Dr. Beth Murray: Seton Grad Giving Voice to the Dead

It would be too easy to say “growing up Delhi” was the petri dish that spawned a career – a lot of people after and beyond Delhi contributed – but as with so much else, it played a part.

The third child of a six-sibling family (“I have all the middle-child syndromecharacteristics,”  says Dr. Beth Murray with a laugh)  was shaped by it all, really.  Engineer father with the famed Irish wit, strong mother who kept it all together (and with whom Beth credits for the “tough skin” so important for a future forensic anthropologist), four brothers and soulmate-older sister, Kathy plus the wide-open environment of a brand-new subdivision that was more construction site than it was neighborhood, and the lake at the bottom of a hill that could sledded to and skated upon in the winter, and fished in the spring and summer,  was all a part of it. (And it might say more about the future biology professor than anything that while the other kids may have caught the more fish, she was more likely to be the one removing the fish from the hook.)

At Seton, she gravitated to the nun-the biology teacher (Sister Bernadette Schmidt) who encouraged and yet drove her; at the College of Mount Joe she was taught by the professor (Dr. Gene Kritsky,  now the dean of the behavioral sciences department) who inspired and opened the door that led to the University of Cincinnati and the amazing Dr. Anthony Perzigian (now retired) who shaped her master’s and doctoral work, and where she met the graduate-student classmate Kevin Pape who became her friend and now owns the acclaimed “Gray and Pape” archaeological firm with whom she consults.

By John Erardi, Contributing Writer
Photos by Madison Schmidt

It is a concept that at first sounds strange coming from a “forensic anthropologist.” What part of that phrase doesn't say, "everything I work with is dead?” But Dr. Beth Murray really wants to hear from the living.

As somebody who basically is giving voice to the dead, Murray's forensic work is often only as good as a friend, family member or passerby can make it.

“These (cold cases involving unidentified remains) are not generally solved by law enforcement,” she said. “These cases are generally solved when somebody in the public comes forward and says, ‘We haven’t seen this person in 20 years. I wonder what happened to him or her?’”

In one such case -- in Darke County, in western-border Ohio at the mid-line of the state -- 38 years had passed.

“It was a young woman who’d traveled there from Green Bay, Wisconsin,” Dr. Murray said. “It came about because of a couple of dedicated (public servants) who decided to exhume the remains and bring them to me for a second analysis. I connected them with a forensic artist in Tennessee, who did a facial reconstruction on the skull, and showed that in Darke County. A woman in her 80s came forward and said, ‘l think that’s my niece.’ ” 

And it was. 

The killer has not been apprehended, but at least the person is known, and the detective work can continue.

Another case – a nearly 30-year-old case – involves a young man, who had been in otherwise good health, well-nourished, found dead at the base of a stairwell on Broadway downtown in 1988.

“See that poster right behind me?” asked Dr. Murray. “He had a face. That is not an artist’s reconstruction. He was found (probably) the morning after he died. Who is he? How’d he die? Why doesn’t anybody know who this guy is?”

Her students made these posters.

“He has fingerprints; we have DNA for him,” Dr. Murray said. “We have just about everything we want except somebody saying, ‘I know who this is.’ Anybody who knows somebody who’s missing needs to get their profile in this national data basis. The reason we don’t have identification is because -- from the best we can tell -- nobody ever reported them missing … (In this instance), I am not talking about…. homeless, transients, runaways. In this instance, I am talking about well-nourished well-groomed, healthy young people. Why isn’t anybody looking for them? ”

Dr. Murray is one of approximately 80 certified forensic anthropologists in the country. On the local, national, and international level, she has been involved in hundreds of forensic investigations.

The Seton graduate will be speaking from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. March 5 as part of the Women Helping Women “Sunday Salon Series” with a presentation entitled: Cold Case ID: Missing and Unidentified Persons. Registration is limited to 35 and the cost is $65 per person. Tickets are available now.

“I’ll be talking about cold-case identification,” she said. ‘”Right now, the main focus of my research in addition to individual forensic cases are long-term cases in which we don’t know who individuals are. I have about 35 cases in Ohio (like that)…. unidentified remains… We (need) to get people involved in missing and unidentified persons.”    

If the hour I spent with Dr. Murray at her Mount St. Joseph University office is any indication (Dr. Murray is a full professor of biology there, teaching classes in gross anatomy, anatomy and physiology, and a forensic course) – she’s going to hold the audience spellbound.

Her approach is straightforward, and that automatically makes her refreshing. She asked me what I used do for a living before I began freelancing. I told her I was a sportswriter for 30 years, with probably 60 percent of my focus on the Reds. She asked me what it was like to interview Pete Rose about his playing days.

