21st Street house
The house at 3025 21st St., where human bones were found in 2019. Photo by Beth Winegarner.

Three years after human bones were found during a patio construction on 21st Street, the identity and history of the remains remain a mystery. 

Here’s what we do know: the skull, jawbone and cervical vertebra found in that backyard probably belonged to a middle-aged white man, older than 30 but younger than 60. He lost a molar and probably broke his nose sometime before his death. His skull showed some early signs of osteoporosis, but his teeth were in excellent condition, according to a report from the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s Office obtained by Mission Local. 

But it’s unclear whether the man’s identity or when and how he died, will ever be uncovered. 

The remains were found May 23, 2019, about two feet underground, in the backyard of a house at 3025 21st St., between Folsom and Shotwell Streets. The patio crew alerted Robin Whiteside, who owned the house at the time, and she called 911. San Francisco Police officers and Medical Examiner’s staff came out to begin their investigation. They quickly determined the bones belonged to a human — but who?

Over the years, the owner had noticed that many tenants’ dogs “were very interested in that corner of the yard, and often dug in the area in which the skull was found.”

san francisco medical examiner’s office

Whiteside, who served as the landlady to seven apartments in the house, told officers that day that numerous construction projects had taken place on the property since she bought the house in the mid-1990s, but this was the first time human remains had turned up. 

However, over the years she had noticed that many tenants’ dogs “were very interested in that corner of the yard, and often dug in the area in which the skull was found,” the report says.

Ellen Moffatt, a forensic pathologist with the Medical Examiner’s Office, brought the bones back to the lab to take a closer look. Aside from where the skull was struck by the patio crew’s shovels, there were no other signs of trauma to the bones, which suggested that they were separated from the rest of the man’s body well after he died. She determined the gender, race and the rough age of the man when he died, as well as the broken nose and missing molar. 

From there, the bones went to Chico State’s Human Identification Laboratory, where then-director P. Willey studied them. Willey’s findings agreed with Moffatt’s: The remains were definitely male and almost certainly white, but there was a chance they’re Hispanic. Willey also noted some soil staining on the bones, but even that doesn’t reveal much about the age of the remains. Soil staining can begin as soon as two months after burial, according to a 2018 study published in Forensic Science International. 

Sketch from the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s report on the remains found at 3025 21st St.

Moffatt also extracted DNA from one of the man’s teeth, and entered the data into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, which is mainly used to identify criminal suspects. Missing persons’ DNA are sometimes also found in that database, but in any case, Moffatt didn’t get any hits. The U.S. Department of Justice also collected a DNA sample and came up empty.

On the day of the find, Whiteside mentioned to the officers that she had researched the original owners of the house, built-in 1875 or 1880, and found that their son had died young, at 18. She didn’t know it at the time — the investigators didn’t, either — but that son was probably too young to have been the owner of the skull found more than a century later. 

In 2020, someone with the initials RW, claiming to be the former owner of the house, posted a comment on Mission Local with more information.

“In doing historical research on the house, I learned that the original builder had an oddball son named George who was obsessed with the supernatural and became a morphine addict. After holding various odd jobs, he enrolled in a Victorian medical school that used lots of cadavers,” RW wrote. 

The commenter, probably Whiteside, also suggested that someone, possibly the original builder, died suddenly at age 26, “leaving a mysterious illegitimate son, for whom there is no record. So I’ve assumed it was George, circa 1886.” Whiteside could not be reached for comment, and Mission Local couldn’t independently confirm the information in the comment. 

If the comment is correct, it’s possible that the skull belonged to one of the cadavers from the medical school. In that era, cadavers often came from criminals and the indigent; more than a few were stolen from San Francisco’s cemeteries, which operated largely during the second half of the 19th century. 

If so, that would make it even more difficult to identify who these bones belonged to. And it wouldn’t be the first time a relic from medical school turned up years later. Another skull, found in 2016 in the walls of a house at 79 Central Ave. during renovations, turned out to be a “novelty gift” belonging to an earlier resident, who’d gotten it from school, according to an SFPD spokesperson. 

Allen Pastron, the founding archaeologist for Archaeo-Tech, didn’t work on the 21st Street case, but he said that when human remains turn up in San Francisco — which happens pretty often — his team looks at a few different scenarios to determine what they’re dealing with. 

If the bones are buried without a coffin, if the body’s in a flexed position, and if the remains are buried with Native American artifacts, they’re probably indigenous remains and very difficult to identify. If they’re located within the boundaries of one of San Francisco’s former cemeteries, they can be dated to the time when that cemetery was active, Pastron said. Burial plot maps can sometimes be used to determine the identity of the remains. That’s what happened with the case of Edith Howard Cook, the 3-year-old whose casket was found in 2016 on a property that used to be part of the Odd Fellows Cemetery.  

But the skull found on 21st Street isn’t Native American, nor was it on the site of a former cemetery. The closest known cemeteries were blocks away, at Mission Dolores to the west and behind Magdalene Asylum, where Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital is today, to the east. 

Pastron said it’s unusual for human bones found in San Francisco to be connected with criminal activity. Even so, SFPD says the investigation into the 21st Street skull remains open and active. They’re just waiting for an identity.

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Beth Winegarner

COPY EDITOR. Beth Winegarner is a Bay Area native who’s lived in San Francisco since 2004, and she’s in the Mission at least once a week. She’s written for local publications like the SF Weekly, San Francisco Examiner, San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco magazine, as well as the New Yorker, the Guardian, Wired, Mother Jones and others. Her favorite tacos and alambres come from El Farolito.

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