Some Mother’s Boy
In 1921, a teenager died alone in Kentucky and was buried without a name. A century later, a team of sleuths set out to find his identity.
He was in a hurry when he was killed.
Late at night on April 1, 1921, a teenager dashed across the tracks of a northbound train just steaming into the depot in Georgetown, Kentucky. He was hoping to catch another train—the Royal Palm headed to Jacksonville, Florida—pulling away on the opposite switch. But his timing was off, or maybe he stumbled. The corner of the massive metal engine he’d raced in front of struck him in the head, fracturing his skull and knocking him unconscious.
The station agent was the first to get to the boy, who wasn’t carrying identification. No horrified onlooker claimed him as a son, brother, lover, or friend. At Ford Memorial Hospital, he was admitted as a John Doe. In a matter of hours he died as one, too. “An unidentified youth brought in the hospital here late Friday night,” the Lexington Leader reported, “died this morning without regaining consciousness. He was about 17 years of age.”
At a local funeral home, it fell to Ernest Ashurst, the Scott County coroner, to find the boy’s family. Georgetown, known for its Baptist college and premium tobacco, had only 3,900 residents. The town’s depot, however, sat on the so-called Whiskey Route connecting Kentucky’s eastern distilleries to the state capital and to rail lines serving cities as far away as Buffalo and Miami. Lexington was 13 miles south, Cincinnati 70 miles north. The dead boy could have come from anywhere.
Ashurst released a physical description—five feet six inches tall, 110 pounds, eyes blue-gray, hair light brown, complexion fair—along with a catalog of the young man’s possessions. “The youth’s clothes, which were of good quality, bore the clothier’s mark ‘H.M. Lindenthal, Chicago,’ and on his shirt was the laundry mark, ‘Jones,’” the Lexington Leader noted. Ashurst also found a tag bearing the code “E IC6” on the boy’s shirt, and a pocket watch engraved with the letters “W.A.” on the outside of its case, “L.H.D.” on the inside. The coroner canvassed nearby towns with telegrams and advertisements, and he took callers at the funeral home—bereft relatives in search of their own lost boys.
Meanwhile, county attorney H. Church Ford, a witness to the accident, claimed that the victim hadn’t been traveling alone. “The boy, with another young man, was hidden under a box car on the east side of the station,” the Lexington Herald quoted Ford saying. The pair had attempted to cross the tracks together, but only “one succeeded in getting over.” The account made it seem like the travelers might have been hobos, but Ashurst was convinced otherwise. “The dead boy evidently is well-bred and belongs to an excellent family,” he told the Georgetown Times.
The companion was nowhere in sight by the time the station agent reached the scene. According to bystanders, the boy had bought a ticket—a sign that Ashurst was right about the pair not being hobos—on a train bound for Somerset, Kentucky, some 90 miles south. A warrant was issued for his arrest. When the young man was apprehended, he insisted that he didn’t so much as know the dead boy’s name. They’d met in Cincinnati and ridden south together, nothing more. It seemed odd that they’d never exchanged names, odder still that the survivor had blithely bought a ticket while his acquaintance bled from a fatal head wound. The traveler maintained his ignorance, though, and was released from custody. Newspapers didn’t report his name.
Two weeks after the accident, Georgetown’s authorities couldn’t keep the body aboveground any longer. By then the tragedy had aroused the small town’s sympathy. Residents raised money to pay for a casket and funeral. The burial was held at Georgetown’s cemetery on the afternoon of Thursday, April 14. Several townspeople attended. Others sent flowers. Ashurst pledged to not stop looking for the family.
A simple headstone was unveiled, engraved with the date of the boy’s death, that of his burial, and the note “Contributed by Friends.” The stone didn’t bear a name. At least, not a real one.
The first thing I learned about unidentified bodies is that they need nicknames. A moniker can derive from the place where a body is found, like Cheerleader in the Trunk, discovered in Frederick, Maryland, in 1982. It can refer to when a corpse turns up, like Valentine Sally, found on a February 14 in Williams, Arizona. Or it can memorialize a physical characteristic, like Tok, Alaska’s One-Eyed Jack, who was wearing a leather eye patch when he was located in 1979. Nicknames serve as convenient shorthand for cops tracking cases. They can also generate intrigue, empathy, and investigative leads. The best nicknames tell stories that captivate.
That’s the second thing I learned about unidentified bodies: Story is everything. Of the 4,400 unclaimed, unnamed bodies discovered in the United States annually, law enforcement identifies 75 percent within a year. After that the chances of putting a name to a body plunge dramatically. Drumming up public interest with a compelling narrative is often the only way to keep cases from being forgotten.
The man who taught me the lessons of the anonymous dead is Todd Matthews. By the time cases make it to him, they’ve been deemed all but unsolvable—“hard boiled,” as he puts it. Matthews co-directs the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a little known government operation housed in the Department of Justice. NamUs manages an online database of records pertaining to unidentified bodies, cross-referenced with a catalog of missing persons. The assumption is that there’s overlap—parents searching for a lost child, say, whose body detectives are trying to identify several states away. Anyone can register case information with NamUs: physical descriptions, date LKA (last known alive), dental records, and so on. About 14,500 cases of unidentified remains—and many more cases of missing persons—have been logged since NamUs was developed in 2007.
Matthews is 47, with a boyish face and shaggy brown hair that he often tops with a battered khaki baseball cap. He isn’t a career bureaucrat, cop, or forensic scientist. He doesn’t even have a college degree. His quixotic hunt for the names of unidentified bodies began 30 years ago in rural Tennessee, where he was born and raised, and where he found his calling as a DIY sleuth. When I reached out to him in early 2017, I was looking for a cold case of my own to pursue. The crime fiction of Agatha Christie, Georges Simenon, and Boris Akunin filled my family’s bookcases when I was growing up. As an adult, I prefer the Nordic variant of the genre, penned by writers like Jo Nesbo and Stieg Larsson. I was eager to report a story with a hero and a villain, a wrong in need of righting, a noble quest.
Over the years, science and technology have made Matthews’s work easier. Labs can now identify human remains from little more than DNA-enriched soil and perform digital facial reconstruction for bodies found without heads. Genetic research is routinely practiced at home, with millions of people uploading their profiles into public databases in hopes of finding a Viking ancestor or Native American cousin thrice removed. Some aspects of the job, though, haven’t changed: the obsessive, painstaking ones. It’s not unusual for Matthews to pursue a case for years, sometimes decades. He believes it’s never too late for anyone—even me, even you—to search for a missing person or identify an anonymous body.
Not everyone agrees. Many lingering John and Jane Does were sex workers, homeless people, or criminals before they died, a potential public relations problem for detectives who find themselves in the distasteful position of justifying the hunt for the identities of people whom society cast out. There’s also the matter of money. With tens of thousands of unsolved murders and rapes committed across the United States each year, the amount of government funding available for DNA testing already falls well short of law enforcement’s needs. Why waste scant resources on the antique dead?
NamUs entry #16182, the case of the young man killed by a train in Georgetown, Kentucky, personified both sides of this debate. At 96 years, it was one of the oldest cases in the NamUs database; there was little hope of finding anyone who knew the deceased when he was alive, and the odds of pulling useable DNA from his remains were low. Because his death was an accident, there was no crime to solve. Yet his nickname pulled off the difficult trick of illuminating what makes some people care so much about the unnamed dead, and what made me choose case #16182 as my project.
The nickname came readymade, inscribed on the donated headstone and obscured over the decades by creeping moss: Some Mother’s Boy.
From the moment he was born, Todd Matthews was dogged by death. His father, a Vietnam veteran, was exposed to Agent Orange, which led to birth abnormalities that claimed the lives of an infant brother and sister. His own survival was no sure thing: He was diagnosed with a congenital heart defect that required surgery by the time he was eight. “This kid won’t make it past his teens,” a doctor muttered at his bedside.
His mother wouldn’t let him so much as plug in an appliance by himself, much less play football or baseball like other boys his age. In the sports-obsessed culture of Livingston, Tennessee, a small town near the Kentucky border, Matthews needed to carve out a different identity for himself. He became a raconteur and a cut-up with a flair for the macabre, the guy at school who smuggled a Ouija board into band practice. It was his way of spinning the darkness that wreathed his early life into something positive.
In the fall of 1987, his senior year of high school, Matthews spotted a new girl—a willowy brunette named Lori Riddle who was a transplant from Kentucky. One day near Halloween, when the school was decked with orange and black streamers, Matthews held a group of kids in study hall captive with a scary story. He was surprised when Riddle took a seat next to him, more surprised still when she spoke. “I have a sort of ghost story,” she said.
In the spring of 1968, her father, Wilbur Riddle, was walking near a ridge covered with thick scrub in Scott County, Kentucky, when he tripped on a dirty green tarp bound by a tight cord and encasing something bulky. He cut the cord and was horrified to discover the naked body of a young woman wrapped in a canvas tent. Police would later determine that she’d been hit in the head and suffocated to death, but they weren’t able to identify her. Tent Girl was buried in a grave marked “No. 90.”
Matthews was struck, by Riddle and the story. The pair started dating, and when Riddle took Matthews home to meet her family, her father pulled out an old issue of Master Detective magazine that featured a write-up about Tent Girl. “Kentucky police ask your assistance in the most baffling case in the state’s criminal history,” the cover blared. “Who is the ‘Tent Girl’ and who killed her?” For Matthews, it was an eerie moment of clarity, “almost like you’re remembering the future,” he told me. He made two promises to himself: that he would marry Riddle and solve the Tent Girl case.