 “Great,” I said. “He talks in paragraphs.”

She laughed.

“Typical West Sider – so do I,” said Dr. Murray.

That made me laugh. And it turned out to be true.

If it sounds like communication is important to her, that’s because it is.

“For me, being able to take this high-tech information and bring it to the common good is the most important thing I do,” she said.

She does it in the classroom, in the courtroom and in books.

It is her work for the coroner’s office that she finds the most compelling. “Oftentimes, I’m seeing evidence of a how a person died,” she said. “I’m speaking for somebody who can’t speak for themselves. Maybe something I see can give the evidence they can’t. How did they die? 

Who did this to them?”

She recalled a case from years ago when a serial killer had gotten out of jail and soon began killing again. All were burn victims. Murray saw a pattern. One of the victims was a young lady he had abducted. Murray noticed a mark on a bone that indicated a possible stabbing, and it proved to be the case. The conviction was won. Dr. Murray did her part.

She has appeared on America’s Most WantedNew DetectivesThe Decrypters, and Forensic Files, and served as a regular cast member of Discovery Health Channel’s Skeleton Stories television series. She consulted on the National Geographic miniseries Skeleton Crew, and has written and filmed a 36-lecture DVD series for The Great Courses. She has also written three award-winning books for young readers. 

One phrase I promised myself not to work into this story is “make no bones about it.” I didn’t realize until writing this story that “no bones about it” is a good thing. It stems back to 15th century England when finding bones in one’s soup was not terribly unusual, but still, it was something that cooks wanted to try to avoid happening. 

Back then, when somebody “made no bones about it,” they were saying they had no complaints.

But, quite literally, Dr. Murray wants there to be bones about it, because without bones, well… think about it, without bones, she would not have the job she is doing.

Bones are literally how she got into this line of work. 

She was doing work at the coroner’s office in the late 1980s and wondering what to make the subject of her doctoral dissertation. Lo and behold, what came along but the excavation of Music Hall for the building of a new elevator in the basement. All of a sudden, old bones started appearing. There’d been a cemetery underneath Music Hall, dating to the early 1800s.

The subject of Murray’s dissertation? “An Osteo Biography of Cincinnati.”

She also did work analyzing the skeletons excavated in the revitalization of Washington Park.

She said the most interesting situation she analyzed from the remains found in the Washington Park excavation was a mother buried with her child who was presumably her baby – aged anywhere from seven months in utero to full term.

“The woman, from her skeleton – looked to easily be in her 30s if not 40s – and the fact that she was buried with the child says they died at the same time, maybe in childbirth,” Dr. Murray said. “The (baby) was buried right next to her head, like a pillow. The woman’s skeleton suggested a hard life. (Bad) arthritis (in her feet), as though she might have (lived a life of) scrubbing floors.”

Be it examining bones from 150 years ago, 30 years ago, or a criminal case from last night, the work is very similar, Dr. Murray said.

“It’s the study of the skeleton,” she said, “done in order to answer questions about who the individual was – whether that means trying to determine the average stature for the (people buried) at Washington Park or a person who was alive the night before.”

She said she does about 10 criminal cases a year.

What is it about bones and us, anyway?

Why are we so fascinated by them?  And I don’t just mean kind of fascinated by them, but really fascinated by them.

“For me, I think it’s that bones don’t hold the same grisly element as, say a dead body,” Dr. Murray said. “People who can’t look at a dead body can look at bones. There’s a mystique. (To many people), ‘bones’ are in a way a person, but in a way they’re not. But (to everybody) they hold an enduring history.”

I’ve never read any of the “Bones” series of novels by that name, never watched a single episode of the TV show now in its 12th season that is loosely based on the novels. But I know of them.

It turns out that Dr. Murray is friends with the novelist, Kathy Reichs, herself a forensic anthropologist, and a former professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. They have dinner together at least once a year.

Ms. Reichs received a hefty advance for her first book. When Dr. Murray told me just how much, it was in whispered tones, as though to say, “Don’t you dare repeat this.” And so, I won’t. But it drew a “Wow!” from me, and I’m accustomed to some crazy numbers, being around major league athletes for three decades in Cincinnati.

Said Dr. Murray: “We (forensic anthropologists) have all told her, ‘You know, we could have written this.’”

The author’s response?

“Yeah, but you didn’t.”

Dr. Murray isn’t a “didn’t” or “doesn’t”-type person, but she has to admit her friend, the forensic anthropologist, has one-upped her on that.