A corpse uprooted in an iron coffin more than two years ago finally has a name – William.
Scientists from the Smithsonian Institution determined last week that a strange body found buried in Columbia Heights was a 15-year-old student at the Columbian College Preparatory School – a former GW institution. Many graduate students helped in the arduous identification process, which shed light on a forgotten era in University history.
The boy, William Taylor White, died in 1852. He was buried in the Columbian College Cemetery, which was relocated in the 1880s to Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. One coffin – White’s – remained in Columbia Heights.
G. David Anderson, University archivist, said White’s body was the last known trace of the University’s former location in Columbia Heights. The Columbian College was later renamed and moved to Foggy Bottom.
Anderson said the cemetery likely interred individuals associated with the college and the preparatory school.
Deborah Hull-Walski, a leader of the project at the Smithsonian and a professor of collections management at GW, explained the process of identifying the body, which took more than two years. Though the body was discovered in April, the coffin was not opened until August 2005.
“A GW alumnus, who had read (an official history of the University) – which mentioned that burial ground north of Columbia Heights – gave us a starting point for the research,” Hull-Walski said.
Megan Bresnahan, a former intern at the Smithsonian and GW graduate student, assisted in assembling White’s family tree – which includes more than 850 people.
“There were three of us working on it, and we used Ancestry.com and The Library of Congress,” Beshnahan said. “It was really interesting to feel that we were doing something useful for the Smithsonian, this person and GW. It added to the satisfaction we got out of it.”
When police heard of the body, the first person they notified was Dave Hunt, a museum specialist in physical anthropology.
He said the methods used in identifying the boy in the coffin would not have been as accurate had it been discovered 10 years ago.
In addition to GW graduate students and Doug Owsley, the project manager, the team tested the boy’s DNA against possible distant female relatives discovered by the interns. After many unsuccessful attempts, a match was located at a convenience store in Pennsylvania. The woman working there was determined to be White’s great-great-great-grandniece.
Dena Adams, an intern at the Smithsonian, dealt with the historic aspects of the project.
“Delving into the papers of the Columbian College paints the picture of Washington and GWU at the time period. They barely even seem to be the same place,” Adams said. “Knowing the history and founding of the college has shifted the way I view GW. This historic value of the school is often overshadowed.”
Hull-Walski said she was happy to see GW students help bring light to the history of their school.
She said, “What was so interesting was that it came full-circle,” Hull-Walski said. “William was a student at the college prep school, and here 150 years later, interns from GW are working at the Smithsonian to find his identity. I think it’s just amazing.”