Within a year, Matthews and Riddle were hitched. He would spend the next ten years making good on promise number two.
After graduating from high school, Matthews went to work on the assembly line at Hutchinson, a materials manufacturer in Livingston. In his spare time, he took to cold-calling police stations and combing newspaper archives in search of any woman reported missing in 1968 who matched Tent Girl’s description: white, between 16 and 19 years old, five feet one inch tall, 110 to 115 pounds, short reddish-brown hair, no identifying marks or scars. He struggled to explain the allure of the case, to others and to himself. All he could say was that it felt like a portal to a place familiar enough to recognize but different enough to enthrall. Matthews had rarely left the county where he was from—“long-distance travel for us was the Smoky Mountains”—and Tent Girl allowed him to pursue something difficult and tragic that stretched his life’s tether.
Sometimes he drove the 170 miles north to the site where her body was found and to her grave, located in a cemetery in Georgetown, Kentucky. Matthews would always pause at the grave marked Some Mother’s Boy. It had earned a mention, peppered with inaccuracies, at the end of the Master Detective magazine article:
“Near ‘No. 90’ is the grave where another unidentified body rests. In it, about 30 years earlier, was buried the body of a young man found dead outside Georgetown. Townspeople joined to buy a grave marker which reads, ‘Someone’s boy. About 19.’”
Everyone knows about Tent Girl, Matthews would think, but nobody knows about Some Mother’s Boy. The grave lodged itself in the recesses of his mind.
Matthews came to know the Tent Girl case so well that he could rattle off descriptions of her fingernails (well manicured) and the rocks (construction debris) that had concealed her body from view on U.S. 25. He developed a theory that she wasn’t a girl at all, but a woman. Police had assumed she was a teenager because she was short; according to Wilbur Riddle, though, her breasts were unusually large. Later, police determined that a small white towel found with the body was a cloth diaper. Matthews suspected that she had delivered a baby not long before she was killed.
A turning point in Matthews’s search came with the advent of the internet. In 1997, he created a website that included Tent Girl’s physical description, a police sketch, and his name and phone number for tipsters to use. Given the primitive state of search engines, “I might as well have hung a poster in the woods,” Matthews said. A Kentucky newspaper ran a story about the site, but it wasn’t so much Tent Girl that interested the reporter as it was Matthews: the son-in-law of the man who’d discovered the body, trying to solve the decades-old mystery.
It was hard to be the sole champion of a dead person. Matthews put financial strain on his family, spending money on long-distance phone calls, travel, motel stays, and other expenses. At one point even his wife, his original muse, grew exasperated. She moved out for six months, taking their infant son with her, and consulted a divorce lawyer. “It’s not like I’m selling dope. I’m not doing anything bad. What’s wrong with this?” Matthews asked her. Deep down, though, he knew the answer: His obsession “was taking away, in her mind, from other things I should be doing,” Matthews told me. After they reconciled, he would wait for her to go to bed before scouring the internet for leads.
One night in January 1998, Matthews was trawling a website called Crain and Hibb, “kinda like a Craigslist of the day,” he recalled. “People were looking for lost dogs, cars for sale. I searched for missing mother, sister, daughter.” He came across a listing that read, “Sister, last seen in Lexington, KY, Dec 1967.” Matthews froze. Tent Girl had been found just north of Lexington. He’d always suspected she was from there but could never find a missing-person report with a matching description. He ran into the bedroom, jumped on the bed, and yelled to his wife, who was asleep, “I found her! I found her!”
When Matthews contacted the woman who’d posted the listing, everything fit: her sister’s height, hair, and weight, even her well-manicured nails. The missing woman’s name was Barbara Ann Hackmann Taylor, and she’d been in her twenties with an eight-month-old child at the time of her death. It was her teeth that convinced Emily Craig, Kentucky’s state forensic anthropologist, to authorize an exhumation of Tent Girl for DNA testing. “A lot of these stories can be discounted pretty quickly, but Todd and the Tent Girl just couldn’t,” Craig told me. “He had pictures of Barbara Hackmann Taylor, and I had pictures from the autopsy that showed her teeth.” Both sets of images revealed a top row with a distinctive gap. “It was a visual thing, a gestalt that I put together in my head,” Craig explained. Six weeks after the exhumation, a DNA test proved that Taylor was Tent Girl. Relatives were able to put a name on her grave, which remained in Georgetown.
How did police fail to identify Tent Girl as a resident of Lexington, so close to where she was found? “Nobody at that time really looked at both sides of the equation,” Craig explained. “There were people that were passionate about the deceased. And there were people passionate about the missing. But without an internet-based system or a person as a go-between, they never came together.”
Like many anonymous dead, Taylor led a troubled life. She grew up in Illinois but left home to follow her future husband, a trucker named Earl, and had three children with him by the time she was 24. Her family tracked Earl down after she disappeared, but he claimed that she’d run off with another man. The family also contacted police, but thinking Taylor was still alive they asked the wrong question: Had a 24-year-old mother of three been reported missing? After Matthews solved the case, Taylor’s family suspected that Earl had murdered her. He was an occasional carnival worker, and the tent used to wrap up the body was similar to those used in traveling fairs. By then, however, Earl had died of cancer.
As the first civilian in America to identify a body using the internet, Matthews was turbo-spun through the media cycle, even appearing on 48 Hours. Profiles in People and Wired followed. The Tent Girl case prompted Kentucky to create a database of unclaimed remains, among the first of its kind nationwide. More broadly, Craig told me, Matthews’s breakthrough “basically launched the internet phenomenon of web sleuthing for the missing and unidentified.” Matthews helped create the Doe Network, a volunteer-run predecessor to NamUs, and Project EDAN (Everyone Deserves a Name), a group of forensic artists who provide pro bono portraits of bodies. He started a blog called Sleuth the Truth and a Yahoo Group entitled Cold Case Comparative Analysis, as well as other online forums that welcomed amateur detectives. By 2006, he’d launched a podcast, Missing Pieces, which would record more than 100 episodes.
Elsewhere in the digital sphere, chat rooms, message boards, and discussion groups united would-be Inspector Poirots working in home offices or at kitchen tables. “It was like a startup that went nuts,” Matthews recalled. Websites with names like Websleuths dissected cases and posted about breaks, some of them achieved by citizen detectives who cited Matthews as an inspiration. Others turned to him as a resource and sounding board.
Among them was a young woman named Ahlashia Thomas from Berea, Kentucky. In 1993, when Thomas was in high school, hikers found a dead man at a local campground. He wore a backpack but had no identification. Pulled over his head was a plastic bag from a Madison, Wisconsin, grocery store, secured around his neck with a belt. His hands were missing. The local media dubbed him Madison Man because of the plastic bag and because Berea was located in Madison County. Thomas couldn’t get the story out of her mind. “I just imagined this poor man lying there with stumps and—oh, it just bothered me!” Thomas told me.
When the investigation cooled and police determined that Madison Man’s death was not a homicide, her unease turned to indignation. She began to suspect a law-enforcement cover-up. “They want to make it look like this is a perfect place to live,” she said. Deemed the “folk arts and crafts capital of Kentucky” by the state legislature, Berea is also home to the first integrated college in the South. Thomas decided to do some research, starting with “one of those little microfiche things” at Berea College’s library. She pinpointed the site of Madison Man’s death, visited it to take pictures, and started a case file. She scoured the internet for missing persons who matched the John Doe’s description.
Matthews’s name kept coming up in Thomas’s online searches. One day, after Madison Man had been dead for ten years, she “took a leap of faith” and emailed him. Matthews helped her commission a forensic drawing of the body, make a website for the case, and post on missing-person message boards and genealogy forums. He also contacted a reporter in Wisconsin, urging him to write about the case. The reporter agreed, but still no one claimed the body.
Matthews and Thomas decided that if they couldn’t give Madison Man a name, at least they could give him a funeral. Matthews had an unused gravestone in his family’s barn; it had been intended for a great uncle, a casualty of World War II, for whom the military ended up providing a different stone. Matthews had the slab inscribed with the words “Madison Man” and drove it up to replace the original aluminum marker left on the John Doe’s grave. He improvised a prayer. Thomas left flowers. It was June 2004.
Three weeks later, a local news outlet did a story about the appearance of the tombstone. Lexington’s NBC affiliate, WLEX, also ran a story. From there the news item cartwheeled across the country, eventually catching the eye of a woman in Wisconsin who was searching for her brother-in-law, Doug Prouty, missing since 1993. As far as his family knew, Prouty, a janitor, had never been to Kentucky. A DNA test on a tissue sample retained from Madison Man confirmed Prouty’s identity, and his remains were returned home. The circumstances of his death remained murky, but Thomas was satisfied. “I feel he’s at peace,” she told me.
Like Thomas, the federal government took notice of Matthews’s successes and came calling. In 2007, the Department of Justice asked him to help develop NamUs. After almost 20 years at Hutchinson, Matthews quit his job and started gathering data to enter into the new system. He called detectives and medical examiners to identify potential entries. He traced missing evidence and fact-checked conflicting information.
The grind paid off. Once the system was live, users began cross-referencing cases, trying to match the missing and the dead. Anguished families could see evidence previously siloed in particular counties or states. Web sleuths made NamUs their new mecca, contacting police with theoretical matches between cases. Matthews was always seeking to improve the available data: Is there a picture of that tattoo? Is there a better picture? Are there any X-rays of that broken arm? Do I spy evidence of a car crash?
