Princeton University takes down online course after anthropologists’ handling of MOVE bombing victim remains stirs controversy
An online course offered by Princeton University on the platform Coursera called “Real Bones: Adventures in forensic anthropology” has been suspended in the wake of a controversy about how the remains of MOVE bombing victims were handled by two anthropologists who taught at the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton University.
The class was taught by Janet Monge, a curator in the physical anthropology section at the University of Pennsylvania Museum who was also an adjunct professor at Penn and a visiting professor at Princeton.
Alan Mann, who is now a professor emeritus at Princeton, was given the bones by the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office for forensic analysis in 1985. He and Monge were never able to positively identify the remains from the police bombing of the MOVE home in Philadelphia.
Originally known as the Christian Movement for Life, MOVE is a communal, anti-government group founded in 1972 in West Philadelphia that has advocated for Black liberation and the environment. On May 13, 1985, following a standoff and firefight, a police helicopter bombed the MOVE house. The Philadelphia Fire Department let the subsequent fire burn out of control. Five children and six adults were killed, and more than 60 homes burned to the ground over two city blocks.
The remains of one or two children who died in the bombing were at the Penn Museum for many years. Local online news outlet Billy Penn reported that the remains —- a pelvic bone and part of a femur —- were stored in a cardboard box for years. Mann took them to Princeton in 2001 when he left Penn. In 2016, a year after Mann retired from Princeton, the remains returned to the Penn Museum for testing with new technology. Monge, who was still unable to make a positive identification, also used the bones in the video for the Coursera course offered by Princeton.
An archived description of the “Real Bones” course mentions the MOVE bombing victims: “This week introduces the field of forensic anthropology with a case study of the bombing of the MOVE community. Many human remains were burned and thus ‘personhood’ was lost. This is more than just a forensic anthropology case study. There were very serious issues of social and political consequences of the events that led up to the assault on the Philadelphia neighborhood and their outcome in a confrontation with law enforcement agencies.”
A spokesman for Princeton said in a statement to the New York Times that the online course has been suspended out of respect for the victims of the MOVE bombing and their families. School officials said they have no reason to believe anything improper is taking place at Princeton, but that the university is reviewing its policies and protocols for the handling of human remains in teaching and research to make sure they are consistent with the highest professional practice and ethical standards. The Penn Museum is also reviewing its policies and protocols.
The Penn Museum returned the bones to Mann after the controversy about the issue made headlines in regional and national news outlets. Museum officials told reporters they hope the bones can be returned to MOVE. On April 21, the local online news outlet Billy Penn first reported the story about the bones at the Penn Museum. When the story first broke, officials at the museum and Princeton were unclear on the whereabouts of the bones.
Present-day MOVE members told a Billy Penn reporter they were shocked to learn about the bones being at the museum. “They were bombed, and burned alive,” Mike Africa Jr. told Billy Penn. “And now you wanna keep their bones”.
City officials told Billy Penn the remains had gone unclaimed by the families after the bombing.
The Philadelphia City Council issued an apology for the MOVE bombing last year, 35 years after the tragedy.
Mann claims he is not sorry for ghoulishly keeping people’s beloved children’s remains, rather he is sorry that folks are disgusted by his behavior; “sorry to learn that there is a perception that what I did with the MOVE human remains was wrong.”
Rouse, as if discussing something the dog left on the porch, glibly refers to the bones given “profoundness of the MOVE thing.”
The bones had already been identified by renowned medical examiner Dr. Ali Hameli as those of Tree Africa. Their theft is a reminder how little black folk matter in the insular Ivy thermos.
Alan Mann has repeatedly said over the years how much sorrow he feels for the victims and how ghastly the atrocities committed by the officials were in this bombing and attack. It is common practice in forensics to hold on to unclaimed remains (these two bones remained unclaimed all of these years) in the hopes that better technology comes along so that they can identify them. Attempts were made to get DNA from living family members of the victims that these bones may belong too, however the family declined and identification was halted. Identifying fragmented bones is very difficult, even for skilled experts, and compound that with the fact that some of the victims of this tragedy were undernourished and the remains were burned. These factors make it extremely difficult to 100% positively ID the remains. He is just as renowned as Dr. Ali Hameli and his opinion of disagreement with Dr. Hameli is merited.
Alan Mann has commented many times over the years his sorrow for the victims of the MOVE bombing and how wrong it was of the authorities to do what they did. Often times in forensic cases, bones are kept if they are not able to be identified (and are not claimed which these two bones were not) in hopes that future technology will able to bring identification and closure to the victims. He and Monge attempted to get DNA samples from the possible family members and the family members declined halting the identification process. Dr. Ali Hameli and Dr. Mann disagreed on the identification. Fragmented remains are difficult to identify on their own let alone when the individuals that they are suspected to be were malnourished and the bones burned. These processes alter the bones and make them much harder to identify. Dr. Mann is also well re-known and his disagreement with Dr. Hameli is credible.
Here is Janet Monge’s official photo for the course, smiling and posing on human skulls as if they are plastic props. I don’t have a problem with a course on forensics, but do wish it was taught with respect for the human remains.
SB – those skulls ARE plastic props….they also are NOT human. They are plastic replicas of neanderthal skulls. Look up the company bone clones. Bone clones make plastic props similar to those although I’m not sure what brand those plastic props are.
As someone who has studied anthropology and met Dr. Monge, I can assure you that she has the utmost respect for victims and human remains.
Relieved to know this since it was not apparent from reading the text accompanying the photo. Thanks.
Comments are closed.