If bones could talk
October 23, 2012
By Finn J.D. John
In a few weeks, the streets of Oregon will be thick with trick-or-treaters again. And although the hot costumes this year include zombies, pirates and Batman, there will probably be one or two kids out there dressed as skeletons.
Skeletons may be out of fashion this year, but they’re arguably the most interesting Halloween artifact you could name. Skeletons are real; they’re dead, but were once alive; they can’t talk, but once could; and their cold and lifeless condition suggests that something dramatic, perhaps tragic, happened to them. If only they could talk ….
Oregon has a few skeleton-related mysteries — mysteries that we could clear right up if only those bones could tell us their story.
One of them dates back to 1911, and it involves the skeletons of horses, not humans; the skeletons of the humans, in this case, were never found.
Six white horses
It seems one sunny day, 101 years ago, a prospector was looking down into a valley in the Ochoco Forest and saw a log with a very strange profile — six identical notches in it, looking like they were cut that way on purpose.
The prospector hiked down into the forest to investigate — perhaps thinking he’d stumbled across an old homestead or mining claim.
When he got there, he found the skeletons of six horses, complete with the metal parts of long-rotted-away bridles and saddles. Clearly they had been tied to a log and left there to die of thirst. The desperate animals’ attempts to gnaw through the log had cut the notches that the prospector had seen from above.
Well, six saddle horses would have meant six riders. Six riders who clearly tied their horses here in the middle of nowhere, meaning to come back for them in a matter of hours or maybe minutes. Six men who’d gone somewhere on foot, and not a single one of them had made it back. Six men whose presumed disappearance hadn’t made a big enough impression for anyone in the area to remember who they might be. What on Earth could have happened?
To this day, no one has figured that out.
Legendary Central Oregon raconteur Reub Long tells a story of another mysterious skeleton.
Sometime in the early 1920s, when he was a young man, Reub was hauling freight with his hired hand, a six-foot-four Silver Lake lad named Shorty Hawkins. The two of them stopped at an abandoned cabin by Peters Creek Sink, in one of the most remote parts of the high desert of southeast Oregon.
Near the cabin, the two of them found a human skeleton, mostly buried in a sand bank and blasted by the cold and relentless high-desert wind.
Was this the original builder of the cabin, a dry-land homesteader trying to eke out a living on 320 acres of windswept desert? Had he perhaps broken an ankle stepping in a hole and died out here, hundreds of miles from the nearest settlement? What had happened to this stranger?
Reub and Shorty gathered up his bones and took them inside the cabin, out of the wind. There, they assembled them on the floor as best they could. There were quite a few bones missing, but the important ones — skull, pelvis, most of the ribs — were all there.
The skeleton, of course, had a name, but Reub and Shorty didn’t know what it was, so they dubbed him Sandy.
That done, the two went outside to take care of their team of horses. They were doing that when a cowboy rode up.
“We forgot all about the skeleton and told him to go in, get warm, and get himself something to eat,” Reub wrote years later in his book. “When we came back in, no one was there. Shorty said, ‘That’s funny. Sandy likes most people.’”
The Odd Fellows’ medical specimen
It was a small black casket full of human bones.
The bones turned out to be part of the ceremonial accoutrements of the Scio Odd Fellows. This particular chapter was chartered in 1856, and the induction rituals for the Odd Fellows include a memento mori — usually in the form of a skeleton.
Today, active Odd Fellows chapters don’t typically use real skeletons for this, but at one time they did. This particular skeleton was bought out of a catalog — an Odd Fellows “regalia and paraphernalia” catalog — sometime in the late 1800s, according to the recollections of Scio Odd Fellows and Rebekahs members. The cranium had been neatly sawn in half, suggesting that the skeleton was a “retired” medical-school subject.
This raises a number of fascinating questions. In the late 1800s, most people weren’t open to the idea of donating their bodies to science, and it was quite difficult for medical schools to slake their thirst for fresh cadavers to dissect.
So an entire underground industry developed on the East Coast — an industry devoted to stealing corpses and selling them to medical schools.
Body snatchers, or “resurrectionists” as they called themselves, would prowl graveyards looking for fresh diggings, and bribe undertakers to slip them corpses. They’d even go into poorhouses and impersonate relatives so they could claim bodies. (In Britain, some body snatchers actually started murdering people so their bodies could be sold. In the U.S., so far as is known, nobody ever went quite that far.)
All of which is to say that it is somewhat unlikely the man whose bones the Odd Fellows bought had any idea that this would be his fate.
The bones were donated to the Oregon State University anthropology department, where they were cleaned and analyzed and served as the subject of OSU student Dawn Marie Alapisco’s Honors College thesis. Alapisco reports the bones belonged to a powerful, strong man, nearly six feet tall and ripped; the skeleton had developed in a way that telegraphed “muscular hypertrophy.” His neck, back and knees were worn and bent in ways that suggested he’d carried many heavy loads. And he’d died of tuberculosis, which had eaten into his bones; by the time he died, his right arm would have been useless. He was 45 to 55 years old. He died sometime between 1860 and 1890, but probably closer to 1890, since that’s when his bones were sold.
That means he would have been at or near fighting age during the American Civil War. Did he fight in it? What did he do for a living, this job that made his muscles so big and wore him out so soon? Could he have been a deepwater sailor? His skull bears an odd resemblance to Popeye the Sailor Man. Or was he perhaps a “misery whip”-era logger, or longshoreman, or something else? Did he have a family, maybe a son or daughter to bury him and cry and put flowers by his tombstone, never dreaming that someone had slipped by one night and stolen his corpse out of the ground? Or was he one of those unclaimed dead in the poorhouse, left destitute after a life of working too hard for not enough, with no family, dying painfully of consumption, alone?
Just one thing is sure: We’ll never know.
(Sources: Braly, David. Tales from the Oregon Outback. Prineville: Kilmarnock, 1978; Long, R.A., and Jackman, E.R. The Oregon Desert. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton, 1977; Smith, McKinley. “Skeleton in the Closet,” OSU Daily Barometer, June 7, 2012; Alapisco, Dawn Marie. “The Skeleton in the Closet,” OSU Honors College thesis, 2012)
Finn J.D. John is an instructor at Oregon State University and the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected], @OffbeatOregon (on Twitter), or 541-357-2222.
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