In 2011, the director of the Laboratory of Forensic Anthropology at the University of North Texas, which provided free genetic testing for unidentified remains, proposed a merger with NamUs. Law enforcement would now have to register cases with NamUs in order to access testing, a move that brought the database’s staff into closer contact with police across the country. Matthews was given a promotion from system administrator to co-director of NamUs, alongside a former police intelligence analyst based at UNT.
But he didn’t move to Fort Worth, where the UNT lab is located. Matthews chose to stay in Livingston. He thought he could make a bigger difference in the South, because he already knew coroners across Tennessee and Kentucky—including Emily Craig, who became NamUs’s critical incident coordinator—and where unidentified remains were buried. He also didn’t want to leave his hometown, where his family had been for more than a century. At the Overton County Heritage Museum, portraits of his ancestors—William Jasper Matthews, who was in the Tennessee senate in the late 1800s, and James Oliver Matthews, who served as a sheriff in the early 20th century—hang near an exhibit of Matthews’s father’s Army uniform from Vietnam. Matthews and his wife still live on the street where he grew up, in sight of the high school where they met, in a house they built next to the homes of his parents and brother. He recently bought a house on an adjacent lot for his grown son’s family. Matthews has nicknamed the block-long compound Hotel California, because, in his words, “You can check out, but you’ll never leave.”
He also holds the deed to his family’s cemetery, where his baby brother and sister are buried. He visits it frequently and knows he’ll be interred there one day. “There is nothing like being there,” he said on a podcast. “That sense of closeness and closure because you have a place to go. I think that is just human nature.”
Matthews once sent me an unprompted email with the subject line “My own funeral—a work in progress.” It contained a letter addressed to his sons that he’d not yet sent them because its contents were “too hard to discuss.” (I could only guess why he shared it with me; obsessing about death forges a strange bond.) “Don’t let them talk you into having a vault for me,” the letter began. “I want as simple a wooden casket as possible. I want to truly return to the earth.” Then came a list of songs Matthews considered appropriate for his funeral service and a specific request to avoid “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” by country singer Vince Gill: “I hate that song. lol.”
To date, 2,970 cases of unidentified remains entered into NamUs have been resolved—a success rate of about 20 percent. Matthews wants to do more. There is no federal law requiring law enforcement to report anonymous bodies to NamUs, a problem Matthews has decided to tackle on a state-by-state basis. In Tennessee, he helped draft the Help Find the Missing Act, which passed while I was reporting this story. To get similar laws enacted across the country, he’s marshaling fellow sleuths to the lobbying cause, mostly via Facebook.
In late 2016, however, NamUs faced a setback: The federal government announced that it was withdrawing funding for UNT’s testing of unidentified remains. The money, a mere $1 million but vital to NamUs’s work, was being redirected to the national backlog of untested rape kits, estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands.
There are other ways a body can be identified—dental records, fingerprints, X-rays, autopsy photos—but for families of the long-term lost, often “it’s DNA or nothing,” Matthews explained. The more time a body is in the ground, the more degraded its genetic material becomes. Mitochondrial DNA, the most durable form, passed down only through maternal bloodlines, is difficult and costly to analyze. If all that remains of a corpse is a bone fragment, the testing process is much more complicated than your typical drugstore paternity kit or 23andMe swab. According to Forensic magazine, only seven states have laboratories that can match UNT’s testing capacity, and private labs charge thousands of dollars to handle a single sample. If cash-strapped police departments were forced to shelve DNA they couldn’t afford to have analyzed, it would erode the quality of data in the NamUs database.
At the start of 2017, Matthews estimated that there was enough money left from an existing federal grant for the DNA services to last about six months. He formulated a plan: Working closely with law enforcement in Kentucky, the state whose cold cases he knew best, he would pick two unidentified bodies and use the last drip of money to solve them. The ensuing media attention, Matthews hoped, would help bump NamUs back up the government’s list of funding priorities.
The first case Matthews picked was NamUs entry #86, an unsolved homicide from 1989. The man had been found shot through the head, with his hands severed at the wrists, among fragrant tobacco leaves in a barn in the town of Dry Ridge. The missing hands inspired the victim’s nickname, Nubs, and recalled Madison Man.
The second case was Some Mother’s Boy, to whom Matthews felt a lingering sense of responsibility. He’d never forgotten even the smallest details of his career’s genesis, including the anonymous grave that sat near Tent Girl’s. Some Mother’s Boy was now the oldest known cold case in Kentucky. “It might be a historical case, and we don’t have any leads. It’s not a homicide,” Matthews admitted. “But can we give it a shot?”
The week after Some Mother’s Boy’s burial in April 1921, Ashurst, the coroner, told a local newspaper, “The body will be preserved for twenty years in a state that will permit identification.” Matthews took this comment to mean that Ashurst was confident enough in the quality of his embalming—far from an exact science a century ago—to believe that the boy would be recognizable should a family request an exhumation in the two decades immediately following his death. However skilled an embalmer Ashurst might have been, by 2017 there was no hope of recognizing Some Mother’s Boy. The real question was whether anything remained of him at all.
Under normal circumstances, an unidentified body is exhumed if a family comes forward with compelling evidence, circumstantial or forensic, that the deceased may be a relative, as was the case with Tent Girl. Police can petition for an exhumation if they have reason to believe technological advances would yield new clues in a homicide investigation. Some Mother’s Boy met neither criterion. But given the pathos and lore surrounding the case—a local paper dubbed it “the biggest mystery in Scott County”—John Goble, the current county coroner, took it on as a personal mission. “Think about this: Up till the day that mama died, she didn’t know where her 17-year-old boy was,” Goble told me.
Before requesting an exhumation, which his office empowered him to do, Goble wanted to double-check some facts. What if a family had claimed the boy after the burial and the headstone had been left behind as a historical curiosity? In that scenario, Ashurst should have filed a death certificate, which was easy enough to check at Kentucky’s Office of Vital Statistics by looking up Some Mother’s Boy’s date of death. Emily Craig volunteered to do the research. (Not only was she working at NamUs, but she was also Goble’s wife.) In early 2017, she confirmed that no death in Georgetown matching the description of Some Mother’s Boy’s demise had been recorded on April 1, 1921.
At Georgetown’s library, she dug up every article she could find about the boy’s death and Ashurst’s frustrated search for kin. Craig also did some sleuthing on H.M. Lindenthal, the company that manufactured the coat the boy was wearing. She discovered advertisements in old newspapers depicting natty gentlemen in suits with names like the Princeton, holding gold-knobbed canes or well-groomed miniature dogs in the crooks of their arms. Lindenthal sold clothing “geared toward the up-and-coming young man,” Craig told me. Based on these findings and Ashurst’s descriptions of Some Mother’s Boy as well-off, Craig developed a theory. “Back then, because people didn’t have telephones, when somebody went missing, they put it in the newspaper, like in the want ads,” she told me. A hobo probably wouldn’t have warranted such attention, but a wealthy young man might have.
Craig punched some terms into Google: “missing heir,” “1921,” and “W.A.,” the letters engraved on the outside of Some Mother’s Boy’s pocket watch. She found a young man whose family lived three hours north of Georgetown in 1921. An article entitled “Seek Missing Heir to Fortune in L.A.” was placed by a distant relative of one W.A. Shafer, from Parker City, Indiana, in the Los Angeles Herald on March 22, 1921. It stated that Shafer had last been seen in Chicago the previous August, “when he signified his intention of coming to Los Angeles” for reasons the article didn’t describe.
Here was a young man of means with a motive to travel to Georgetown—where he could’ve caught a westbound train—and whose initials matched those on the watch. There were some worrying dimensions to the story. Shafer, for instance, disappeared seven months before Some Mother’s Boy died. But it was a promising lead. Craig called Parker City’s historical society to learn whether the young man had ever reappeared. A representative told Craig that there were a lot of Shafers still living in town and promised to do some research.
All of this was good enough for Goble, who authorized the exhumation. It was set to take place on March 10.
Matthews was thrilled by the decision. In late February, however, he learned that the funding for DNA testing had run out earlier than expected, thanks to a higher-than-average volume of samples requiring analysis in the first two months of the year. The only other entity that might test old DNA for free was the FBI’s lab in Quantico, Virginia, a much more selective operation than UNT’s. On average it receives more than 200 analysis requests each month.
Craig asked for the lab’s assistance in both the Nubs and Some Mother’s Boy cases. It readily agreed to participate in the former, since it was an open homicide investigation. It was skeptical about Some Mother’s Boy, given the age of the case and its noncriminal nature. Still, the request was approved. “We would prefer femur bones if possible,” a forensic examiner wrote to Craig.
On the morning of Some Mother’s Boy’s exhumation, Matthews, who’d driven three hours from Livingston the night before, met Craig for an early breakfast at a Cracker Barrel. They were the first to arrive at the gravesite. By 8 a.m., Goble was there with a handful of his deputies, coroners from nearby counties, the mayor of Georgetown, and a local funeral director who’d donated a baby-size casket for the dead and coffee for the living. Local media came, too, crews from WTVQ in Lexington, WBIR in Knoxville, and WKRC in Cincinnati, as well as newspaper reporters. It was a cool, windy day, the sky a dull gray. Across U.S. 25, which borders the cemetery, neon signs at the Indian Acres Shopping Center were just starting to blink “Open.”
