Final Say: Dr. Nicholas Bellantoni
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What was it like to be involved in the History Channel investigation of what was purported to be Hitler’s skull?
It was a unique situation. When I was in Moscow examining the cranial vault fragment that was believed to be Hitler, I was like “Wow, could I be holding his skull in my hand?” I guess my first impulse was to crush it! But I figured I wouldn’t make it out of the country. [laughs] It was obvious upon initial examination, and then later verified by DNA, that it was not him. I recognized right away that there were problems with what I had expected, knowing the historical background and biological factors of the man and his death, things that didn’t quite match up. And of course, the DNA demonstrated that the skull cap was that of a woman, so it was clearly not Hitler. One for the memoirs, I suppose.
Any theory on what happened?
My theory is that he didn’t escape; he clearly died in the bunker. He was a very sick man throughout his time in the bunker. There’s good evidence that he had not only at least one nervous breakdown, but also suffered a stroke while in the bunker. The idea that he could’ve escaped, at that late date, to me, isn’t very practical because of the information we had.
What happened, I think, is that when he and Eva Braun committed suicide. He put a bullet into his temple, she took cyanide—there is some suggestion from the Russians, when they did the original autopsies, that when they entered and found the bodies that he may have glass in his mouth, indicating that he may have had a cyanide tablet in his mouth as well as have pulled the trigger. Basically, his instructions to the German soldiers was that as soon as they committed suicide was to take their remains and completely cremate them to ashes, totally unrecognizable. Of course, he was afraid of what the Russians would do to his body—kind of like what the Italians had done to Mussolini even after he was dead, stringing him up in a local plaza. He didn’t want that. The idea was to cremate them to ashes, but that was not practical because when they brought the remains out of the bunker and into the vice chancellory garden, they doused them with petroleum and set the fire—there’s a lot of fluid in the human body and the fire, because it was outdoors, kept going out. They had to keep restarting it, meanwhile, the Russians were literally at the door, so they had to hastily bury them to hide them. Instead of a full cremation what you had was like—god forbid—someone who was in a house or car fire. There were forensically identifiable features when the Russians finally found the bodies, only about two days after they entered Berlin. They did a complete autopsy, and matching up dental records, made a positive identification of Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun and Joseph Goebbels and others who had died in and around the bunker.
The problem was that when the Russian pathologist sent the data to Moscow, Stalin completely rejected it, was completely upset. The public word was that they hadn’t found Hitler, they didn’t know where he was—as a matter of fact, Stalin eventually accuses the United States of hiding him out. For whatever reason, Stalin wasn’t happy with the report, so as a result, a year later he put together a commission to go back to Berlin and collect new evidence—mostly evidence that would support his ideas—that’s when they found, a year later, this cranial vault fragment. Even though they didn’t publicly say this, they maintained the remains at the Russian federal archives. While they never said it was Hitler, they certainly believe it. Of course, we were able to show it was not.
But yeah, he died in the bunker. There’s no question about it. It wasn’t until 1968 that the Russian government admitted they had found the bodies, and at that time, before anybody could do anything, they then finished the cremation and disposed of the ashes into the Elbe River. He’s washed away, so to speak. No question in my mind he died in the bunker. Because the skull plate was not him, doesn’t mean that he didn’t die in the bunker, it simply means what they recovered was not him.
Anyhow, a long, complex story, but an important story in human history. I think because of the global media attention—of course there was great interest in what happened in May of 1945—it made it an international story.
Not an international story, but last year saw the exhumation of the Old Leather Man, which you were also involved with.
I’m a big fan of the Old Leather Man. I think I first read about him twentysomething years ago, and I’ve always been fascinated with his story. You know what I love about the story? Back then, he was this man who was considered to be a tramp—we’d probably call him homeless today—and yet even though we don’t know who he was in terms of his name, we do remember him. I bet there are very few people in Connecticut today who could tell me the name of political and business leaders in the late 19th century and yet they remember the Old Leather Man. It’s just a compelling story.
What had happened in that case is that the Ossining Historial Society, which is in charge of Sparta Cemetery where he’s buried—not too far from Sing Sing Prison, by the way. He was buried in an unmarked grave with a stone that had been put in about 70 years after he died, but not at the time of the burial, so we didn’t really know if he was there or not. The problem was that the grave was in the corner of the cemetery, very close to Route 9, which is a highly traveled area. People congregate there at the grave and it became a safety issue. What they really wanted to do is remove his remains to another portion of the cemetery to make it safer and to put up a decent monument to him and to commemorate his story. Many, many people go to visit, interested in his story.
I was very interested in assisting in the project because I thought if we could find some remains, we could do some forensic analysis that might tell us a bit more about the man. It’s not that we would learn his name most likely, it’s not that we would remove all the mysteries of the Leather Man, but what I hoped at least was that we could eliminate the falsehoods that have been associated with his legend and maybe get some biological insight into the man that may have been helpful in terms of interpreting his life. In other words, get to know him better. But never would we be able to get enough date to eliminate the total mystery of the Old Leather Man.
