DNA to the Genealogical Rescue, Again

In today’s Washington Post there’s a story about The Boy in the Iron Coffin. This coffin was accidentally discovered by a construction crew in Washington, D.C. in 2003. Research conducted by the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History discovered that the body inside, still wearing a white burial suit, was that of William T. White, about age 15. William, who appears to have had a heart defect that would have made him sickly, died on January 23, 1852:

“The boy was extremely well preserved and clad in white cotton clothing that included a pleated shirt and vest with cloth-covered buttons, flared trousers, darned socks and ankle-length underdrawers.”

According to the article, the body “had been buried in a cemetery that probably belonged to Columbian College, the precursor to George Washington University, in what is now Columbia Heights, and had been a student at the college preparatory school when he died.”

The museum researchers, led by Deborah Hull-Walski and Randal Scott, found evidence that the body might belong to William and built a 788-person family tree to track down relatives for DNA comparison. They were able to find a relative (the article said ‘descendant’, but I doubt a sickly 15-year-old had much luck in the 1850’s – and, of course, they used mtDNA which he wouldn’t have passed along anyway) in Pennsylvania. 64-year-old Linda Dwyer agreed to compare her mtDNA to mtDNA that was gathered from William’s shinbone. It was a match.

“I think it’s awesome,” Dwyer said yesterday, adding that she believes she is White’s great-great-great-grandniece. “The whole technology of finding me and putting it all together. . . . It’s so cool.”

Interestingly, this was not the researcher’s first attempt to find an mtDNA match. They had originally believed that the boy was Lemuel P. Bacon, the son of Columbia’s president Joel Bacon, who died at age 12 on May 27, 1852. Using traditional genealogical methods, they were able to identify a relative of Lemuel who agreed to provide mtDNA. The comparison, however, revealed that they were not a match. This happened again when they thought the boy might be a William Henry White.

At one point, it was thought that the boy in the coffin might be a William T. White who was mentioned in the will of a Levin White. Unfortunately, the boy’s DNA did not match that of a descendant of Levin White. After further research, it was discovered that the Levin White that they had traced was from a different family. As it turns out, the boy in the iron coffin, William T. White, was an orphan, son of a William A. White. Using this new information, the researchers were able to track down Dwyer and find the match. The comparison was performed for free by Mitotyping Technologies of State College, Pennsylvania.

A caveat: this is HIGHLY suggestive that the boy in the iron coffin is William T. White. DNA tests are never evidence by themselves – they are just a piece of the puzzle. However, with the traditional genealogical/historical evidence AND the DNA evidence, this is practically an open-and-shut case. I think it’s great that the Smithsonian devoted so much effort into identifying this lonely body.

HT: The Genealogue

Blaine Bettinger

Intellectual property attorney, genealogist, and author of The Genetic Genealogist since 2007