Goble led the group in a short prayer, then announced, “We’re going to go down three inches at a time, just peeling back the layers of soil.” A cemetery worker climbed into a backhoe and began to dig. At about three feet deep, the soil became a shade darker, a sign of decomposition, and the worker cut the backhoe’s engine.
From there the dig shifted to a more archaeological approach. Using hand trowels and brushes, one of the coroners probed the dirt, handing up small items that he found. By early afternoon it was done: All that remained of Some Mother’s Boy were a handful of teeth, the hinges, cornices, and handles of his casket, a long shard of bone, and one antique button. The items went into the new casket, which was loaded into the SUV of one of Goble’s deputies.
Mayor Tom Prather addressed the media. “I hope that there’s some comfort in this somewhere,” he said, “for both our community and for any family this young man may have.” By evening, news of the exhumation had traveled well beyond Kentucky. The Associated Press, U.S. News and World Report, and even the Daily Mail picked it up. Matthews was satisfied; everything was going according to script.
Not everyone shared his enthusiasm, though. Some public reactions tended toward disbelief, even anger. “Maybe spend that money clearing the backlog of rape kits for people who can still get justice?” read one Facebook comment on WKRC’s article about the dig, the author likely unaware of the reason for NamUs’s funding crisis. “That’s awful. Let him rest in peace,” read another. “At this point 96 years later grandparents, parents, siblings are all gone. I’d roll over in my grave if some one did this to my son.”
Matthews shrugged off the criticism. “We are testing the boundary of forensic science. We’re looking at phenotyping, ancestry DNA,” he told me. “We need to set a bar to show that nearly a hundred years later, it’s not too late.” What he didn’t say was that a dose of controversy never hurts when trying to gin up media interest in a cold case.
That interest generated a lead two days after Some Mother’s Boy was exhumed, when Gaye Holman, a 73-year-old retired sociology professor living in Beechwood Village, a sleepy residential outpost in the Louisville suburbs, opened her Sunday newspaper. Holman had recently caught the genealogy bug, and as she made her way through an article about the exhumation, her heart began to pound.
Some Mother’s Boy could be her mother’s boy, a beloved cousin who’d vanished. According to family rumor, he’d been murdered.
Holman’s mother, Nancy Duncan, was born in 1909 in Pattons Creek, a Kentucky community of farms and orchards that lay northeast of Louisville and a few miles from the eastern bank of the Ohio River. Owen Bennett Wheeler Jr. was Duncan’s cousin. He’d been orphaned as a young boy; his father died of an illness before he was born, and his mother and brother died four years later of the flu. He was passed among relatives and eventually came to live with his grandfather next door to Duncan’s family.
The cousins grew close. Even as a farm boy, Owen had the makings of a gentleman. “When we walked to school together, on bitter cold days,” Duncan recalled in her unpublished memoirs many years later, “Owen walked back to the wind in front of me to protect me from its force.” Duncan would beg Owen’s grandfather to let him quit work in the fields early so they might play together. One such “glorious day,” Nancy wrote, was spent “in the woods, with Owen cutting limbs for concocting a playhouse.”
As he grew older and stronger, other relatives realized that Owen could be an economic asset. When he was around 13, his uncle Jesse Hancock sued for custody and won. Hancock was known as a cruel, violent man. After he took Owen, word spread that he was using the boy for what amounted to slave labor. Hancock rented his farm from a relative who one day stopped by to find his tenant beating Owen bloody. The man jumped off his horse and put a stop to the abuse, then ordered Hancock to get off his land. It was soon after this incident that Owen disappeared—Holman estimates it was around 1920—and Hancock relocated to Louisville.
At first everyone thought Owen had run away with another local boy who’d vanished from the same county around that time. But that boy soon returned home and said he’d never been with Owen. The family began to suspect that Owen had died at Hancock’s hands, perhaps because the boy’s uncle blamed him for the loss of his farm. A rumor circulated that the young man’s body had been dumped in a sinkhole on the property before Hancock vacated it.
When Duncan heard the story, she cried but held out hope that it might not be true—that “he might have gotten away and might some day return,” she later wrote. Owen was never heard from again. In Pattons Creek, local children avoided the sinkhole, said to be haunted by his ghost. Eventually, the land passed out of family hands and was transformed into a nature preserve.
By the 1980s, Duncan decided to write her memoirs—“to pull the curtain of my mind to spaces that have shrunk, buildings that are decayed, homes that are no more [and] people that are dead.” Genealogy had never held much interest for Holman, but that changed as she learned about her mother’s life, especially the tragic fate of the cousin whom Duncan had “adored like a brother.” Owen had appeared in the 1920 census, but not the one in 1930. Holman could find neither a death certificate nor a gravestone bearing his name. She traced every leg and juncture of his life, starting with his father’s obituary, and interviewed relatives who confirmed the rumors of abuse by his uncle. Holman grew increasingly convinced that his bones lay in the sinkhole.
The news of Some Mother’s Boy’s exhumation turned all her careful research on its head. What if her mother’s girlish notion, that Owen had somehow escaped his uncle, was true after all? Even if his flight earned him little more than a violent end on a train track, he would have died free, master of his own fate. It was a romantic twist that Holman was determined to verify.
The Monday morning after she read about the exhumation of Some Mother’s Boy, she called Goble, who immediately shared the news with Matthews. Owen’s story of poverty and violence didn’t jibe with some of the case’s most tantalizing clues, namely the fancy coat and watch. But the ages were close enough: Holman believed that Owen was around 15 when he died, just two years younger than Ashurst had estimated Some Mother’s Boy to be. Matthews was especially intrigued by the fact that Owen was initially thought to have run off with another local boy. Might he have been the mysterious traveling companion questioned by police in Somerset, covering the shame of leaving the scene of an accident with denial?
Looking at a map of Kentucky, Owen’s peregrinations didn’t seem to make sense. Pattons Creek is about 65 miles west of Georgetown. Why would he have gone north to Cincinnati, where Some Mother’s Boy boarded a southbound train, only to wind up back in a town nearer to the one he’d left? Holman’s theory: He was trying to avoid discovery. Cincinnati was a big city, a great place for a runaway to catch a train to anywhere. It may also have been a matter of convenience. “He could have jumped a boat,” Holman said. Steamers cruised the Ohio River all day long back then. One could have carried Owen from Pattons Creek to Cincinnati in a matter of hours. Holman offered to have her DNA tested, and Goble agreed.
Then a comment posted to an article about the exhumation, published online by CBS, surfaced yet another name. “The kid has already been identified,” wrote JimWill1963. “They published his name on August 23rd, 1921.”
The comment included a link to Some Mother’s Boy’s page on FindAGrave.com, a database frequented by genealogy, cemetery, and obituary enthusiasts. It’s brimming with crowdsourced information about graves and the people inside them, and it’s a frequent stop on the web-sleuth circuit. Matthews knew it well—so well, in fact, that he’d created Some Mother’s Boy’s page in 2007. He was supposed to receive a notification whenever anyone uploaded information or posted a comment. Prior to the exhumation, the entry had received no hits.
But when he’d made the page, he’d erroneously titled it “Some Mother’s Son.” Matthews had posted a photo of the gravestone, which was so mossed over at the time—he and Goble had since cleaned it—that the last word was hard to make out. In the intervening years, someone else had created a different page for the grave using the correct name. Matthews went to it and discovered an article posted by a user almost nine months prior to the exhumation. It had been published in the Richmond, Kentucky, Daily Register in August 1921: “An unknown young man killed in Georgetown last April at the Southern Depot, has been identified as Frank Haynes, of Bronston, KY.”
Matthews sent an email to Craig—still trying, with no luck, to follow up on W.A. Shafer with the Parker City historical society—containing the relevant comments and links. Her response was beyond words: “*!#^~!!!*” It hadn’t occurred to Craig to search newspaper archives from August 1921, more than four months after Some Mother’s Boy’s death, especially since she’d found no death certificate on file. Now she returned to the Scott County Public Library, where a new lead unspooled on microfiche.
Among the seekers of the lost who visited Coroner Ashurst at the funeral home before Some Mother’s Boy was buried, it turned out, was a man named Frank Haynes, a poor laborer from Bronston, Kentucky, an unincorporated community about 100 miles south of Georgetown. Haynes claimed to recognize the boy as his 19-year-old son, also named Frank, who had disappeared from home on March 30, 1921. But the father left without the body, a peculiar thing for a grieving parent to do.
Ashurst must not have been convinced by the claim. After all, he put the boy in the ground, unnamed, because he “despaired of his being identified,” according to the Georgetown Times. Craig reasoned that it was possible the elder Frank Haynes had expressed a glimmer of doubt—the boy had been struck in the head, which may have made his face difficult to recognize—that the coroner couldn’t shake.
Yet Ashurst didn’t let the matter go either. He sent Mignona Haynes, the visitor’s wife, a photograph of the body, together with the clothes and watch the boy had been wearing. That August she sent a letter in reply, saying that she recognized the photo and the clothes but had never seen the watch. “It was the first time he had ever been away from home,” she explained. “He was led away by another boy. He was honest, obedient and had never been in any trouble. He was born March 2, 1902 and had always lived here until he left a few days before he was killed.” She said her husband hadn’t brought their son’s body home on account of a “dangerous illness” she’d been suffering from at the time. (She didn’t specify what risk or problem the corpse would have posed alongside her sickness.) Her family couldn’t afford to repay the people of Georgetown for the burial, Mrs. Haynes wrote, but they hoped to do so one day. “As soon as we are able we want to have our boy’s name and age put on the monument at his grave,” the letter concluded.
