Clyde Snow, one of the nation's foremost forensic anthropologists, who discovered the hidden stories told by skeletal remains and helped identify Nazi war criminal Josef Mengele and countless victims of accidents, crimes and state-sanctioned abuses of human rights, died Friday at a hospital in Norman, Okla. He was 86.
The death was confirmed by his wife, Jerry Snow, who said her husband had cancer and emphysema.
As a forensic anthropologist, Mr. Snow was a medical detective, a kind of latter-day Sherlock Holmes, who used keen observation, encyclopedic knowledge, and a thorough understanding of human experience and the human skeleton to overcome the silence of the grave.
With decades of scientific knowledge in his head, and a leather satchel filled with specialized tools, he solved many notorious crimes and historical mysteries. In addition to identifying the body of Mengele in South America, Mr. Snow helped to tell the story of Custer's Last Stand; confirmed the identity of X-rays taken after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; and refuted theories that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were buried in a grave in Bolivia.
"There are 206 bones and 32 teeth in the human body," Mr. Snow often said, "and each has a story to tell."
In a career that spanned continents and decades, he helped give names to murder victims and to people whose remains were found after airplane crashes. He was called the country's best-known grave-digging detective.
In 1985, as Mr. Snow's achievements became increasingly known, he was engaged by the Simon Wiesenthal Center to identify remains found in a cemetery near Sao Paulo, Brazil.
In one of his most exhaustive studies, Mr. Snow and his examiners matched hair samples, noted a telltale curved left index finger, verified the dead man's hat size and determined that the fillings in his teeth were from Nazi-era German dentists.
The person who had lived for years in Brazil as Wolfgang Gerhard, Mr. Snow concluded, was, in fact, Mengele, the notorious doctor who carried out gruesome medical experiments and killings in Nazi concentration camps during World War II.
"There was a mountain of evidence," Mr. Snow said in 1991. "It was just overwhelming."
In another mission, Mr. Snow was sent in 1985 by a scientific group to Argentina, where a "dirty war," conducted under the rule of military juntas, had caused as many as 30,000 people to become mysteriously "disappeared."
After leading a team that found and identified the bodies of many death-squad victims, Mr. Snow served as a witness at the trials of several high-ranking military officials accused of the killings.