Whydah Museum Turns Bone Over to Forensic Scientists for Possible Identification

Mysteries of the Whydah: DNA to Determine if Bone Remains Belong to Pirate Capt. Bellamy

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Whydah discoverer Barry Clifford seeing the femur bone section for the first time.

WEST YARMOUTH – A human femur found in a concretion pulled from wreck site of the Whydah pirate ship will now head to the University of New Haven for a forensic investigation.

Forensic scientists will attempt to retrieve a DNA profile from the bone and compare it to that of a living descendant of Samuel “Black Sam” Bellamy, who captained the vessel which sank off the coast of Wellfleet in 1717.

The shipwreck was discovered by explorer Barry Clifford and his diving crew, which included John F. Kennedy Jr., in 1984 off Wellfleet. Clifford has recovered millions of dollars worth of gold and silver, along with 60 canons and thousands of artifacts from the wreck site. The only authenticated pirate treasure ever discovered is on display at the Whydah Pirate Museum on Route 28 in West Yarmouth.

The femur bone was found in the concretion recovered from the wreck site over the summer in an area of the vessel’s galley which is where Bellamy may have been at the time of the sinking.

The bone was removed from the concretion Monday at the Whydah Pirate Museum and turned over to the scientists from the University of New Haven.

Professor Timothy Palmbach, the chair of forensic science at the school says getting a DNA profile will be a tough task.

“We have difficulty sometimes getting DNA profiles from victims that are a week or a month old if they are in adverse conditions,” Palmbach said. “So to go 300 years below the sea is a challenge.”

Palmbach said getting the DNA results will take some time and that his department probably would not have even been able to take on the project a few years ago.

“We really upped the ante and have some new technologies that are going to give us a shot at doing something like this,” he said.

Forensic scientist and professor Clair Glynn said studying this bone is an exciting opportunity.

“It’s not every day that we get to work on a case that is 300 years old,” she said. “So using science to bring history alive really is a wonderful opportunity that we have here in front of us.”

The process to extract DNA from the bone includes several steps.

The bone will be sanded down and all contaminants from the surface will be removed.

External DNA from that might have gotten onto the sample from the collection, preservation and transportation of the bone will also need to be removed.

“We need to dig down deep into the bone and we need to break it open,” Glynn said. “With ancient DNA we face even further challenges with getting any sort of good quality and some good quantity of DNA from that bone.”

The scientists will drill into the larger rounded end of bone and extract a chunk.

To extract the DNA, the bone will be pulverized and it will be cryogenically preserved.

Several kits will then be used to measure the quality and quantity of DNA recovered.

The DNA will then be compared to that of a bloodline descendant of Bellamy who was found in the United Kingdom by author and investigative journalist Casey Sherman.

If the remains are positively identified as Captain Bellamy, they will be returned to his native England for burial.

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