For Matthews the revelation was vexing. If Scott County had dug up a young man whose identity had been established nearly a century prior, the situation would be “a little embarrassing,” he admitted. But there were troubling inconsistencies in the notion that Some Mother’s Boy was Frank Haynes. Why hadn’t Ashurst ever filed a death certificate? Why hadn’t the Hayneses or their descendants ever put a name on the grave? The laundry mark “Jones” on the boy’s shirt could have been the wearer’s last name or the signature of the laundry where it was cleaned. Yet Jones wasn’t Frank’s surname—nor Owen Wheeler’s or W.A. Shafer’s, for that matter—and Bronston wouldn’t have had a professional laundry at the time. And why would the son of a destitute laborer own a fancy suit or pay for laundering anyway?
Then there was the question of geography. The Hayneses claimed that their son left home on March 30. Some Mother’s Boy died the night of April 1. Within a day and a half, the young man would have left Bronston and traveled north to Cincinnati, only to head right back into Kentucky and disembark in Georgetown—a loop of about 230 miles. Maybe he decided to ride the rails alongside the companion Mrs. Haynes mentioned in her letter as the ne’er-do-well who led her son astray, and maybe that was the traveler questioned in Somerset (which, it should be noted, was the closest train stop to Bronston). But if they weren’t hobos, as Ashurst insisted, why pay good money to yo-yo to Ohio and back?
“There’s just something—I hate to use the term ‘fishy’—unresolved about that identification,” Craig told me. “Both sides of the equation didn’t quite equal zero. If they had, that tombstone would have had a name, and they would have filed a death certificate.”
With all the claims and evidence on the table, Matthews, Goble, and Craig decided that the question of Some Mother’s Boy’s identity was still open. He might be Owen Bennett Wheeler Jr., Frank Haynes, W.A. Shafer, or someone else entirely. DNA would provide the answer.
In truth, the story that first drew me to Kentucky wasn’t Some Mother’s Boy. It was the other case Matthews hoped to resolve simultaneously—the murder of Nubs. I was hooked by the dual mystery of an unsolved murder of an unidentified man. Plus, the case carried an echo of the current opioid crisis. Nubs was found in a barn near an exit off Interstate 75, along a stretch of the road known today as “heroin highway.” When he died nearly 30 years ago, it was used to run marijuana, Kentucky’s top-earning cash crop throughout the 1980s and ’90s. Remote regions in the state served as high-traffic corridors for powerful cartels with names like the Cornbread Mafia.
When I first spoke to Matthews by phone, in March 2017, he told me that the working theory on Nubs was that the victim had somehow been involved in the drug trade. If enough evidence tied the case to the marijuana black market, I imagined that I could draw a line to Kentucky’s long legacy of illicit industry—to scenes of Appalachian backwoods littered with bootlegging operations, pot plots, and heroin caches.
But every time I talked with Matthews, I could tell that he was more enthusiastic about Some Mother’s Boy. I didn’t get it. Nubs’s killer could still be at large. His family might still be searching for their loved one. Some Mother’s Boy had been dead for nearly a century. “No one’s looking for him,” I told Matthews on the phone. “You don’t know that,” he shot back.
Matthews offered me a twofer: visit Georgetown for Nubs’s exhumation and also tag along as authorities tracked down the Haynes family’s descendants and collected their DNA. I agreed, still hoping that Nubs would be my story.
Goble was in charge of finding the present-day Hayneses. But as the coroner of Scott County, his more immediate duty was to any recently declared dead in a 285-square-mile area. Every other day, I would call or email to see how the search for descendants was going, only to learn that it hadn’t even begun. One Friday night in early April, about three weeks before Nubs’s exhumation, I grew impatient. If there was no DNA collection to witness, I might have to cut my reporting trip short. I typed Mignona Haynes’s name into FindAGrave.com, which I discovered bills itself as “a free resource for finding the final resting places of famous folks, friends and family.” An entry popped up for Mignona Mayme Pratt Haynes in Bronston’s Newell Cemetery, along with links to the graves of her husband and children. Frank was not listed among them. A couple of Google searches and one obituary later, I had contact information for people who appeared to be the living children of the Hayneses’ youngest son. If Frank really was Some Mother’s Boy, he had a number of nieces and nephews still living near Bronston.
My reporter’s instinct told me to call them immediately. But this was Goble’s investigation, with Matthews serving as an expert guide. I didn’t want to step on any toes. So I waited until first thing Monday morning to phone Matthews and share my findings. By then I was fully adrenalized by the possibility that I might have unearthed an honest-to-God forensic lead.
“Goble still hasn’t found them,” Matthews said preemptively.
“That’s OK. I did,” I said, quickly adding, “or I think I did.”
Within a day, using state databases, Goble verified that the people I’d found were indeed the Hayneses’ blood relatives. When Matthews called to tell me, a psychic switch flipped. Nubs, Madison Man, moonshiners, and heroin traders all faded from my mind. I was suddenly, completely taken by Some Mother’s Boy. I struggled to understand why. Maybe his status as a nobody made him an everyman—a proxy for me, you, and everyone we know. Maybe I was driven by the same morbid curiosity that leads me to Google a deceased celebrity’s name for a half-hour, hoping to discern an unrevealed cause of death. Maybe it was something more primal, a basic urge to seize a dangling opportunity to solve something.
Matthews said I’d found a new vocation: I’d become what he calls a technicriminologist. “This is a new age where the ordinary man can step up and make a difference,” he once wrote on his blog. A “volunteer spending hours on a computer in their back room, may be the only chance of keeping a case alive.”
Some Mother’s Boy was this volunteer’s first case.
On the afternoon of April 27, 2017, Margaret Haynes Bell’s phone rang. The 60-year-old grandmother’s stomach plunged when Goble introduced himself—it isn’t the coroner who calls when you win the Kentucky Cash Ball. But once he explained that the dead relative in question had been deceased for 96 years, Bell’s dread turned into excitement. Of course she knew about Frank, her father’s brother who’d run off as a teenager only to get himself killed by a train. What she didn’t know, and what Goble told her, was that he might have just been exhumed from a grave 100 miles north of Bronston. Somehow the fact that his parents believed Frank was buried in Scott County hadn’t been enshrined in family lore.
Bell promised Goble that she would gather as many siblings and cousins as she could for a DNA test and agreed to get swabbed herself. They arranged to meet in the parking lot of a Walmart at 1 p.m. on May 2, the day after Nubs was to be dug up.
In the meantime, I reached out to Gaye Holman by phone. She was vexed that she had competition for Some Mother’s Boy. “I think what I’ve got is a really good story,” she told me. “That’s why I was so excited, because I have so much invested emotionally in looking all this up and spending so much time with it.” Goble had told her not to give up hope, pointing out that Mignona Haynes hadn’t recognized the watch found with Some Mother’s Boy. If he “had to guess,” he told Holman, there “was a 50-50 chance it was one or the other”—meaning either Frank or Owen Jr.
Holman admitted that she’d been mulling the evidence and hadn’t been able to come up with an explanation for the watch. “That and the laundry mark have me concerned,” she wrote in an email. The “Jones” mark had me concerned, too, as did the tag reading “E 1C6” found on Some Mother’s Boy’s shirt. No one had thoroughly researched either piece of evidence. Perhaps the young man’s identity could be cracked if I figured out how to connect the two.
The night before traveling to Kentucky, I stayed up late reading “Modern Methods of Identification by Laundry and Cleaners’ Marks,” a 1946 article from the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology by Adam Yulch, acting captain of the Laundry Mark Identification Squad—a real law-enforcement entity—in Nassau County, New York. Yulch argued that laundry marks were sometimes better tools than fingerprints when police were working a case. “Not everyone has a fingerprint record on file,” Yulch wrote. “But it is my experience that nearly everyone, knowingly or not, has traceable clues in his or her clothing.” He went on to describe how a brutal murder of a jewelry salesman was solved when “bloodstained towels tied together with [a] sash cord provided the clue.” In the corner of each towel was a distinctive mark, which led police to a laundry less than a half-hour from where the victim was found, and ultimately to a suspect, who was later convicted. The mark was “W-K33,” a four-character alphanumeric sequence just like the one found on Some Mother’s Boy. Until at least the mid-1970s, these codes were like license plates for clothes, tracing back to specific laundry establishments and customers. The “E” on Some Mother’s Boy’s tag could have referred to the last name of the shirt’s owner or to the specific location of a laundry with multiple branches: E as in east. Meanwhile, “1C6” could have referenced a customer or a store number designated by a larger laundry distributor.
Sometime after midnight, I gave up trying to decipher the code and stuffed the articles into a folder—along with copies of vintage Lindenthal advertisements, a history of the Royal Palm from an obscure train-enthusiast website, printouts of all the 1921 articles about Some Mother’s Boy, and a map comparing Owen Jr. and Frank’s probable travel routes. The following day, when I arrived at the airport, I discovered that I didn’t have a ticket. Or rather, I had the wrong one: In my state of utter distraction, I had bought a seat on a flight for the following week. The expressionless woman at the Spirit Airlines counter informed me that the ticket I had was nonrefundable.
In almost ten years as a journalist, I had never made such a daft and expensive mistake. But the thought of delaying or canceling the trip was unthinkable. I had to be there to see Some Mother’s Boy’s grave, to watch the Haynes relatives get swabbed.
