It is unfortunately a story that we are familure with, from crime fiction and true crime. A body is found, an investigation is started, and then it goes… nowhere. It is one of the most poingant of all crime narratives because nobody wants to be in the horrible limbo of waiting to find out if a loved one is missing, or dead. Many who live with this schrodingers crime if you must, often say that they can be ok if their loved one is dead, as long as they know and can lay then to rest properly.
In The Forgotten Dead Jane Wilkonson illustraits the many lose ends that happen when a body, with no identification is found. In 1982 in Bolton, the body of a woman was found in a cellar, and the police named her “Mary Ellen.” Through Wilkinsons investigation she speaks to those who found her, the police who investigated the case, a family who believe Mary Ellen may be one of their members who had been missing for some time, and those who now work in genetic geneology giving relatives back their loved one.
Mary Ellen’s case also difficult because there is no overarching agreement about if she died of natural causes, or was murdered. Some people think she may have been homeless and finding an empty celler went in their to shelter from the cold. Others, say the cellar is more or a crawl space no one would have known about if they did not know the house, and suspect that a former resident, of which there were many, may have been responsible.
Mary Ellen’s case was also an pioneering in the early use of facal reconstructing, a technique where someones skull is used to make a likeness of the deceased person, which is not one hundred percent accuarate can give a very reasonable idea of what the person appeared like in life. Wilkonson also finishes up the podcast by looking further into newer techniques, particularly genetic geneology, now being used more often in investigations, but which has it’s own limitations and flaws to be grappled with.
While the technical side and theories about Mary Ellen are interseting for anyone dabbling in crime, the beating emotional heart of the story is when police follow a lead that Mary Ellen may be a missing mother from Liverpool. Wilkinson’s interviews and gentle handling of the family bring home to all of us who have never been through this heartache how lucky we really are. Coupled with the theories that Mary Ellen may have been part of the homeless population leaves one with a sense of how little security some can have in their lives, wether it has been actively chosen or not, and how the ties that bind can so easily be left flapping in the wind.