House of 500 Corpses: FBI Raid of Illegal Artifact Collector's Home Uncovers 2,000 Human Bones in Private Museum
Don Miller filled his Indiana home with parts of around 500 corpses, nearly all belonging to Native Americans, representing a total of more than 2,000 bones. However, because the bones were ensconced in a homemade amateur museum of 42,000 artifacts, half of which were pre-Columbian, and most of which had been obtained illegally, the media considered the morbid piles of human remains to be little more than a curiosity. The CBS News report documenting the FBI’s raid on Miller’s home literally placed the 2,000 bones halfway down the article, having written that the FBI considered the museum itself to be the most surprising part of their investigation, which was handled by the “art crime” unit.
Apparently, a house of 1,000 corpses is a horror movie, but one with 500 is “art” so long as they are old, or, more importantly, not white. Imagine if Miller had had 500 white bodies. CBS would have led with grave-robbing rather than how charming and kooky Miller was.
The FBI raided Miller’s house in 2014 but did not publicly reveal the existence of the museum, the extent of Miller’s illegal collections, or the thousands of bones in the house until this week.
According to CBS News corresponded Anna Werner, Miller, who died in 2015, admitted to knowingly collecting the bones and artifacts in violation of antiquities laws during decades of illegal digs at sites around the world. As part of a settlement with the government, Miller surrendered 5,000 of his 42,000 artifacts and all the bones.
But the way that the discussion of the bones was framed was telling. The bones were relegated to the end of the article, of less implied importance than earlier discussions of Miller’s “charisma” and his lavish collections of global treasures. Consider this exchange between Werner and Tim Carpenter, the head of the FBI’s art crime unit:
"To the best of our knowledge right now, those 2,000 bones represent about 500 human beings." Nearly all of those human remains, he said, were also dug up from ancient Native American burial sites. "It's very staggering," Carpenter said.
Werner seems to imply that there is a correct number of human bones that it is normal to keep in your house. I wonder what that number is.
But the good news is that Werner understood that there is more to collecting parts of hundreds of corpses in your basement than just eccentricity. There is also the fact that Miller collected only one type of corpse: Native American:
"This comes down to a basic human right," said Holly Cusack-McVeigh, a professor of archaeology brought in by the FBI on the Miller case. "We have to think about the context of: Who has been the target of grave robbing for centuries? Whose ancestors have been collected for hobby?" Cusack-McVeigh said. "And this comes down to racism. They aren't digging white graves."
This important material really should have been placed at the top of the report, framing Miller as a racist grave-robber rather than a harmless eccentric who accidentally committed large-scale grave-robbing and then redeemed himself by feeling sorry after he got caught.
According to CBS, the FBI has returned a few of the bones to tribes in South Dakota but five years on, the majority of the bones will only be repatriated this spring.
It’s kind of weird, though, that when bones are old enough they become an “art crime,” as though age gradually strips the humanity from them.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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