I laid my credit card on the counter. Three hours later I was in Kentucky.
Before Nubs’s exhumation on the morning of May 1, I met up with Matthews at a McDonald’s in Dry Ridge, the town where the handless man was found in 1989. Matthews was wearing a black T-shirt, shorts, and his khaki baseball cap, which would not leave his head for the remainder of the week. When I complimented his soul patch he admitted to dying it using his own custom blend: two different shades of Just for Men brown.
The previous day he’d participated in another exhumation, this one relating to a case dating back to 1961. George Hawkins, the constable of Campbell County, Kentucky, had disappeared, and his car had been found abandoned near the Ohio River. In 1980, a skull with a suspicious head wound turned up some 60 miles downstream. There was speculation that it might belong to Hawkins, but to confirm the identity police needed a DNA sample from someone in his matrilineal bloodline. No such living relatives could be found. Decades later, Hawkins’s two daughters had made the decision to exhume their grandmother, Estella, dead since 1949, and use her genetic material.
“I told the ladies, ‘Now, you can’t unsee this once you see it. Are you sure you want to be here?’” Matthews said over an Egg McMuffin. Not only did they insist on being present when their grandmother was dug up, but they also asked if they could take one of her teeth home as a memento. It was a request that in nearly two decades of bringing up bodies Matthews had never encountered, and one he wouldn’t grant. (As it happened, when the coffin was opened, there were no teeth left to distribute.) But he didn’t scorn the impulse. “If one of your uncles fell off the face of the earth and was buried in a pauper’s grave, wouldn’t it matter to you?” he asked me. “I think it would.”
I don’t have any uncles, at least not that I know of, but I understood what he was saying about attachment. Half of my closet at home is a shrine to my beloved late grandmother: her old Soviet college diploma, her tomato-shaped pincushion, her silver shoehorn. My grandfather died before her and was buried in a Jewish cemetery in a remote Massachusetts town. Jewish tradition decrees that only rocks may be left atop a headstone, but my grandmother, baptized a Russian Orthodox Christian, would defiantly bring flowers to his grave. When she died, my parents buried her there. The thought of reinterring her in a flower-forgiving graveyard or filling a locket with her ashes had crossed my mind.
It was a cold morning in Dry Ridge. A hard, slanting rain had been pounding the ground since the previous night, and for a couple of hours it looked as though the exhumation might not take place. But by the time county workers at the Hillcrest Cemetery pulled on their rain boots, the sun had cracked the sky. As the lid of the casket containing Nubs was pried open, a hush descended over everyone assembled that could only be described as holy. Even among people who’ve made a career of death, relics retain their power. From the cemetery, a body bag holding Nubs’s remains (soft tissues and soupy bones, or as Matthews put it, “Think of an ice cream on a stick that melted and started to ooze from the wrapper”) went to the medical examiner’s office. They would be dried and cleaned before they were sent to the FBI lab.
I got in my rental car and drove to Georgetown, a half-hour south, where I stopped at Some Mother’s Boy’s grave to pay my respects. The recently disturbed ground was quilted with a bed of yellow mulch. From there I headed off to meet with Goble, whose office may be the most cheerful looking of its kind in America: a small brick-fronted building just off the town’s main drag, with big letters screaming “CORONER” mounted below the roof. It looked plucked from a Playmobil set. Nearby, on East Main Street, sat businesses with names like Birdsong Quilting Embroidery Crafts and Not Alone Pregnancy Center.
Goble was out on a call when I arrived, so like any good technicriminologist, I spent the wait obsessing over a detail of my case: the watch. The “W.A.” inscribed on the outside, everyone involved in the investigation seemed to agree, were likely initials. But what about the letters “L.H.D.” inside the case? An avid collector and repairer of vintage timepieces had told Matthews that the inscription meant one of two things: Either a jeweler had engraved his own initials when he did a repair, or the letters stood for “left-hand drive”—a reference to the crown’s location on the watch’s left side, which would make it easier for southpaws to wind.
Might there be a third option? I took out my phone and Googled “L.H.D.” and “Latin inscriptions.” Something caught my eye: “litterarum humanarum doctor,” or “doctor of humane letters,” an honorary degree. Could the inscription trace the watch back to, say, a father or grandfather who was an academic or other distinguished professional? It was a stretch, but not impossible.
If only I could see the watch or at least know its brand. Ashurst had sent it to Mignona Haynes in 1921, along with Some Mother’s Boy’s other belongings. I wondered if the descendants still had it. Goble, I was sure, would know the answer.
Back from his call, the coroner sat enthroned in the flickering penumbra of his low-ceilinged office, lit only by a television permanently switched to a channel playing old black-and-white movies. He proved to be a mountain of a man—six feet three inches, towering even when seated—with blue eyes that bore into me like diamond drills. His bookcases were lined with replicas of human skulls and other ephemera. Across from his desk, on a low table, sat a ceramic model of a Victorian house with electric lights twinkling inside. The sign on its tiny door read “mortuary.”
He was supposed to send the DNA samples from the Haynes family and Gaye Holman to the lab that week, along with Some Mother’s Boy’s teeth. But I pointed out that Holman wasn’t related to Owen Jr. on his mother’s side, a fact the coroner had overlooked. Now Goble had to call her and explain that she needed to seek out other living relatives.
To Goble this was more of a procedural hurdle than anything else. In the weeks since he’d told Holman there was a good chance the body was her mother’s long-lost cousin, he’d grown increasingly sure that Some Mother’s Boy was instead Frank Haynes. “Just too much of the evidence tends to that family,” Goble told me, though what he described was less hard proof than gut feeling. “We talked for, God, 45 minutes,” he said of his call with Margaret Haynes Bell. “She’s convinced it’s him. I’m convinced it’s him.”
“He deserves to go home,” Goble added. “He needs to be buried around his mother and father and sisters and brothers.”
“What if it’s not him?” I ventured.
Goble shot me a pitying look, then began firing off justifications for why the Hayneses didn’t claim the body in 1921: Travel was arduous back then. If the father didn’t have money to bury his son, he might not have been able to buy a train ticket. That would have meant journeying back to Bronston by wagon or stagecoach, a slog along potholed roads with a body in tow. “And you’ve got a wife that’s fatally sick,” Goble said, plus a dozen other children. Only he was juicing up the story: The Haynses eventually had 12 kids, but only six when Frank died—and Mignona Haynes lived another 16 years after her illness.
“What about the nice clothes?” I asked. Unlike Ashurst, Goble seemed to think that Some Mother’s Boy was a hobo, and train hoppers back then “killed each other for shoes,” he said.
“Someone could have took his clothes, and he might have gotten somebody else’s clothes,” came a voice to my right. It was Goble’s deputy, Mark Sutton, who’d been silently occupying a chair in the corner. The Royal Palm, he explained, was “kinda like the Titanic. If you were well dressed, the conductor would say, ‘You belong on the train.’ If you looked like somebody with rag clothes, they’d throw you off.”
The watch was probably stolen, Goble added. “What’s a 17-year-old kid need with a watch?” he muttered, shaking his head. “What does he care about time?”
I jerked upright in my seat. “Does the Haynes family still have the watch?”
“No,” Goble replied. Then he picked up the phone to call Holman and tell her the bad news about her DNA. I slumped back, my hope of sleuthing a case-breaking clue that coroners and cops had failed to see in “L.H.D.” snuffed out.
“Do you want to see him?” I looked up to see Sutton standing over me, beckoning.
In an adjoining room, spread out on a wood-laminate table next to an artificial ficus tree, was all that remained of Some Mother’s Boy. Each tooth had been carefully laid out on a grid of yellow Post-its, numbered one through 25. A small box held the casket hardware, handles, and hinges. Nested among them was a chunk of a metal plate on which the words “At Rest” could still be made out in elegant cursive.
Sutton pointed at the teeth. “One of them has a cavity,” he said. Then, more quietly, “Emily [Craig] thinks that the boy was actually younger, like 12 to 15.” I threw him a sharp look. Frank would have been 19 in 1921, Owen Jr. four years younger. From the other room we could hear Goble talking. “I know I’ve wrecked your day,” he was telling Holman. “See what you can do and let me know.”
The Walmart parking lot in Pulaski County, Kentucky, is the same as every one of the superstore’s concrete expanses tessellating across America—an un-landscape that almost defies description. The morning after my encounter with Goble, Matthews and I paced the lot’s periphery in a state of high excitement. We had been told that the Hayneses’ descendants would arrive in a red car. Seeing a woman’s leg emerging from a crimson Fiat, I hurried over.
“Are you Margie Haynes?” I gushed.
“Who?” she snapped, shrinking back into her pleather cave. I shook my head at Matthews.
Five minutes later we spotted them—two older women and a man. Soon we were shaking hands with Margaret Haynes Bell and two cousins, Mamie Hahn and Rick Haynes. They were all well into middle age and dressed casually. Like sugar-addled children, Matthews and I began plying them with questions. Did they still have the Lindenthal coat? I asked. Any idea who the traveling companion might have been? Matthews inquired. The answer to every question was an apologetic “no” or “we don’t know.”
