Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Forensic science in the news: Ned Kelly's Bones

Ned Kelly the day before his execution.
Note the awesome hairdo and beard!
(Source: Wikipedia)
As promised, to celebrate the publication of my forensic science books, I'm starting a new series on this blog: "Forensic Science in the News." First out of the circle is an article that appeared in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, "A Hero's Legend and a Stolen Skull Rustle Up a DNA Drama."

Now, before reading this article my knowledge of the Australian folk hero Ned Kelly was pretty much confined to the fact that there is an Illinois chain if steakhouses named after the man--or at least there used to be, until they all went belly-up, leaving some employees unpaid. Ned Kelly would have been rolling in his grave, if not for the fact that his bones are at the Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine. Well, all but his skull. But I'm getting ahead (pardon the pun) of myself.

Ned Kelly was born in 1854, the son of an Irish convict exiled to Australia. He took up arms against the British colonial authorities, robbed banks, and stole cattle. He dictated a letter describing the mistreatment of Irish Catholics by the police and British authorities, which the historian Alex McDermott called "one of the most extraordinary documents in Australian history." He was arrested after a shoot-out, wearing homemade metal armor, and was hanged in 1880.

He was buried in a mass grave, but his skeleton was recovered in 1929 when the site was slated for development. The remains were reburied, but in the chaos that ensued, two skulls, thought to be those of Kelly and notorious serial killer Frederick Bailey Deeming were stolen. Fast-forward to 2008, when yet another excavation uncovered the remains--at least 3,000 bone fragments, which were sent to the Institute.  Some of them might belong to Kelly, but how could they tell after all this time? To make matters more complicated, a man named Tom Baxter came forward with a skull he'd had for three decades, claiming that it was Kelly's.

The forensic scientists compared the skull with historical photographs and a copy of Kelly's death mask. They sent samples of the skull and other remains to a forensic laboratory in Argentina, where scientists there were able to extract DNA from the old and degraded samples. They found one of Kelly's distant relatives, a schoolteacher who was descended from Kelly's mother, who agreed to submit a blood sample for DNA analysis. They compared the DNA samples from the teacher, the skull, and the bone fragments. The verdict? The fragments, including a palm-size piece of skull, belonged to Ned Kelly. But DNA from the stolen skull was most definitely not Kelly's. Scientists at the Institute are trying to determine whether the skull belonged to the serial killer, Frederick Deeming.

You can learn more about how forensic scientists used DNA to confirm the identify of a set of bones thought to have belonged to the notorious Angel of Death Joseph Mengle in the "Cold Cases" chapter of my book, Bones: Dead People DO Tell Tales. 

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Poisoned House: A Ghost Story

Take a plucky but downtrodden scullery maid, a tyrannical housekeeper, the Lord of the House teetering on the brink of madness, a very insistent ghost, and what do you get? “The Poisoned House: A Ghost Story” (Albert Whitman & Co., 2011), a deliciously creepy new gothic horror story by Michael Ford.

That plucky scullery maid is fifteen year-old Abigail Tamper—Abi, to her friends. As the book opens in 1850s London, Abi is attempting to escape her miserable life in Greave Hall, an elegant but increasingly troubled household. The chief architect of her misery is the tyrannical housekeeper, Mrs. Cotton, who punishes Abi for the slightest infraction. The return of Lord Greave’s son Samuel, injured in the Crimean War, seems to have only worsened his Lordship’s mental condition. And the ghost is none other than Abi’s mother, who had been Samuel’s childhood nurse before her death a year earlier.

After Abi’s foiled escape from Greave Hall, strange things start to occur. There is a mysteriously closed bolt that should be been left open. A handprint appears on both the inside and outside of the library window. Lord Greave’s drinking glass is shattered—but by whom? At first, Abi feels comforted by her mother’s ethereal presence, until she realizes that the ghost is trying to warn her of something. She is no longer safe at Greave Hall—if she ever was.

Although the plot of “The Poisoned House” is somewhat predictable (it does, after all, follow the conventions of the gothic novel), its many twists and turns provide plenty of suspense. And Ford has a real knack for creating terrific characters. Abi makes for a wonderful companion; she is resourceful and sympathetic, a young woman still trying to find her way in a world that seems not to love her. Mrs. Cotton is a villain in the finest Gothic tradition: cruel, petty, and domineering. I suspect Ford had the most fun creating her character, because aren’t villains always the most interesting?

Teens who enjoyed Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” as younger readers will like “The Poisoned House.” And if gothic novels are your cup of tea, you really must read Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre,” one of the greatest gothic novels of all time. Preferably (with apologies to Miss Brontë) when the cold autumn wind brings with it “clouds so somber, and a rain so penetrating, that further out-door exercise is now out of the question.” 

Advance review copy provided by the publisher. This review originally published in The News-Gazette, Sunday, September 18, 2011. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Look at what the FedEx man brought!

That's right...author's copies of Bones: Dead People DO Tell Tales, Cybercrime: Data Trails DO Tell Tales, and DNA & Blood: Dead People DO Tell Tales (Enslow, 2011).

I nearly threw my arms around the FedEx guy and kissed him, but fortunately for both of us I merely smiled and signed for them.

If dead bodies, bloody footprints, or zombie computers are your thing, I've got the books for you. And, I'm happy to report, they are available both in library and paperback editions. You can order them from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or your favorite independent bookstore.

To celebrate, I'm going to start a series of blog posts about the true crime stories and forensic science featured in the books. First up: The Murderous Beginnings of Forensic Anthropology.