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This lady lets the bones tell the story

Osteologist Susan Mooney wants the bones to tell their own story.

Osteologist Susan Mooney wants the bones to tell their own story. So when she was called in to examine human burials uncovered during excavations for the new Dawson City sewage treatment plant last year, she didn’t want anyone to give her the background on the remains until she had looked at them first.

Bones are remarkable structures. Comprised of both an organic and a mineral component, they support the human frame, while serving as the source for important metabolic activities. Think of them as living systems that can reveal the growth and character of the individual.

They change in character as they develop so they can reveal the physical age of the individual they come from. Measuring them will reveal the stature of their owner and careful examination of the features on some of them will reveal their gender.

Vigilant scrutiny may reveal evidence of certain kinds of physical activity and general health. Specific features can reveal disease or injury. Assembling all of these details creates a composite picture of the person they came from.

Perhaps this is what attracted her to the study of bones in the first place. Mooney started out as biology major at the University of Nebraska. She took a course in anthropology as an elective and fell in love with the discipline. Before she was finished her degree, she had taken as many anthropology courses as she could.

Mooney was accepted into medical school, and had completed her first year of study before she decided that there was something that appealed to her more. She dropped medicine and went to the University of Arkansas for graduate studies in anthropology. She studied under the tutelage of well-known Arctic anthropologist Allen McCartney, took further field assignments in Alaska, and married a Yukoner, sealing her affair with the North. A year ago, they moved to the Yukon to be near family.

Let’s go back to the Dawson bones. When they were discovered, it was known in the community that the remains of several executed killers were interred in the government property at the south end of town where the Mounted Police detachment was located. The area was formerly called Fort Herchmer. Unfortunately, the precise location of the burials was not known so the discovery of the bones occurred by chance.

Mooney was working for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation when she received the call. Territorial archeologist Ruth Gotthardt told her that some of the burials had been uncovered in the compound opposite the ball park on Fifth Avenue. Archeologist Greg Hare had been dispatched to deal with the discovery, but he needed help. Mooney was flown in to assist.

When Mooney arrived in Dawson City with assistant Susan Schinkel, she was taken to an undisclosed location to look at the remains. By the time she had arrived in town, the three recovered burials had become three and a half; the remains of a fourth individual, consisting of a body from the waist down, had been added to the find.

She had 48 hours to deal with the mess and what a mess it was. In addition to the half skeleton, the bones from two of the other burials had been mixed together. Before she could analyze them, she had to determine which sets belonged together.

The bones had a lot to say. Sorting out the remains, she was able to determine that there were no more than four individuals represented. All were male.

Could she identify them? One of the individuals had gold fillings in his tobacco-stained teeth, stood 178 centimetres (five feet, 10 inches) tall, was in his mid- to late-30s and was of Caucasian ancestry. He appeared to be healthy, except that a spinous process in the sacrum (the five fused vertebrae at the base of the spine) was twisted to the side. He could be identified with certainty as Edward Henderson, who murdered his partner, Thorburg Peterson, at Lake Laberge, Sept. 17, 1897.

Two of the skeletons were identified as Jim and Dawson Nantuck, young First Nation men who shot and killed William Meehan near Marsh Lake in May of 1898. The identification of their remains was complicated slightly because the wisdom teeth of the two subjects had erupted (which is usually only complete by age 21) although the age indicated by other bones suggested they were in their mid-teens. Mooney checked with colleagues in Alaska, who confirmed that this was common in First Nation populations in this region.

The identity of the fourth skeleton is guesswork because only half of it was recovered. Mooney guesses that it belonged to Alexander King, a 13-year veteran of Alaska. It could also have been Ned Elfors, a Finn. Both were older men who fit the profile of the incomplete remains. The bones suggested a frame supporting plenty of weight. King was an older man, portly and short with white hair and beard. The trap door on the gallows had to be enlarged to accommodate his girth. Remarked Mooney: “It was like hanging Santa Claus!”

Having completed that assignment, she has hired by Yukon College as project research officer at the college’s Northern Research Centre. Here she is tackling another problem, but it’s going to take more than 48 hours.

Using bones to establish identity is an inexact science. Many factors can affect their development and character, including gender, general health and vocation. The conditions which the bones are deposited can also affect their appearance. Osteologists or forensic anthropologists are often called upon by the police to identify remains uncovered as part of an inquiry. Post Mortem Interval or PMI (length of time since death) is of vital concern.

Mooney said that skeletal remains were recently found in Alaska where the PMI was only confirmed by analyzing the clothing the victim was wearing. The state of the remains was more suggestive of a recent death, while the clothing the deceased wore was of 1970’s vintage. The way bones deteriorate after death is greatly affected by the conditions found at the site, and there are plenty of unknown factors in the North.

The climate is a major one. With temperatures below freezing for as many as seven or even eight months a year, many of the processes affecting bone are slower than they might be when compared with similar remains found farther south. With climate change occurring rapidly in the North, even that is shifting. Mooney is working with forensic specialists to develop a program of research that will establish some baseline information that can be applied to bones found in the North.

And that way, even in the Yukon, Susan Mooney can help the bones to speak for themselves.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His book, History Hunting in the Yukon, is now available. You can contact him at