By 1 p.m., Goble was there with his DNA-harvesting gear, as was a television crew from LEX 18 News led by a woman with a 1980s bouffant. Mamie Hahn said that she’d brought a photo of the Haynes family, which included the only surviving image of young Frank. She dipped into the back seat of her car and emerged with a black-and-white family portrait in a large gold frame. I was taken aback: Even considering that a portrait session was a special occasion in 1904, when the photo was taken, the family was handsomely dressed. Frank, then two years old, was propped on his father’s knee, alongside his mother and three siblings. He wore a collared, polka-dotted children’s gown and what appeared to be real leather shoes. Mignona Haynes, in her high-collared dress with puffed sleeves, and Frank Sr., a 1900s Don Draper in a smart suit, wouldn’t have looked out of place in Vogue. They were hardly the Steinbeckian vision of rural suffering depicted in Mrs. Haynes’s letter to Ashurst. I wondered if I had misjudged their means—or the importance they placed on maintaining a fine appearance in spite of their poverty.
Goble had set up shop on the hood of the LEX 18 crew’s car. Long cotton-tipped swabs fanned out from his blue-gloved fingers, making him look like a Perspex scissorhands. He offered one to each of the Haynes relatives, then stood by awkwardly as the cousins poked around their mouths. Walmart shoppers returning to their cars might’ve mistaken them for a family probing their teeth for poppy seeds or slivers of popcorn. After they handed the swabs over, Goble sealed each sample in a ziplock bag.
“It was in my dad’s Bible. See, right here,” Hahn said, producing a piece of yellow-lined paper titled “deathes” that she’d found tucked in the back of the holy book. It was a list written by her mother, Mary, detailing each sibling’s name and date of death, heartbreaking in its concision. (Mary lived to be 92, the last of the Haynes children to die.) There was Oscar, who fell off a river barge and drowned in July 1935. Eva Mae, who was shot to death by her estranged husband. Otto, who lived only five months, and Fanny, who died at 11. Among them, in looping cursive, were the words “Frank Albert Haynes died April 19, 1921 at Georgetown by train.”
“But why did he run away?” I pressed. Bell and Hahn exchanged a fraught look.
“Apparently he had taken something—” Hahn began.
“—and his dad got upset,” Bell said.
“—and ran him off.”
The women seemed troubled by the specter of family scandal, even one a century old. They didn’t claim any sentimental attachment to Frank; they were there for the sake of their beloved parents and grandparents. Bell’s father, Fred, was five years younger than Frank, and the disappearance hit him particularly hard. He kept an old flattop hat of his brother’s for his entire life. “My dad would have been very pleased this is happening,” Bell said.
“But why did he go north from Somerset to Cincinnati if his goal was to go south to Florida?” I asked, referencing the fact that in 1921 authorities believed the dead boy was trying to catch the Royal Palm down to the Sunshine State.
“I think my dad told my brother that he meant to get off in Lexington but went too far,” Bell said. In other words, Cincinnati was an accident, the result of a missed stop. For a boy who’d never traveled far from home, it was a plausible scenario. Yet there was no irrefutable proof here. The Haynes descendants were simply echoing their grandparents’ belief that Some Mother’s Boy was Frank.
“And what if the DNA test comes back negative?” I asked.
Until then, Hahn had addressed me in a soft drawl, maintaining a gracious resolve as a stranger peppered her with personal questions. Now she regarded me with suspicion. “My grandparents recognized the clothing,” she said. A wave of shame coursed through me like a vodka shot.
Bell shook her head. “I just knew it was Georgetown where he got killed,” she murmured. “That’s all I knew.”
Matthews, who had remained mostly quiet, regarded both women and tugged at the bill of his baseball cap. “Well, now we’ve got to prove it,” he said.
Before I left Kentucky to wait out the DNA testing period in what I could only assume would be a state of excruciating suspense, I made one final stop: Gaye Holman’s house, a tidy, one-story affair outside Louisville. Holman is petite, almost swallow-like, with lively blue eyes and white hair she wears in a pixie cut. She waved away my offer to take off my shoes so as not to dirty her wall-to-wall white carpeting.
Holman said she had the distinct feeling that she was being sidelined. “I guess they would like it to be theirs, too,” Holman sighed, referring to the Haynes family. She handed me a short story entitled “Voice from the Sinkhole” that she’d written. It was told from the first-person perspective of Owen Jr.’s dead body. “It is quiet now in the woods,” one passage read. “Small white wildflowers push their heads up through the undergrowth. They are my cemetery’s decorations; the downed trees my grave stone.” I showed her some archival articles I’d brought, and as she scanned one detailing Georgetown residents’ response to Some Mother’s Boy’s death, her eyes filled with tears. “Well, at least they sent flowers,” she said, her voice cracking. “So sad.”
Together we thumbed through her mother’s old journals. The handwriting was impeccable; Duncan, Holman explained, had been a schoolteacher. On one page, I noticed a capsule description of Owen Jr.: “Owen was near my age. Curly blonde hair, blue eyes.”
“Blond hair?” I asked, looking at Holman. According to all the 1921 accounts, Some Mother’s Boy had brown hair. “Light brown, blond, I don’t know. Some people—” then she broke off her sentence, flustered. “To me that isn’t a nonstarter.”
Holman said that she’d tracked down a maternal relative of Owen Jr.’s at a local nursing home. Two years before, according to the woman’s daughter, her recall had still been strong enough to share family stories. But she’d since slid into senility. Still, the daughter said she’d allow for her mother’s DNA to be tested. Holman told me she’d already sent word to Matthews.
The next time I spoke to Matthews on the phone was a week later. Had Goble started the process of gathering DNA from Owen Jr.’s aged relative? I asked. There was a long pause on the other end of the line. “The story she gave me was very weak,” Matthews said of Holman, choosing his words carefully. “If I hadn’t seen those hand-written notes stuffed in that Bible…” He exhaled loudly. Meeting the possible nieces and nephews of Some Mother’s Boy at Walmart seemed to have had a powerful effect. I gathered that neither Matthews nor Goble was in a hurry to get DNA from the woman at the nursing home.
Still, Matthews hadn’t stopped trying to make the Tetris pieces of Owen Jr.’s story fall within those of Some Mother’s Boy. What if he and Frank had been traveling together? What if Owen Jr. was the mysterious companion arrested in Somerset? And what if, after he was released, he took on a new identity to escape his past once and for all?
“Are you serious?” I asked incredulously when he suggested the outlandish idea. “It was an awesome opportunity to just fade out,” Matthews replied, unfazed. “Sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination.”
I didn’t agree with the cliché. In my mind, the destination of any saga was vital. With regard to Some Mother’s Boy, that could only be a DNA match, a definitively solved case.
These were the thoughts running through my head as, back home in New York, I waited for news about the testing. One day I decided to take a walk to get some fresh air. A block away from my apartment, I realized I had neither my wallet nor my cell phone. I paused at an intersection and wondered, jarringly, What would happen if I stepped into the street, got hit by a car, and died?
My husband was away on business. My six-year-old daughter was at school. I’m a freelance journalist without a carousel of colleagues and editors I see each day. I have friends, of course, but I had no standing plans with anyone. Matthews once told me that the key to an unidentified person’s fate is the question: “Does somebody miss you?” When he said it, he pulled out his iPhone and flashed his email account, showing 162,972 unread messages. “You think I will be missed?” he asked with a chuckle. I knew my family would soon note my absence if I died in that intersection, but it might take them hours or days to locate me, dead in a morgue: Jane Doe, five feet two inches, 115 pounds, brown hair, brown eyes, wearing jeans, a blue sweater, and gray sneakers.
The light changed, and I had the right of way to walk. Instead I turned and went back home.
The incident reminded me of something Matthews said on Missing Pieces, his podcast, about the impact his work had on his life. “I think it’s helped me to enjoy my children more,” he said. “I’ve gotten up in the middle of the night before and went into their bedroom and maybe kissed the boys on the forehead and just been so happy they’re there.”
I realized, standing on the sidewalk in Manhattan, that tackling the case of Some Mother’s Boy wasn’t just about correcting an injustice, bringing a family closure, or basking in the glow of success. I still wanted all those things. But the simple, perhaps selfish truth was that the case also made me feel alive—invigorated by a mystery and keenly aware of my own mortality.
Goble had promised the press and the Haynes family DNA results in 30 days. But the Dry Ridge police officer handling the Nubs case was told not to expect them for four to six months—and that was a homicide investigation. (As of this writing, the Nubs results haven’t come in.) Goble implied that his position would help speed up testing for Some Mother’s Boy. As the days, then weeks, ticked by, it became clear that wasn’t the case.
On May 11, Matthews received a terse message from Davey McCann, a forensic specialist at the Kentucky State Police Central Lab, which often helps local law enforcement package and deliver remains to the FBI. “I would estimate 9 to 12 months. Not to mention the potential NO PROFILE [inconclusive] results,” McCann wrote. “Teeth are difficult.” He warned that the FBI would not prioritize testing the remains of a random 96-year-old accident victim over just about anyone or anything else, particularly “recent/active cases that pose potential risk to public health.”
Goble and Matthews suddenly found themselves in an awkward position. “I thought this would show the power of DNA,” Matthews told me, not that NamUs was wasting resources. “Every yin has a yang, I suppose.”
He contacted the Smithsonian Institution to see if it might perform stable-isotope analysis, which provides information about the environment in which a dead person lived based on minerals in their bones, on Some Mother’s Boy’s teeth. The results wouldn’t confirm his ancestry, but they might provide dietary information that could help pinpoint where he was raised. The Smithsonian told Matthews that East Coast diets 100 years ago were too homogeneous to distinguish among neighboring states, much less the 135 miles between where Owen Jr. and Frank grew up. Unless Some Mother’s Boy turned out to be from, say, California or China, the test likely wouldn’t help.
