An ordinary home remodeling project on an ordinary spring day in San Francisco turned out to be anything but ordinary on that May day a year ago. That was the day when a contractor discovered the metal casket of a mummified child while excavating the backyard of the Karner family in the Lone Mountain neighborhood.
It was determined that the lost child was a little girl, approximately 2-3 years of age, but who was she? What happened to her? When University of California, Davis, anthropology professor Jelmer Eerkens heard about the little girl — dubbed Miranda Eve — he knew he had to help.
“I read they were planning to just rebury the body without any analysis,” Eerkens told The New York Times in June. “As an archaeologist, I thought, that’s not right. There are a lot of things we can learn about history from preserved bodies, for example, migration patterns, health, diet and disease. That is our collective heritage, and we can’t just rebury things.”
Together with more than 30 specialists and volunteers, including genealogist and Garden of Innocence founder Elissa Davey, and UC Santa Cruz biomolecular engineering professor Ed Green, Eerkens began work on unraveling the mystery.
How did she come to be there?
The type of casket the girl was found in, along with the clothes she was wearing, indicated she was buried approximately 140-150 years ago. Researchers had the where, but this gave them a starting point of when to look for clues.
From 1865 to the early 20th century, the present-day Lone Mountain neighborhood of San Francisco had been a cemetery owned by the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The cemetery closed to new burials in 1902, and in the early 1930s, those interred there were removed and reburied in the Greenlawn Cemetery in Colma, California. Somehow, the little girl was missed and left behind.
Using an 1865 plan for the development of the cemetery (a map for a time after 1902 could not be located), researchers pinpointed two sections of the cemetery that most likely intersected with the location of the Karner’s home. Historical maps were then digitally layered on top of each other and cross-referenced against historical photographs to identify any family plots in that location.
‘Miranda Eve’ is really…
Before she was reinterred, samples of hair were taken for chemical and DNA testing in the hopes of finding a match with a living relative, as well as learning what may have led to her death at such a young age. UC Davis’ Eerkens and UC Santa Cruz’s Green set out to analyze the DNA.
An analysis of the nitrogen isotopes in the girl's hair by Eerkens and his anthropology students (Angela Evoy, Bryna Hull and Jena Goodman) revealed that she had suffered from malnourishment for several months before her death. “This indicates she was suffering from a chronic illness that caused ‘wasting’ or starvation, rather than something more sudden such as smallpox, which was common during this time, or an injury,” he said. “While an exact illness is still unknown, we suspect and illness caused her to eat less and less until she was unable to eat at all.”
Further analysis of DNA confirmed little Miranda Eve to be a girl of European ancestry.
After more than 1,000 hours of isotope DNA and genealogy research, two highly likely candidates for Miranda Eve’s true identity were pinpointed. In his lab at UC Santa Cruz, Ed Green then set out to determine exactly who she was by comparing DNA from the hair samples to living family members of the two candidates for a match.
After a yearlong search, the mystery has been solved: Miranda Eve was born on Nov. 28, 1873, as Edith Howard Cook, the eldest daughter of Horatio Nelson and Edith Scooffy Cook, members of two prominent San Francisco families during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Edith died just short of her third birthday in October 1876. Her three siblings — two brothers and a sister — survived her. Her older brother Milton H. Cook’s grandson, Peter Cook, resides in the San Francisco Bay Area today.
Peter Cook said his father passed away when he was just 3 years old, and as a result he didn’t know much about his father’s family history until Eerkens contacted him about Edith. And when the DNA testing came back as a match, “It hit the roof for me. I was beaming ear-to-ear with the news,” Cook said.
And now the 82-year-old can share the Cook family history with his eight children, 13 grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren.
Principal researchers on this project in addition to Eerkens, Green and Davey include Dave Frederick, genealogist and cold case investigator based in Billings, Montana; genealogist Bob Phillips of Seattle, Washington; and Alex Snyder, transportation planner and public historian in San Francisco.