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Deadwood digs for answers in 19th Century death

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Deadwood digs for answers in 19th Century death
Mitchell South Dakota 120 South Lawler 57301

By Tom Griffith

Rapid City Journal

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DEADWOOD (AP) — Modern-day investigators continue to unravel the 130-year-old mystery of a young man buried on a hillside during this gold camp's earliest days by using forensic dentistry and spectrum analysis in an attempt to identify the miner.

The Deadwood City Commission recently gave permission for Mayor Chuck Turbiville to sign a $2,500 agreement with forensic dentist Thomas David of Atlanta to conduct an analysis on the remains discovered in March 2012 in the town's Presidential District.

The man was buried in Ingleside Cemetery sometime between Deadwood's earliest origins in 1876 and the latter part of 1878, according to city historic preservation officials. He was discovered in 2012 by construction crews working on a retaining wall.

State archaeologists and city personnel, assisted by a local archaeologist, sifted through the site, collecting bone fragments and the remnants of a cranium. They found 99 percent of his skeleton, save for one tooth and a few small finger and toe bones.

Late last year, Diane France, a forensic anthropologist affiliated with the Human Identification Laboratory of Colorado in Fort Collins, began her study of the remains. She recently concluded the man was 5-foot-4 to 5-foot-8, white and 18 to 24 years of age at the time of his death, Deadwood Archivist Michael Runge recently said.

"There were no real surprises," Runge said. "One of the things we were unable to determine was cause of death. There was no physical evidence of any type of trauma that would have caused his death."

Now, investigators have turned their attention to his teeth.

"This is just one of several different tests that we're running to learn more about the individual," Runge said. "He had nine fillings. Six were silver amalgam fillings while three were gold fillings. He had money or means to have this type of dental work done. Most people at this point in time would have had the tooth extracted. To have this type of dental work done in the 1860s was rare."

Deadwood Dental's Lennard Hopper recently took digital X-rays of the teeth and jawbone of the remains he has labeled "Jackson" in his files. Those X-rays have been sent to David, past president of the American Society of Forensic Odontology, for examination, Hopper said.

"We did a full mouth series of X-rays on the jaw segments, which were surprisingly intact," Hopper said. "The biggest challenge was positioning the sensors. A live patient can hold the X-ray sensor in position. Of course that's not the case with skeletal remains."

Hopper said he spent a couple hours taking individual X-rays of each tooth, as well as panoramic images showing the mandible.

"I never have done this before and it's another piece of Deadwood history," the dentist said. "The most fascinating thing I saw was some of the same dental materials and techniques that we use today."

A planned isotopic analysis could determine on a molecular level where the individual was born and raised, according to Runge.

"When you're born, the drinking water you consume from birth until you get your adult teeth has oxygen isotopes in it that bond to the adult teeth," he said. "Those tests will provide data as to where the individual may have been born and was raised."

In the next two weeks, Runge said he expects the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology to receive the remains so its scientists can conduct a molecular analysis of the gold found in the deceased's teeth.

"It's extremely exciting and amazing on so many levels," Runge said. "Through this spectrum analysis, we may find that the gold in these fillings came from the Black Hills.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and it's been fun to conduct this type of research on an individual who was in the mining district of the Black Hills," the historian added. "It's kind of like CSI work, but on an individual who lived in the mining camps 140 years ago."

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