At that point, Goble agreed to pay up to $2,000 for private DNA testing. I began scouring the web for labs, sending contact information for half a dozen that might have the capacity to test human remains as aged and diminished as those of Some Mother’s Boy. Matthews, though, had begun to worry about the repercussions testing might have on a case that had already gone sideways. “People watch CSI and think you can drop some blood in a world-class machine and a driver’s license shoots out the other end. That’s just not what happens,” he said. What if the DNA in the teeth was too degraded to identify, leaving the case permanently in limbo? Worse, Matthews asked, “What if it comes back and says neither one of you are related to this guy? Oh wow.” He sighed, thinking about Holman and the Hayneses. “They’re totally convinced that’s him. How can we tell them it’s potentially wrong?”
That wasn’t how I saw it. Matthews could instead be a courier of good news. If Frank wasn’t Some Mother’s Boy, that meant he might have survived his teens and started a new life elsewhere. If the Haynes family went looking, they might be delighted to learn they had an unknown branch of cousins. Holman, meanwhile, might create a new NamUs entry for Owen Jr., submit his maternal relative’s DNA as data, and cross-check it with thousands of other cases. And if Some Mother’s Boy was someone else—W.A. Shafer, for instance—what about his relatives? Wouldn’t they be thrilled to bring their lost boy home? What about “pushing the boundaries of forensic science”? I asked Matthews, echoing his own words.
“I want to do that,” he said quietly. He promised he’d call the labs I’d found.
A few weeks later, a new funeral for Some Mother’s Boy was held. This time he had a name.
One evening, several months after Matthews had solved the Tent Girl case back in 1998, there was a knock at his front door. He was surprised to find a local patrol officer, Ryan Allred, with whom he’d gone to high school. Allred had seen Matthews on 48 Hours and wanted to know if he would help investigate the death of his half-sister, Vickie Bertram. In 1976, the 16-year-old’s body had been found at the bottom of an abandoned quarry in Livingston called Rock Crusher. The cause of death was declared a fall, which locals took to mean she killed herself. Allred had always believed she was murdered.
Matthews agreed to take the case. For months the two men pored over files at Matthews’s kitchen table. They followed every lead, interviewing physical-trauma specialists and Bertram’s friends and neighbors. Matthews even measured the height of the quarry walls to prove that it would have been impossible for her to have plunged into a limestone basin without sustaining any broken bones, as stated in the autopsy report. Allred and Matthews’s theory was that someone had killed her and moved her body to make it seem like she fell. “I actually threw a pumpkin over that cliff,” Matthews told me. “The thing exploded like it had a stick of dynamite in it.”
Bertram’s family had her body disinterred, hoping to at least lift the stigma of suicide. “They were a Christian family, and that’s pretty damning in the South,” Matthews pointed out. The results of a new autopsy were inconclusive, although they did reveal a broken tailbone. Matthews issued a statement to the press saying that no one could be sure what happened at the quarry back in 1976, but that the assumption of suicide was unwarranted.
“That was enough for the family,” Matthews told me. It wasn’t the paperwork that mattered—it was peace of mind and public opinion.
The Bertram case offered an important lesson of the anonymous dead: Resolution isn’t always arrived at so much as coaxed from a chaotic jumble of facts and conjecture, a sea of maybes. Sometimes it’s a matter of negotiating between living with uncertainty and simply letting go.
One by one the labs Matthews contacted declined to test Some Mother’s Boy’s remains. Either they didn’t have the capacity to pull DNA from 96-year-old teeth, or they argued that nieces and nephews weren’t close enough relatives to provide adequate genetic reference samples, or they said the cost of the whole thing was simply too high. Meanwhile, pressure on Goble and Matthews kept building. Three months had passed since Some Mother’s Boy’s exhumation, more than one since the Haynes family’s DNA had been collected. The media interest that the two men had so deliberately courted was now something to dodge. “We’d stalled long enough. We needed the conclusion,” Matthews said. “It’s not exactly what we hoped for, but we had to tell them something.”
Matthews proposed an unconventional idea: to call the case based on circumstantial evidence. He didn’t come to the decision lightly, having never been involved in an investigation resolved that way. Then again, he’d never plugged into a case as old as Some Mother’s Boy.
Goble told the local media to expect an announcement on the afternoon of June 15, 2017. Before the press conference, he called a meeting. Matthews was there, along with two of Goble’s deputies and representatives of the Scott County sheriff’s office. They went out for lunch. The fate of Kentucky’s oldest anonymous body would be decided over egg rolls and fried rice at Georgetown’s only Chinese restaurant.
Their plates piled high, Goble asked Matthews, who’d brought along printouts of all the archival articles about Some Mother’s Boy, to present the evidence. There was a shared discomfort with the idea that a boy’s remains were now aboveground and in limbo. There was a competing concern about calling the case—any case, really—without DNA testing. “It was like I was on trial,” Matthews recalled. He told the whole story, from the circumstances of the boy’s death, to Ashurst’s thwarted search, to the revelation of Mignona Haynes’s letter. He described meeting the Haynes family and discussed Holman’s claim. “I can’t tell you what to do,” Matthews said, looking around the table, “but I believe this to be Frank Haynes.”
By the time dessert was served—Jell-O, because this was still the South—everyone had agreed. That afternoon the Scott County Coroner’s Office issued a statement: “After 96 years, the search for the identity of ‘Some Mother’s Boy’ has come to an end. Based on circumstances and consistency of associated evidence, there is no reason to refute the supposition that these are remains of Frank Haynes of Bronston.”
In mid-June, Matthews drove a small casket with Some Mother’s Boy’s remains from Georgetown to Southern Oaks Funeral Home in Somerset, where the manager had offered to provide a graveside service for the family at no cost. A relative commissioned a headstone—a piece of flat orange rock—and drafted a simple inscription that included the date of the funeral:
Frank Albert Haynes
March 2, 1902
April 1, 1921
June 26, 2017
There were only a handful of people gathered at Bronston’s Newell Cemetery for the burial, including the Haynes cousins and Matthews. No one said a word as the casket containing the boy legally, if not scientifically, determined to be Frank Haynes was lowered into the ground at an idyllic spot high on a hill overlooking a pasture and a pond. Despite all the ways the case had gone wrong, Matthews still considered Some Mother’s Boy a success. Frank had been declared Mignona Haynes’s boy, and now he was being laid to rest by her side.
After the burial, Matthews approached Mamie Hahn. He’d worn a T-shirt and jeans that day, so as to help dig the tiny grave. “I’m sorry if I intruded in your lives,” he said. “I won’t bother you anymore.” Hahn gave him a hug. “You never bothered me in the first place,” she said.
Before heading home, Matthews sent Goble two words via text: “It’s done.”
“Does New York have what she needs for her story?” Goble replied.
“He calls you New York now,” Matthews explained. “He’s forgot your name.”
Matthews had recently received good news: NamUs’s DNA funding would be restored on September 1. No reason was given for the sudden reinstatement, but it was preceded by an article in Forensic quoting angry police detectives who said the withdrawal of testing was “slowing investigations to a standstill.” That Some Mother’s Boy hadn’t proved the catalyst Matthews hoped it would be didn’t seem to matter. He’d used the funding crisis to make an “urgent and final appeal” about a case he couldn’t shake. “It was like the last call: If we don’t do it now, it may never happen,” he told me.
I felt cheated, especially having come so close to the moment when science would solve a century-old mystery. DNA results have famously roiled investigations that authorities long considered closed. What if my case was no different, but now I’d never know? At the same time, I kept thinking about the concept of Occam’s razor, according to which the simplest explanation is probably true. I knew that Frank being Some Mother’s Boy was the most likely answer to the whole mess. Somewhere in between the two notions, I would have to find balance.
When I called Emily Craig to ask how she felt about the verdict, her official response was “no comment.” Holman told me the outcome was disappointing. But she said that Frank had more living relatives, more people to glean some bit of solace from the decision. To her that meant something. “Nobody but me cared about my poor little guy,” she sighed. I was reminded of the final passage of “Voice from the Sinkhole,” her short story told from Owen Jr.’s perspective: “It is good, though, that someone thinks of me and searches still. I rest, knowing that my name on her papers is the benediction I never received.”
I didn’t want to fan Holman’s hopes, but Matthews had told me that he was holding on to two of Some Mother’s Boy’s teeth, a fact that Rick Haynes, the family’s unofficial press liaison, was fine with. “We know it’s Frank,” Haynes said. “If someone wants to contest it, go ahead.” Matthews had made arrangements with the state medical examiner to store the teeth in her evidence vault, “just in case someone has a valid argument,” Matthews explained. “I’m not gonna lock the lid shut.” The original headstone and plot in Georgetown would also remain. “It’s historic,” Matthews said.
In the meantime, he’d moved on to the next mystery: a woman who was found dead in the Smoky Mountains in 1974. Matthews had decided to take the Smithsonian up on its offer of stable-isotope analysis. Great Smoky Mountains National Park has long been among the most visited parks in the United States; if the Smithsonian’s process could help determine even which half of the country the woman was from, it could be a major breakthrough in the case.
The woman’s body was discovered near a chalet at the Cove Mountain Resort, a coat and sweater folded neatly beside her. Her working nickname is the Guest That Never Left.