explore the caskets. Historic link : Marble and Hoffman, both of whom are genealogy enthusiasts, met through their work. Marble told Hoffman about the cemetery. Hoffman immediately became interested because of her family connection to Caswell. Hoffman, Ewen and Marble pressured the Smithsonian for four years to investigate the grave sites in Kinston. The project finally got underway Thursday.
The graves were opened five years ago when Sampley offered a $1,000 reward to anyone who could find Gov. Caswell's grave. The caskets were not removed after the first grave opening but Ewen instantly recognized the importance of the site and contacted the Smithsonian. The museum gave instructions for refilling the graves. Sampley, Ewen and ECU anthropology students backfilled the graves with sand, as the Smithsonian had directed, to preserve the caskets.
Sweat equity: Students Thursday cut enough bamboo to provide space to work on the grave sites. Sweat rolled down their faces as they removed shovel after shovel of sand, uncovering the first casket about 11 a.m. The second casket was removed a couple of hours later. The caskets were loaded on a wheelbarrow, cautiously moved to a waiting truck and loaded in the back, ready for the trip to Washington. "I'm very pleased," said Sampley, who aided in the coffin removals. "There's a good possibility we're go ing to come out with some identification to these very historic graves. The people in there probably were prominent Kinstonians in their day." Viewing windowd: Owsley has set aside Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday to examine the artifacts. Marble said his excitement about the find comes from the state of the coffins. Iron caskets of this ilk were manufactured between 1848 and 1863. They were designed with a glass plate covering the area of the deceased's face. This allowed people to view the body. The glass was covered with an iron plate when the casket was buried. Most caskets of that era don't have intact glass plates, Marble said.
A similar casket recently discovered in Kentucky was taken to the Smithsonian. When the examination began, scientists discovered that the glass had cracked and water seeped in. Little useful information could be extracted. The glass plates on the Kinston caskets are believed to be in place. ! Scientists from the Smithsonian will be joined by others from California, Minnesota and Oklahoma. They will examine the air trapped in the caskets and do a full autopsy of the bodies. The results are expected to tell the causes of death, any illnesses the two people may have had, their ages and the type of food they ate. DNA samples will be taken and matched with samples submitted by Hoffman and her father. Clothing worn by the deceased will be examined and a CT scan of the bodies will be made. Caswell link?
Hoffman believes one of the graves might be that of Lewis Caswell, a soldier in the Confederate Army who died in Virginia in 1862. She has a receipt dated Dec. 1, 1862 that shows a coffin and hearse were hired for Lewis Caswell. It also shows that $8 was paid to "prepare the body." "He's the only person who died on that day in the military records at the National Archives," Hoffman said. ! The grave next to his, Hoffman believes, is that of Lewis Caswell's first wife, Nancy. "Lewis owned a mercantile business," Hoffman said. "He had money, his wife's family had money. He's not listed as buried with any other family members." No more secrets: The secrets of the two graves will begin to be uncovered and preserved next week.
The History Channel is expected to film the tests. Hoffman, Marble, Ewen and the ECU students will be there. "I hope to find enough evidence to one day put names to these people," Hoffman said. "I'm sure that when they were buried and their families said goodbye, they didn't think that one or two hundred years later, they'd be missing."
Lee Raynor can be reached at (252) 527-3191, Ext. 236, or at email@example.com. We await the outcome with abated breath!!