Mary Manhein liked to paint a scene for her LSU students. Imagine kicking up your feet on the sofa and relaxing after a long day, she would say.
Then the phone rings. And so begins another case to crack, another set of bones to identify, another race to connect a family with a missing loved one.
Such is the story of Manhein’s career as a premier forensic anthropologist and LSU professor, which will come to a close when she retires at the end of April. The late-night phone calls have led her to crime scenes of all types, and then to sometimes months, years and decades of work in her specialty: identifying the dead.
Her work has earned her the nickname “the bone lady.”
Manhein’s storied identifications have included astronauts who perished in the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, Hurricane Katrina victims and the body of murdered University of Louisiana at Lafayette student Mickey Shunick. She was among those who exhumed and examined the body of Huey P. Long’s alleged assassin Carl Weiss, and she helped in finding evidence connected to Louisiana serial killer Derrick Todd Lee.
“A lot of those cases come back to me at the oddest times,” she said. “All of that never leaves you, it never totally will.”
But Manhein hopes to at least move on from the long days of lecturing in the classroom and then mocking up the faces from skulls in her Forensic Anthropology and Computer Enhancement Services, known as FACES, laboratory. She planned on being an English teacher before discovering forensic anthropology in college, but hopes to return to those roots upon retirement.
Manhein has penned a handful of books, including her autobiography “The Bone Lady: Life as a Forensic Anthropologist.” She hopes to write more fiction, and is writing a sequel to her fiction book “Floating Souls: The Canal Murders” about a forensic anthropologist in New Orleans.
She also plans to travel, visit family and continue her newfound hobby of guitar lessons, though she chuckled while noting that the music does not come as easily to her as the lab work.
Manhein’s colleagues call her an energetic worker, a mentor and a friend. She has often tag teamed her identification cases with Robert Barsley, a professor at the LSU School of Dentistry and a forensic dentistry expert.
Teeth are often used to age and identify the dead, and Barsley and Manhein have worked together on several high-profile cases. One of their favorites is the case of Precious Doe, an unidentified 3-year-old child who was found decapitated in Kansas City, Missouri.
The child’s skull was eventually sent to Manhein and Barsley, who helped determine her age and created a bust depicting her likeness in hopes someone might recognize the little girl and identify her. A tip eventually came in and Precious Doe finally had a name, Erica Green. Her mother’s boyfriend was later convicted of first-degree murder, and her mother pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
It took years, but Manhein stuck with the case of Precious Doe until the little girl was identified. Barsley described her as a woman who never tires, and who always stays optimistic in such times. He will most miss “just being able to pick up the phone and call her, and pick her brain about something.”
Manhein also persuaded Barsley to join the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, DMORT, which is called on in disasters to help identify the dead. She was called after the Columbia Space Shuttle broke apart, propelling debris across Texas and Louisiana.
Manhein helped identify the dead astronauts’ remains so they could be returned to their families. She said it made her feel patriotic and was her way of helping her country when it was hurting.
Teaching has been another one of Manhein’s passions. She has taught several courses at LSU, and started an introductory forensic anthropology class open to all majors.
In her classes, Manhein shared tips on identifying the dead — how to determine age, ethnicity, sex, how the person died and any pre-existing conditions. She also taught students how the FACES lab uses skull measurements to generate likenesses of missing people.
“Most impressively, fairly recently, she began to work with computer scientists to bring the computer based visualization into her lab,” said Fahui Wang, department head for Geography and Anthropology. Wang described the combination of technology with traditional forensic anthropology as cutting edge.
Manhein first started the FACES lab by herself, and the lab employs five forensic anthropologists and one imaging specialist.
“She’s taken that lab from one person to now it’s world famous,” said Barsley.
Manhein is also the head of the Louisiana Repository for Unidentified and Missing Persons Information Program. She initiated a bill in 2006 that became state law that created a comprehensive database for all missing an unidentified people in Louisiana, which LSU touts as the biggest and only one of its kind in the country.
The database has pictures and identifying characteristics of missing people, as well as computer-generated likenesses of bodies of people who have been found but are unidentified.
Wang said he and his supervisors are still determining how they will replace Manhein. No decision has been reached yet but, he noted, she leaves big shoes to fill.
Manhein taught her last class the spring of 2014, sprinkling bits of life advice along the way with her forensic anthropology knowledge since she knew it would be her last. Her parting words to her last class of students were “follow your heart.”
She said she’s tying up loose ends and finishing a few projects in her last few months until retirement.
“I wanted to quit while I was at the top of my game,” Manhein said.
Still, she acknowledged that her curiosity can get the best of her, and that it will be difficult to read about unidentified bodies and missing people in the news rather than investigate the cases herself.
One aspect of the bone lady’s career will remain, though. Manhein will continue to be a member of DMORT, should disaster strike.
She keeps her bags packed at all times, just in case the phone rings again when she’s lounging on her sofa late at night.