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

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