I was intrigued by it and we worked together. Unfortunately, or fortunately—I say because there were people who didn’t want us to do this—there were no remains left. The remains had totally disintegrated into the ground. Connecticut and New York have very acidic soil and that means that organic remains do not last long. I’ve even seen a burial recently as 1906 that had nothing left but coffin hardware. All the organics had completely dissolved into the soil. Ashes to ashes, so to speak. And that’s what we found with the Leather Man. So in symbolism, we moved the soil that was him and buried it in the new plot, but unfortunately there were no remains to work with.
Just intrigued by the whole story and legend of the Leather Man, and it would’ve been great to contribute. Again, not solving the entire mystery, you know, but understanding him better and being able to tell his story more accurately.
Is it okay that some things remain mysteries?
Absolutely. I think the whole intrigue of it is mystery. But when an opportunity avails itself to learn more, gosh, we’re scientists. We work in a humanistic perspective, we understand what we’re doing with the remains of humans, and we treat them with the utmost respect.
The problem with total mysteries is that we make up stories, we make up legends, we make up things. I suppose that’s fine if you want to take it from folklore or legends. But to me, gosh, wouldn’t it be so much better to know reality and what really happened maybe? Again, we’re not going to solve everything. Mysteries are fine, but they also lead to falsehoods and misconceptions, and we make up stories. I guess that does have a place. But reality, what people’s behavior really was and how we can better understand that behavior, to me, that’s the challenge.
What’s the most unusual item you’ve dug up?
We came in to do a rescue operation at a Colonial-era cemetery in the eastern part of the state that had been uncovered by sand and gravel mining. We found one individual who, instead of lying anatomically in the grave, had been totally rearranged—the thigh bones had been uprooted and crossed over the chest, the chest had been violated and the cranium had been deliberately decapitated. When we found it, we were like, “Yikes! What are we looking at?” It led us to the concept of vampirism. That is to say that back in the 18th century people did not understand germ theory and had no idea how disease spread. So when you had an epidemic like tuberculosis, which ravaged New England families without any real good science in terms of what was going on, one belief was that those who had died of the disease had remained undead in their graves and were capable of leaving those graves to feed on living family members, and hence spread the disease. As a result, the dead had to be put to further rest, so they went back into those graves, rearranged them or burned the heart if it was still present.
Looking at it contemporarily, I think understanding that behavior is important because I think today we’re not far removed from that, even with our great scientific technology. What I mean by that is that a few years ago there was a scare about swine flu, if there were a pandemic outbreak, we would do everything that the scientific community told us—wash our hands, cover our mouths—however, if people were dying and continued to die, then there would be a number of people who would be doing things out of the ordinary to protect themselves and their families. Things that would not be rational behaviors but out of sheer fear, but would do it to save themselves and their loved ones. We have the benefit of science, but should that fail, people would be doing other things. We’re not far removed from the 19th century. These people acted out of fear and not out of horror or how we would view it today in the 21st century. This was a public health issue, they were frightened and they were trying to save loved ones, and this was worth a try especially when the doctors and churches weren’t helping them. I look at us today, I say god forbid if something similar happened to us today, even with our medical technology, who knows what we would try to save our loved ones.
It’s a historic story, but I always try to make the connection to the contemporary.
That’s the story of the Jewett City vampires, right?
Exactly! In fact, the graveyard accidentally uncovered by the gravel operation was two miles from there. So when we were looking and trying to figure out what the heck we were looking at in the ground—we had this archaeological anomaly—that’s when we first heard the story of the Jewett City vampires and everything fell into place. We worked very closely with a folklorist and historian by the name of Michael E. Bell from Rhode Island, who researched the vampire belief in New England for many years before we got involved. What was significant about our work was that we found the first hard archaeological evidence of that activity.
By the way, the guy who had been arranged in the grave, when we did the forensic analysis, had tuberculosis.
What’s the most unusual item you’ve dug up?
Oh my gosh, the vampire story has got to be the most unusual. When I got involved in that, I had no clue about vampirism other than popular movies and books. Since then, I’ve become this expert, although I wouldn’t really say that. It’s gotten me into a different thought world that I hadn’t really fully explored. I don’t think it gets more unusual than that.
Have you ever discovered something during an excavation and been like, “Uh oh. This is a problem”?
Not so much “This is a problem,” as much as “This is not what I expected.” I think when you go into the field at a site, you’ve done the background research, the time period you’re going to be investigating, the cultural traditions . . . every site you go into with the theoretical and other expectations. Sometimes however, you get what you get, as we say. Sometimes the archaeological record can throw you a curve ball and that’s kind of cool. Like with the “vampire.” Here we are rescuing the cemetery that was affected by the mining operation, to move remains in a professional, respectful way, and do some analysis and have them buried in a new cemetery, and we were in the process of this when all of a sudden we were thrown this curve ball with this one burial which was not what we expected. So it leads you into further analysis. And that’s just got to be fun all the time. Like anything else, when you get the unexpected, now you have a new problem to solve and it keeps you on your toes and it’s great.
What is your dream archaeological discovery?
I’d love to find the remains of a mastodon with Native American stone-tool butcher marks. After the glaciers and the land opened up, we had large mammals here. We have six paleontological sites [in Connecticut] where the fossilized remains of mastodons have been recovered, but the sites were worked in the 19th century. I would love to make such a discovery now because it would involve the very first people who came here over 10,000 years ago. To me, that would be really intriguing.