WASHINGTON — What do Meriwether Lewis, Jesse James and J. Edgar Hoover have in common?
Yes, they're all dead.
But aside from that?
Why, James Starrs, celebrity gravedigger and sleuth of the possibly slain, of course.
The George Washington University professor of law and forensic sciences, who dug up James and wants to dig up Lewis, has a new project.
Starrs is organizing a program for February's annual meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences on "The Death of J. Edgar Hoover: A Mystery in Search of a Solution."
Eleven panelists will consider subjects such as "To Autopsy or Not to Autopsy" and "Clandestine Means of Assassination."
And to help his inquiry along, Starrs is suing the District of Columbia medical examiner's office, which has refused to release any records it may or may not have on Hoover's death.
Hoover died on May 2, 1972, at his home here, and the death certificate listed the cause as "hypertensive cardiovascular disease." In other words, the 77-year-old head of the FBI had a heart attack.
That, at least, is the received wisdom among historians and biographers. But what do they know?
Maybe not the whole story, posits Starrs.
Hoover had enemies. Hoover's house may have been broken into just before his death. Hoover's toiletries may have had poison placed on them. Hoover's doctor said the FBI chief didn't have serious heart problems. Hoover probably wasn't autopsied. Hoover's remains were embalmed within hours.
Ipso facto, Hoover may have been murdered.
"I hope people take this seriously. There is a need for a thorough investigation of the possibility of homicide," says Starrs, 67, who is also battling the National Park Service for the right to dig up Lewis to possibly prove that the great explorer of the American Northwest was murdered and didn't commit suicide, as is commonly thought.
Starrs also exhumed the outlaw Jesse James in 1995 to prove through DNA testing that it was, in fact, James buried in a plot near Kansas City, Mo. It was.
Some historians, however, think this Hoover hunt is so much hokum.
"This sounds like another conspiracy theory run amok," said Athan G. Theoharis, a professor of history at Marquette University, co-author of "The Boss: J. Edgar Hoover and the Great American Inquisition."
"I know of no reason to suspect foul play," said Theoharis. "There are a lot of questions about the life of Hoover, but not his death."
The FBI declined to comment, but Theoharis said the agency never suspected anything untoward in Hoover's death.
"If they had," he said, "they would have been all over it. That was Hoover's bureau."
But Starrs is not to be deterred.
He cites a 1973 Harvard Crimson article, which used anonymous sources to suggest that Hoover's home was burglarized and a poison was placed on his toiletries.
Starrs notes that Hoover's doctor said his patient had only mild hypertension.
Moreover, Starrs says, Hoover appears not to have been autopsied and, suspiciously, his "remains were given accelerated treatment"--embalmed very quickly.
In a letter to Humphrey D. Germaniuk, the District of Columbia's acting chief medical examiner, Starrs wrote, "It is my understanding . . . that no internal autopsy was performed on his remains. I would appreciate your verifying that no record of an autopsy exists. If an external examination, however, was performed . . . I would ask to see and copy such a report. . . ."
Germaniuk did not return phone calls from a reporter. But in a letter to Starrs, he would not confirm even if there are any Hoover records, writing: "Death is the great equalizer and does not ask whether one is a princess or a pauper. Just as in life, people are entitled to their privacy, so it's my belief that in death people are entitled to their privacy."
Under the D.C. Code, only those with a "legitimate interest" can obtain autopsy reports. The medical examiner has limited release to relatives, law-enforcement officials and those who obtain a court order. Starrs, in his lawsuit filed in D.C. Superior Court, argues that "legitimate interest" includes research like his.
Starrs adds that he has no plans--"at this time"--to suggest Hoover be exhumed. The former FBI chief is buried in a lead-lined coffin in Congressional Cemetery, where his parents and infant sister also are buried.