For most people, zombies excluded, being laid to rest brings with it the guarantee of eternal slumber. But for some of history’s major players, being buried was more like a nap. That’s because they weren’t laid to rest for eternity. They were dug up after being buried, and sometimes more than once.
A lot of times it was due to DNA. With the advent of DNA testing, first used in forensics in the early 1990s, more historical and criminal mysteries are now ripe for solving. Exhuming a corpse can help provide answers to those mysteries, from murders to issues of paternity.
“By 1995, DNA testing alone had scientific acceptance in court as having the ability to identify a single person,” explains Dr. Monte Miller, director of Forensic DNA Experts, who has more than 20 years of specialized DNA laboratory experiences and has been involved in thousands of criminal and civil court cases. DNA testing can determine “everything about you,” he says. And when it comes to digging up bodies, DNA offers plenty of information, as long as there is still viable material.
“DNA degrades over time if subjected to heat, moisture, chemicals, outdoor environment and sunlight,” Miller says. But without these elements, (as in when someone is buried) DNA can be stable for years — even centuries. Take these five famous people who were buried, then exhumed, and then buried again, and then exhumed again, in some cases to test their DNA.
1. Christopher Columbus
After four transatlantic journeys, the explorer who gets credited with first connecting the two hemispheres died in Spain in 1506 and was buried in Valladolid, Spain. Three years later, Columbus was dug up and moved about 375 miles (600 kilometers) to his family’s mausoleum in Seville. However, he had apparently wanted to be buried in the “New World,” which at the time of his death did not have a church worthy of his status. Finally, in 1542, his daughter-in-law Maria de Rojas y Toledo had him exhumed once again and moved to the island of Hispaniola — where the Dominican Republic and Haiti are today. When France took control of Hispaniola in 1795, Columbus’ remains were moved again to the Santa Maria de la Sede Cathedral in Seville where his tomb can be visited today.
But in 1877, a box of remains marked “Cristobal Colon” were found in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic (Colon is Columbus’s Spanish name). Were these the remains in the Dominican Republic really Christopher Columbus? It depends whom you ask. While multiple cities claim they have his remains, recent DNA tests that compared the Seville remains with DNA taken from his brother’s corpse have proven those as authentic. The test results notwithstanding, the Dominican Republic continues to allege that they have Columbus, although DNA testing of the remains housed in the Santo Domingo Columbus Lighthouse mausoleum and museum have yet to be performed.
2. Russian Royal Family
If you’ve seen the 1971 Academy Award-winning film “Nicholas and Alexandra” about Russia’s final monarch, you probably remember the climax when the czar and his family were taken into the cellar where they were killed by firing squad. After three centuries of Romanov rule, the February Revolution in 1917 led to the abdication of Nicholas II and the seizure of the Winter Palace by the Bolsheviks that October. The royal family was held in the city of Yekaterinburg until July 1918 when they were all executed. Or were they? Rumors that Princess Anastasia had survived spawned a 1997 animated film, which has now been adapted into a Broadway musical. There was also a 1956 film starring Ingrid Bergman as an Anastasia pretender. Through the years, many women have claimed to be the death-defying princess.
Mystery surrounding the Russian royals began immediately following the execution. When the family was killed, Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin only confirmed the death of Nicholas II, and the location of the bodies was kept secret during the time of the Soviet Union. A mass grave in Yekarterinburg was dug up in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed, but it only contained the czar, czarina and three daughters. One daughter and the only son, Alexei, were missing. DNA testing based on living relatives and a bloody shirt proved that the five bodies were Romanovs. In 1998, they were laid to rest in St. Petersburg. A second Yekarterinburg grave was found in 2007, and DNA showed the remains to be those of Alexei and Princess Maria, which meant that Anastasia was included among the original five found in 1991. By 2011, Russian authorities decided that the remains were definitely those of the Romanov family, and in a move to get the Russian Orthodox Church to recognize them, Nicholas II and Alexandra were exhumed, along with the last czar’s father and grandfather. According to Smithsonian, the findings were conclusive. Mystery solved; sorry Anastasia fans.
