New evidence suggests Colonial America’s ‘oldest unsolved murder’ victim was loser in 1624 duel

New evidence suggests Colonial America’s ‘oldest unsolved murder’ victim was loser in 1624 duel

In 1996 archaeologists unearthed the skeleton of one of the earliest European settlers in Jamestown, Virginia – a male aged 18-20, who they catalogued as ‘JR102C’.  When they discovered the cause of his death they believed they had perhaps uncovered Colonial America’s oldest unsolved murder.

JR102C had been buried in a six-sided coffin close to Jamestown’s church tower.  The soil that covered his grave contained fragments of both Native American and European ceramics dating to before 1600, so they knew that it had been filled in the earliest years of the colonial settlement.  Soil conditions and centuries of pressure in the ground had caused JR102C’s bones to deteriorate and his skull to be crushed, so his remains were removed with great care for lab analysis.

Remains of JR102C
Remains of JR102C

Forensic anthropologists from the Smithsonian Institution determined that JR102C was about 5′ 9″ tall and slightly built, but with a strong upper body.  His teeth and bones showed no signs of any early childhood diseases.  His right leg, however, was broken and twisted below the knee, and a lead musket ball and smaller pieces of shot remained in the bone.  In fact, the shot had shattered the bone and muscle so badly that the leg had twisted around almost completely and had ruptured a major artery.

As there were no additional wounds to the body, no attempt to remove the lead, and the bone had not healed prior to death, it was safely assumed that the leg wound was the likely cause of his death.  The blood loss would have killed him within minutes.

The anthropologists reconstructed JR102C’s skull and an artist attempted a facial reconstruction [pictured above].  However, his identity and the circumstances surrounding his death remained a mystery.

Now, 17 years later, archaeologist William Kelso – who worked on the 1996 analysis of JR102C’s remains – has found historical evidence of a duel in 1624 which may identify both victim and perpetrator.

According to Kelso, the duel involved a young gentleman, Lieutenant George Harrison, “who took a bullet in the leg and later died from it.”  The musket ball hit the right side of his knee, “suggesting the man was standing sideways, which would happen in a duel.”  Harrison’s duelling opponent that day was Richard Stephens, a Jamestown merchant.

Stephens went on to become a court commissioner and an enemy of the unpopular Virginia Governor John Harvey, to the point where the pair had a fist fight in 1635.  Stephens died the following year, and his widow went on to marry his bitter rival John Harvey in 1638.

Sources: NPR and Jamestown Rediscovery

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