The Stories Behind 5 Famous Exhumations

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Not all final resting places are peaceful. Here are the stories of some famous corpses, and why they were exhumed.

1. The Jesse James Body Count

As the story goes, on April 3, 1882, young recruit Bob Ford shot Jesse James in the back of the head while James was straightening a picture hanging on the wall of his Missouri home. But rumors spread for decades that the man shot by Bob Ford was not the real outlaw, rather the victim of an elaborate plot to allow Jesse James to escape into hiding. Though none of the credible Jesse James biographers believed the rumors, his body was nonetheless exhumed in 1995 for DNA testing. The report confirmed that the body's DNA was indeed consistent with that of James' known descendants, proving false the rumors of his survival.

But the tenacious true believers stubbornly continued to insist that the famous outlaw's true remains lay elsewhere. After the findings from the 1995 exhumation, two other bodies were dug up for DNA testing. One was the body of a Kansas farmer who'd died in 1935; the other was that of Frank Dalton of Granbury, Texas, who claimed to be the true Jesse James until his death in 1951—which would have made him 103.

But a poorly placed headstone and the shifting, drought-ridden Texas soil had caused the team exhuming Dalton's body to accidentally dig up the wrong body. Another court order was issued, and the team returned to exhume the real Dalton.

For those keeping score, that makes three bodies needlessly exhumed, since DNA testing had proven years earlier that James was never able to escape his Missouri home.

2. Knowing the Unknown

tomb-unknown.jpgThe "Tomb of the Unknowns," as it's unofficially known, is one of the most noticeable monuments in Arlington National Cemetery. Lying beneath it are the remains of an unidentified serviceman from each of the major wars since the turn of the 20th century: WWI, WWII, Korea, and—until recently—Vietnam.

In 1984, the remains of an unidentified Vietnam War soldier were placed in the tomb. Soon afterward, CBS reporter Vince Gonzalez led a seven-month investigation into the possible identity of the unnamed casualty and concluded the remains were likely those of USAF Lieutenant Michael Joseph Blassie, a missing pilot shot down over Au Loc in 1972. The family of Lt. Blassie pleaded for a DNA test, so in the mid-nineties, the unknown soldier was exhumed for DNA analysis. In 1998, after the remains had been positively identified as Lt. Blassie's, they were re-interred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery outside of Saint Louis. The Vietnam War is currently not represented in the Tomb of the Unknowns.

3. America's First Assassinated President?

To this day, the cause of death of our twelfth president is cloaked in mystery. Some pathologists believe it was cholera. Others think that an overindulgence of iced cherries and milk gave him a fatal case of gastroenteritis. A few scientists have long kicked around the idea that he died of organ failure caused by heat stroke. But at least one historian, Clara Rising, believed that Old Rough & Ready's death was the result of foul play.

Rising was writing a book about President Taylor that speculated he had, in fact, died of arsenic poisoning—which would make him the United States' first assassinated president. In 1991, after securing an exhumation order from the county coroner, she paid $1,200 to have the president's tomb opened and his remains removed for chemical analysis.

The result: negative. President Zachary Taylor was not poisoned, leaving Lincoln as our first assassinated president. (But it's hard to imagine a more interesting way to spend $1,200.)

4. The Long-Awaited Funeral of Emperor Haile Selassie I

Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, who is worshiped as god incarnate by Rastafarians, died of ambiguous causes in 1975 after being deposed by his own army. Whether he was murdered is still debated today. What is known is that The Derg—the Soviet-backed committee within the Ethiopian army responsible for the coup—had the fallen emperor's remains buried beneath a latrine on the palace grounds. It wasn't until 1992 that his body was removed, and another eight before his official funeral was held on November 5, 2000.

Many die-hard Rastafarians refuse to believe the remains found under that bathroom were those of Selassie, believing instead that he ascended into heaven on a fiery whirlwind.

5. The Posthumous Adventures of Eva Perón

eva.jpgAfter dying of cancer at age 33, the wife of Argentine President Juan Perón posthumously made an Odyssean journey. In 1954, Juan Perón was overthrown in a military coup, and his wife's body -- which had been waiting for construction to be completed on a grandiose glass mausoleum -- was hidden for sixteen years.

The exact story of what happened during those sixteen years is unknown. The 1995 book Santa Evita by Thomás Eloy Martínez details some of the more bizarre happenings involving Evita's remains, like when the new government had twenty-five wax copies of her corpse made, placed them in identical coffins and put each one in the care of high-ranking civil leaders for burial, each one believing he had the real body. Martínez also claims that an examination years later showed that someone had hit Evita's corpse with a hammer, and that one of the wax copies had been sexually abused.

It wasn't until 1971 that an official in the Argentinian government disclosed the true whereabouts of her body. In the years following the military coup, Evita's remains were smuggled out of the country disguised as those of a Catholic nun, and buried in Milan, Italy, under the name "Maria Maggi." The body was exhumed and returned to an elderly Juan Perón, who was living in exile outside of Madrid, Spain. For two years, he kept the coffin in his home, where he was living with his third wife, until 1973, when he came out of exile and returned to Argentina to bury Evita's in the country she had loved so much. She was at last placed in the tomb of her father's family in La Recoleta Cemetery, Buenos Aires. As for Juan Perón, after 18 years of exile, he was elected president of Argentina for the third time—a fitting end for the husband of South America's most beloved first lady.

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August 16, 2008 - 7:08am
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