Nearly a month after its discovery, authorities are still baffled by an embalmed human head found in a field in Economy, Pennsylvania, about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. It was first stumbled upon by a middle school student on December 12.
"The young fellow had gone to school in a remote area of the county," says Beaver County District Attorney Anthony J. Berosh. "He thought it was deer guts. It turned out to be the head of some woman."
The road on which the head was found is "located in a wooded, residential area and is not a heavily traveled road," according to a police press release. As you would expect, the discovery was followed by a multi-agency search of the area. The operation included cadaver-sniffing dogs and an aerial survey by the Pennsylvania State Police Aviation Unit.
No other remains were found, however.
The head, which looks to have belonged to a woman in her 50s, had been embalmed and its gray hair had been styled, leading police to suspect this isn't a case of murder but theft from a graveyard, funeral home, or medical school.
"Not many murderers would know how to embalm," Berosh tells me. He adds that the head was apparently severed in a clean way that shows some expertise. The head was in good condition, with the skin mostly free of tears and all the teeth intact, so authorities do not think it spent much time out in the elements.
The head currently sits in the Beaver County Coroner's Office; all the leads have dried up. Investigators have reviewed missing person reports from 14 states. They've also surveyed medical schools, funeral homes, and organ donation agencies—"anyone who has access to bodies," according to Berosh. So far, nothing.
An unattached head like that is unusual, but hardly unique. As of 2007, about 40,000 sets of unidentified human remains sat in coroners' offices across the United States, according to a Department of Justice study released that year. Many of them were from decades-old cold cases.
In the event of a mysterious corpse or piece of a corpse, one tool for law enforcement officers is the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NaMUS), a database of unidentified remains and missing people maintained by the Department of Justice.
Todd Matthews, director of communications and case management for NaMUS, says he is not aware of another case of an embalmed body part found in the database. He tells me the fact that the Economy head probably belonged to a person known to be dead and put to rest puts police on the case at a disadvantage. Often, cases of human remains are solved by matching the DNA in the body part with DNA submitted to a database of missing persons.
"There's one case of a missing person and one case of unidentified remains," he says of a typical situation. "There are two ends trying to meet."
Unless someone has noticed a disturbed grave or security breach at a medical school, it's possible no one but the cops is looking for this head.
"It's a very strange case," Matthews says. "Could it have been some kind of joke?"
Another unidentified head was discovered in Pennsylvania back in 1904. This one was handled very differently. The head was found by the side of a road in Shamokin, in the center of the state; the man it belonged to had probably been "the victim of a highwayman," according to a 1977 Associated Press story. The local Farrow Funeral Home embalmed the head and placed it in a shop window in the hopes that someone would identify the man. After a few months, the home gave up, placed the head in a cardboard box, and shelved it for 70 years.
In 1976, the Anthracite Heritage Center, "a museum of coal mining things, asked if it could borrow the head," according to the AP. The museum "put it on display, mounting it on a pedestal beneath a black cloth. Visitors were told what was beneath the cloth, then asked if they would like to look. Most did."
After a few months, a county judge ended the show, "saying to place human remains on display bucked Judeo-Christian philosophy." He ordered it buried. The head then went missing "and most townspeople were convinced museum officials were hiding it for fear the county coroner would carry out the judge's order." But it soon turned up at the district attorney's office and the coroner managed its burial in an undisclosed location. That head's final resting place, like its origin, is still a mystery.
Berosh promises that, even if never identified, this new head found in Economy will see a more dignified fate. But because of lack of precedent, he's not sure when.
"If it's not identified, it will be buried in a nondenominational cemetery," Berosh tells me.
He's just not sure what the headstone should say.
Nick Keppler is a Pennsylvania-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in the Village Voice, Nerve.com, and Pittsburgh City Paper.