Lady and Baby Skeletons: Ancient or Modern Americans? West Virginia News Startup Tackles Mysterious Case

This past December, Lede News, a lively startup news outlet in Wheeling, WV, broke an unusual and interesting story. It concerned the skeletal remains of a woman and her newborn child who had been found in 1991 under the overhang of a nearby cliff. The bones did not appear to be recent, and they didn’t match any reports of missing people. In an area rich with Native American artifacts, including the Meadowcroft settlement and the Grave Creek Mound, documented in our PBS film Moundsville, the question, naturally, was whether the skeletons might be, not tens or hundreds of years old, but thousands. Authorities did not crack the case, and, although they determined a couple years ago that no crime had been committed, they still have not conducted radiocarbon dating that would nail down the exact ages of the remains.

What was discovered by the property owners on March 17, 1991, were skeletons, and many of the bones had been fractured by rocks that fell from the rock overhang where the remains were uncovered. A pair of McCardle family members, according to the reports on file at the Marshall County Sheriff’s Office, were walking their property and decided to take shelter under the same overhang, and that’s where this mystery begins.

Investigators did not find “a belt buckle, a shirt button, a rivet from a pair of jeans, or the underwire of a bra” that might indicate the bodies were modern, Lede News‘ Steve Novotney wrote. “Even today, I do believe that the remains are from Native Americans, and the female must have lived nearby,” Deputy Investigator Dan Livingston told Lede News. “In Marshall County, you really never know what you are going to find because of all the history in this area.”

It’s been a long time since Livingston has thought about the bones, but, he said, “I do remember it because of the hike it was to get to the location, and because of what those guys stumbled across. Those men really didn’t know what they had found that morning, and now, we still don’t know.” After all, the area has been occupied by humans, and often rife with conflict, for many thousands of years.

The story illustrates the crucial importance of local journalism. Novotney got the story, he told me, because he knows Bill Helms, former chief deputy and now sheriff of Marshall County. In other words, he’s a well-networked reporter who’s been in the business for decades. That is the essence of journalism: A storyteller wiring up a community and curating the most essential tales for everybody else. Newspapers might die, but, as Lede News shows, we can keep the journalism.

Novotney, a popular and well-known veteran of West Virginia journalism, founded Lede News, named after newspaper jargon for the first line of a story, in 2019. He runs it with Erika Donaghy, who handles business and IT issues. Novotney intends the site, which has gotten almost a million reads, to be “a complement to other news sites” instead of a competitor. In a growing news desert, I think Lede News is more than a complement. It’s a thorough, professional news operation, covering nuts and bolts like Covid, city council meetings, and sports, but also carrying a juicy slate of features, on topics from baking cakes to the mob. The opinion section, delightfully, is called “Free Speech”. (Full disclosure: Lede News has republished several articles from this blog.)

Novotney chased down and wrote up the Lady and the Baby story hoping to prod authorities to accelerate the radiocarbon dating process that might nail down the ages of the bones. He intends to keep following the case, and possibly publish a follow-up. That’s another important role journalists play: Reminding those in charge to serve their community. This is not a momentous story, to be sure, but it is a piece of a community’s shared narrative, and history. Cracking the case binds people together in fact and shared humanity. That woman and child, after all, were our partners in the miracle of the human experience. And, in truth, these stories can only be told by journalists. On the beat. Making phone calls. Checking multiple sources. Listening.

John W. Miller

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