The Body in Question

Forensic pathologist John Coe has spent a lifetime examining skin, organs, and bones for answers to how and why we die

There wasn't much to work with. A fire had ripped through the Pine County house that January night in 1961, burning and melting everything in its path. What was left of the anonymous victim clung to blackened bedsprings. The property's owner, Levi Henter, had twice been convicted for passing bad checks, and remained under indictment for a third fraud charge. With little to go on, the county sheriff's

department called in the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension to help solve the case; when their investigators couldn't determine whether the body was Henter's, they turned to Minneapolis General Hospital's chief of pathology, Dr. John Coe.

Coe began his inquiry by separating chunks of charred flesh from the other debris covering the bedsprings--painstaking work that called for a delicate touch. Before long his attention focused on two pieces of evidence: a large lump Coe suspected was the torso, and a patch of skin most likely from the back of the corpse's head.

Daniel Corrigan

X-rays confirmed Coe's hunch. The vertebral column of the torso indicated that the victim was a male of average height and at least 60 years of age. A small tuft of white hair corroborated the age, and x-rays of the head revealed that he'd suffered a gunshot wound. Although the damage to the cranium was substantial, Coe wasn't prepared to list the wound as the official cause of death. Truth has a curious habit of shifting, and for all he knew, this John Doe was already dead when the bullet shattered his skull.

He then performed an autopsy on the torso and found that the bladder was not only intact but full. Coe tested the urine, which revealed a high alcohol content but proved negative for other drugs. Further tests of tissue samples showed a very low level of carbon monoxide, leading Coe to reason that not only was the man drunk when he was shot, but was dead before the house burned.

The description of the victim didn't match Henter, however. He was younger and abstemious; still, the BCA theorized that the tests could be inaccurate, and that Henter could have been so despondent over his third indictment that he'd started drinking and decided to kill himself. The shotgun blast could have sparked the fire, investigators reasoned. It was a stretch. Coe hadn't been able to locate any of Henter's dental records, so he made do with some old chest x-rays taken during one of Henter's prison stints. He painstakingly compared both sets until he was convinced that those from the remains didn't correspond to Henter's. Who, then, was the victim?

In the early 1960s, forensic pathology--that is, the investigation and interpretation of deaths that occur in a violent, unexpected, or unexplained manner--was still in its infancy. Blood work was limited to typing, toxicology tests were rudimentary, and virtually no conclusive studies had been done in the realm of postmortem chemistry. When he was called in on the January 1961 John Doe murder case, Coe was just setting out in the field, relying on a limited body of research and the instincts of an inquisitive scientist devoted to unraveling the mysteries that surround human death. He would devote the next 20 years of his life to groundbreaking research and innovation in postmortem chemistry--in the course of his career defining, shaping, and formalizing the application of medical knowledge to contemporary civil and criminal law.

In 1964 he became the nation's first chief of pathology at a major metropolitan hospital to simultaneously serve as county medical examiner, in Minneapolis and Hennepin County respectively. He held both positions for a full two decades. During those years he conducted some of the earliest medical explorations of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, perfected a test to determine a corpse's time of death that still ranks among the most reliable in criminal prosecutions, and gained national recognition for his work in ballistics, resulting in his appointment to the esteemed panels that reinvestigated the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Age has done little to diminish Coe's physical and intellectual stature. At 84 he is a still powerful figure--he stands at six-foot-four and weighs 190 pounds--and possesses a memory as organized as the files of research data he assiduously kept during his medical career. This morning, as he sits in the living room of his Bloomington apartment, Coe is dressed in what he considers casual attire: creased navy slacks and a pressed dress shirt he has adorned with a string tie and turquoise clasp. His voice is soft and slightly raspy, his speech devoid of any slang or the aw-shucks jargon favored by, say, the TV scriptwriters who created Quincy, M.D.--America's best-known practitioner in the field. Seeing Coe seated in a straight-backed armchair, with his legs crossed just so, mapping in the stark lexicon of forensic medicalese the expired human body's interior terrain, you might not suspect that he, at this moment, is relaxing.

"The Henter case was one of the most fascinating cases of my early career," Coe says, adding that it, like so many of the cases that established his reputation, reminded him that "death is a very complex process." Once the BCA realized that the corpse was most certainly not Henter's, agents began combing local missing-persons file in hopes of coming up with an ID. They did: He was an elderly St. Paul man by the name of Frank Nelson, with a weakness for the bottle; whiskey, recalls Coe, was his ultimate undoing.

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