In 1832 a skeleton clad in armor was found in a sand bank near the Unitarian Church in Fall River, Mass.
Not 20 miles north another mysterious discovery had been made: Dighton Rock, a 40-ton boulder with strange writing carved in it.
And some 30 miles south in Newport, R.I., stood a stone tower that some – including a famous poet -- thought was built by Vikings.
The discovery of the Fall River skeleton so near those other artifacts inspired theories that an ancient people had colonized America well before Columbus. Maybe they’d written their epitaphs on the rock found in Dighton.
Modern science might have identified the skeleton in armor. But 11 years after its discovery, the skeleton was destroyed.
Fall River Skeleton in Armor
Laborers were digging down a sand bank in the town of Fall River when they uncovered a skull. They dug further and found a body in a sitting posture and enveloped in a covering of coarse dark bark. The Fall River skeleton was surrounded by copper bangles, brass arrowheads and triangular pieces of copper armor. A belt was made up of 41 small brass tubes.
Most people at the time thought it was a Native American chief. Given Fall River's location, he could have belonged to the Narragansett or Wampanoag tribe.
Some thought the Fall River skeleton belonged to a Phoenician, Carthaginian or Egyptian mariner who discovered North America.
The skeleton was moved to the Fall River Athenaeum, where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow went to see it.
He thought it was pretty cool.
"The skeleton in armor really exists. It was dug up near Fall River, where I saw it two years ago,” he wrote. “I suppose it was one of the old northern sea rovers who came to this country in the 10th century.”
Longfellow wrote a poem, The Skeleton in Armor. “I was a Viking old,” the narrator declares.
He included the Newport Tower in the poem. The Viking brought to the new land a wife, he wrote. She died, and 'Under that tower she lies.'
Fall River Fire
The athenaeum and the skeleton inside it were destroyed in the fire of 1843. Two boys playing with a small cannon set 20 acres of Fall River on fire, burning the post office, custom house, shops, banks, churches and the homes of 200 families.
Because of the fire, the remains of the Fall River skeleton in armor can't be dated. But it was buried in moist soil, and couldn't have lasted more than a few centuries. That rules out the ancient mariner theory.
In 1881, Henry E. Chase of Brookline, Mass., debunked the theories about a pre-Columbian colony in an essay, Notes on the Wampanoag Indians.
Chase pointed out the Indians had a custom of stringing tubes of copper or brass in wide belts, and they buried their dead in a sitting position.
“We may regard him as a very ordinary and vain Indian, buried in his finery,” he wrote. “[O]r we may think of him as a successful warrior safely returned from a secret participation in King Philip's war, and afterwards buried in the spoils which he had stripped from a fallen foe.
Several decades later, the brass arrowheads were found to be exactly like those used by the Iroquois.
Archaeologists eventually determined the Newport Tower was actually the remains of a 17th-century windmill.
The mystery of Dighton Rock, however, was never solved.