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Dead Men's Tales

  A Texan Tall Tale
Photo-Alan points at skull
  Doug Owsley shows Alan how he identified the infamous gunman.

Wild Bill Longley's first funeral took place in 1878 after he was hanged for murder at age 27. But rumors that Longley escaped the execution persisted and the legend of Wild Bill was born. Now, over one hundred years later, Longley's descendants wanted to know the truth.

In "A Texan Tall Tale," a team of scientists shows Alan how they put both Bill's body and his legend to rest. Some fifteen years ago, an alleged Longley descendant asked forensic anthropologist Douglas Owsley to help him find Wild Bill. A photograph of a head stone taken roughly fifty years after the hanging and a marker placed in 1976 in the Giddings, Texas cemetery were all the clues Owsley and his colleague, geologist and remote sensing expert Brooks Ellwood, had to go on.

Using trees and monuments, Ellwood and Owsley matched the photograph to the modern day marker. But the nearby soil showed no signs of being disturbed, and cemetery records revealed that the headstone had been moved several times. If Wild Bill's body was in the 5-acre graveyard, where was it?

photo of teeth
Years of cigar smoking left Wild Bill's teeth stained by tobacco.  

The team used magnetic measurements to detect the disturbed soil around unmarked graves. The technique turned up some 60 possible sites, of which 35 were excavated, but none contained remains matching Wild Bill's description - a tall, white male of 27. Finally, the team double-checked the area near the 1976 marker. This time they got lucky. Both the skeleton and some personal effects suggested this was indeed Wild Bill. Modern science lent a hand, too. The DNA of Wild Bill's sister's descendant, Helen Chapman, was a perfect match. Now the notorious gunman could be buried, back in the Giddings cemetery - for the second time.


For more on this topic, see the web features:
The Bone Reader

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