Caswell Cemetery "Dig-2" - July 28th, 2005   

Smithsonian Examines Caskets - August 05, 2005

Lee Raynor Managing Editor WASHINGTON, D.C

Susan Hoffman watched intently as scientists at the National Museum of Natural History removed the top of a rusted cast-iron casket recently taken from its grave in Kinston.

This would be the first step in determining whether her ancestor, Lewis Caswell, might be buried in a small family cemetery off Herritage Street.

Hoffman is a direct descendent of Lewis Caswell and his grandfather, Gov. Richard Caswell, North Carolina's first elected governor. History says Gov. Caswell's parents were buried in the cemetery. Hoffman has pieced together bits of history that say Lewis Caswell and his second wife might also be interred there.

Charles Ewen, anthropology professor at East Carolina University, and his students removed two caskets last Thursday from the Herritage Street cemetery. The caskets were taken to the Smithsonian Institute where world-renowned anthropologist Doug Owsley agreed to examine them this week. The Smithsonian is wrapping up a study of Civil War-era iron caskets. The items were rare. And expensive.

Coffins removed from the Kinston gravesites were made between 1854 and 1864 by Fisk and Crane, Cincinnati casket manufacturers. Dan Allen, staff archaeologist for Devall and Associates of Franklin, Tenn., said the coffins would have cost between $50 and $100 at a time when the average person spent $2 to $3 for a casket.


Just getting the two heavy metal caskets into the Smithsonian was tricky. The larger of the two weighed 527 pounds. The smaller weighed 341 pounds. "It took a lot of staff to get them out of the truck," Ewen said. "They should have weighed 200 to 250 pounds." The additional weight led Ewen to believe water might have leaked into the coffins. He was correct. Scientists drilled holes in the caskets to allow water to drain. Glass face plates used on the Fisk and Crane coffins often are found to have cracked. Plates on the Kinston caskets were intact, but the casket seals had failed.

Hoffman held her breath.

The top of the large coffin was off. "We saw a skeleton and hair," Ewen said. "The bones were jumbled. The bone preservation was excellent." It didn't take long for Hoffman and the scientists to realize that the skeleton belonged to a woman in her late 30s. Lewis Caswell's second wife died when she was 18. His first wife is believed to be buried in Greene County.

Following the clues "We were a little disappointed there were not mummified remains in there," Ewen said. "We found a wedding ring that might give us more clues." The thin, gold ring was marked 18k. It had no other inscription.

Smithsonian textile experts said the woman most likely was buried in a cotton nightgown. Wool or silk clothing would have survived the water. Cotton disintegrates. Two buttons were found in the casket, typical of buttons used at the neckline of nightgowns during the mid 1800s.

Scientists were startled to find gold fillings in the woman's teeth. One tooth had a porcelain cap. Such dental restoration was thought to be unknown in Kinston during that time, although Ewen said the woman could have traveled elsewhere for the work.

She had hairpins in her hair - pins similar to those available today at any drugstore. The only difference was that they were a little heavier and a little longer.

More work today The woman was well-to-do as was evident by her dental work, her casket and her ring. She would not have done manual labor. Therefore, Ewen is puzzled by the extreme strength evident in her right arm. "This is more strength than I've ever seen in a woman," he said. "She used her right hand for some type of work, but we don't know what type."

Scientists and researchers opened the second coffin and found the skeleton of another woman. They estimated her to have been in her late 30s to early 40s. She, too, was buried in a nightgown and had received excellent dental care. Further examination of the second coffin was postponed until today.

Owsley had received a third cast-iron coffin, this one excavated by workers in Washington, D.C. The remains were mummified and were deteriorating quickly. The scientific team wanted to complete that exam as swiftly as possible. Owsley said the team will take samples for autopsies of the Kinston remains. Isotopic analysis will reveal information about the women's diets, their lives and their deaths.

Mystery women "In a larger issue, these graves are helping answer bigger questions," he said. But Hoffman still has her question: Who are these women and are they her ancestors? "I was disappointed when the coffins were first opened," she said. "I would rather have seen a mummified person. But when we found the wedding ring, I found myself tingling with excitement." Hoffman returned Thursday to her Williamsburg, Va. home.

Ewen and his students, who helped with the examination, have returned to ECU. He will collect the Kinston caskets when the Smithsonian team complete their work, and return them to Kinston. They will be re-buried in about four to six weeks.

A full report on the Smithsonian's findings may not be released for several months. "This is a very fascinating experience," ECU student Tracy Gurnsey said. "It's been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see how these people work. I took two anthropology classes just to be able to go on this trip."

Kinston probably hasn't heard the last of Owsley. He is preparing to begin an exploration of colonial and pre-colonial graves. He remains intrigued by the Herritage Street cemetery, which contains graves dating to the mid 1700s. "You've been so cooperative," Owsley told the ECU group. "I'd be more than happy to work with you again."

Lee Raynor can be reached at (252) 527-3191, Ext. 236, or at toryID=29366&Section=Local

Smithsonian to examine Kinston caskets July 29, 2005

Lee 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 We await the outcome with abated breath!!

Caswell Family Pages