3. Lee Harvey Oswald
Different questions about Russian identity led to the exhumation of a notorious American nearly 20 years after his burial. Around 12:30 p.m. on Nov. 22, 1963, Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly aimed a rifle at President John F. Kennedy who was traveling in a motorcade through the streets of Dallas, killing him with shots to the neck and head. In less than an hour and a half, authorities had arrested 24-year-old Lee Harvey Oswald, a former U.S. Marine who had lived in the Soviet Union and brought a Soviet wife back with him. Based on Oswald’s time behind the Iron Curtain, his statement that he was “just a patsy,” and all kinds of other claims about photograph altering and marital woes, wild theories quickly surfaced. In “History Decoded: The 10 Greatest Conspiracies of All Time” Brad Meltzer writes, “It’s amazing just how manyconspiracy theories surround the assassination.” While being transferred to the county jail just a couple of days later, Oswald was shot by local nightclub owner Jack Ruby. The Warren Commission launched an investigation into Kennedy’s death, and to this day, many believe that Oswald did not act alone.
But getting back to exhumations, one of the many conspiracy theories led to Oswald being dug up in 1981. This theory claimed that when Oswald returned to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1962, he had been replaced by a Russian spy bent on completing his mission to assassinate the American president. According to Scott Patrick Johnson in “The Faces of Lee Harvey Oswald: The Evolution of an Alleged Assassin”, as early as 1960, government officials had been concerned that a Russian imposter could be using Oswald’s birth certificate. Johnson explains that the idea may seem farfetched today, but considering the history of Cold War intelligence operations, “the imposter scenario seems plausible.”
Discrepancies in Oswald’s autopsy, like a missing mastoidectomy scar and misplaced arm scars, and lots of other questions about his identity finally led to Oswald’s body being exhumed from its resting place at Rose Hill cemetery in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1981. After examining the body and comparing it with dental records from Oswald’s time in the Marine Corps, forensic pathologists agreed that the Rose Hill corpse was indeed that of the alleged assassin. Did that suffice for conspiracy theorists? Of course not. Some still argue that the body of the imposter was switched with the real Oswald sometime between 1963 and 1981. DNA testing could settle the matter, but another exhumation has not been planned.
4. Dr. Sam Sheppard
The assassination of Kennedy and the true identity of his killer remains the stuff of conspiracy theories for some and digging up a body to prove guilt or innocence does not always offer a simple answer either. Although DNA expert Miller has not seen a rise in exhumations for old criminal trials yet, he says this could be coming. “With the new law enforcement activity involving cold cases and ancestry DNA sites, this is likely to increase greatly in the near future.”
In the case of Dr. Sam Sheppard, which inspired “The Fugitive” television series and film, it has already become a reality. In 1954, Sheppard’s wife Marilyn was murdered in their home. DNA tests revealed her husband’s innocence nearly five decades later, but that did not change the past or everyone’s mind. The pregnant Marilyn was beaten to death following an evening of entertaining at the house. Sam claimed he had struggled with a “bushy-haired” man who knocked him out. Following a much-publicized trial and the implausibility of Sam’s assailant story, the doctor was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. In 1966, during a second trial due to the “prejudicial publicity” of the first, Sam was acquitted but not proven innocent. He died in 1970, and his son Sam Reese Sheppard later filed a wrongful-imprisonment suit against the state of Ohio.
DNA testing in 1997 revealed that there was blood at the scene that didn’t come from Marilyn. Sam’s body was exhumed, and his blood was excluded as well, according to The New York Times. The tests showed that it could be a match for Richard Eberling, a man who had cleaned the Sheppard’s windows two days before Marilyn’s death and who by that time was in prison for a 1984 murder. In 1999, Marilyn’s body was also exhumed for medical testing. Despite the DNA evidence and the possibility of Eberling as the killer, Sam Reese lost his case against the state of Ohio, and an appeal determined that any financial claim against the state had died with Sam.
5. Are You My Dalí?
Despite the benefits of genetic testing for criminal trials and proving the authenticity of remains of really important people, when it comes to the words “DNA test,” something more Jerry Springeresque often comes to mind. And that was exactly the reason for the exhumation of surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, who died in 1989.
In the 2017 exhumation-for-paternity case, fortune teller Maria Pilar Abel Martinez, who had long claimed to be the daughter of the painter, sought to prove her lineage. Her evidence? A tryst between her mother and Dalí in 1955 and family lore. Martinez also asserted she looked just like the artist minus his most recognizable feature, his mustache. She had already undergone inconclusive tests based on DNA from Dalí’s death mask and material from one of his friends. In addition to bragging rights, a positive DNA result would have given Martinez a significant share in Dalí’s estate. Samples of hair, nail and bone from Dalí’s exhumed body showed that he was not the father. The samples have been returned to his body, which was reinterred at the Figueres Theatre-Museum in Catalonia. The Guardian reported that embalmer Narcís Bardalet, who assisted with the exhumation, assured the continued survival of Dalí’s famed mustache.