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Her Skeleton in the Closet

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  • Chelsey ZeRuth ’09 and Alison Eichelberger of the North Museum.

     

Talk about having a skeleton in the closet.

Actually, Chelsey ZeRuth ’09 keeps hers in a box at the North Museum.

Last semester, when ZeRuth was doing some research at the museum, she found a bag containing skeletal remains. The only clue to the identity of the bones was a Lancaster city police evidence tag dated Aug. 6, 1973.

The bones had been found in the 100 block of South Queen Street when demolition crews were using dynamite to clear land for the construction of the Salvation Army building, explained Alison Eichelberger, collections registrar at the North Museum.

Intrigued, ZeRuth took up the case to find out the identity of this mystery person. Under the direction of Mary Ann Levine, associate professor of Anthropology, ZeRuth spent the fall semester in independent forensic study, researching the bones to find out to whom they belonged.

“I was intrigued by the mystery behind these bones and determined to come as close as I could to solving it,” ZeRuth said.

An initial hypothesis made in 1973 by a forensic anthropologist commissioned by the police was that the bones might be those of a Native American. The Lancaster area was home to several indigenous tribes in the early 1700s.

Her first stop was the College Archives, where ZeRuth rummaged through historical records, maps and deeds. She learned that the site where the bones were unearthed had once been the location of a Quaker meetinghouse and a graveyard.

Must be a Quaker right? Not so fast, ZeRuth said. She continued her research at the Friends Historical Library at Swarthmore College, near Philadelphia. There she found burial records of the Lancaster Friends congregation.

“However, more research suggested that there possibly could have been nonmembers buried there. The Quakers buried other races and ethnicities outside their faith. The records mentioned several burials, but the data were inconclusive,” ZeRuth said.

It was time to turn to science. ZeRuth applied for and received a $1,000 Nissley Scholars Grant to perform another forensic evaluation at Mercyhurst College in Erie, Pa., and to have the bones radiocarbon dated at Beta Analytic in Miami.

At Mercyhurst, it was determined that the bones belonged to a white European male, between the ages of 35 and 40. The proof was in the density of the bones and the shape of the skull.

“The radiocarbon dating suggested that the bones were buried during the time the cemetery was in use,” ZeRuth said. The tests showed 68 percent chance of probability that he was buried between 1740 and 1800, and a 95 percent probability he was buried between 1720 to 1820. The cemetery was in use from around 1759 to 1810.

“This mystery shaped my research skills. Working independently put me out there to drive this search,” ZeRuth said. “Having that one-on-one working with the forensic experts at Mercyhurst allowed me to see how they use bones to determine age, race and ethnicity,” she said.

Back on campus, ZeRuth is in her final semester at Franklin & Marshall, but she is still thinking about those bones, now neatly catalogued and stored at the North Museum. She plans to write her honors thesis on her research.