DNA Of Headless Corpse In Idaho Reveals Story Of Ax Murders And Outlaws


Tom Hale


Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

Tom is a writer in London with a Master's degree in Journalism whose editorial work covers anything from health and the environment to technology and archaeology.

Senior Journalist


This undated composite sketch shows Joseph Henry Loveless. Anthony Redgrave/Courtesy of Lee Bingham Redgrave via DNA Doe Project

The identity of a decapitated torso found in a dusty cave in Idaho has finally been revealed after 40 years of mystery. However, many questions still hang over this strange tale of murder, outlaws, and jailbreaks.

Investigators have confirmed the headless body once belonged to Joseph Henry Loveless, a bootlegging outlaw who died in 1916 shortly after escaping from prison where he was serving time for murdering his second wife with an ax.


Speaking at a press conference on December 31, 2019, the team explained how they cracked the case, but warned they are still unsure how his headless body ended up in the remote cave. Nevertheless, they were able to find Loveless’ 87-year-old grandson and tell him about his grandfather’s wild story.

The mystery first came to light on August 26, 1979, when a family hunting for arrowheads in Buffalo Cave in rural Clark Country discovered a headless corpse wrapped in burlap. In 1991, a girl exploring the same cave system found a hand, leading to the discovery of a number of odd limbs also wrapped in burlap. 

The remains were handed to anthropologists from Idaho State University and the Smithsonian Institution, as well as investigators from the FBI. Although they were able to deduce he was a male around 40 years old at the time of death and had reddish-brown hair, they were unable to make much progress with the identification. 

Then, in 2019, came the help of the DNA Doe Project, a non-profit organization that uses genetic evidence to identify John and Jane Does using DNA obtained from people who have opted into law enforcement matching. 


Using DNA obtained from the man's bones, they were able to find his grandson and hundreds of relatives (after all, hundreds of first cousins can descend from a single grandparent). Dealing with outlaws in the early 20th century – who had numerous aliases, numerous wives, and few written records – is no easy task, but further investigative work was able to pinpoint Joseph Henry Loveless out of a number of possible candidates. One major clue was that Loveless’ grave was empty with no date, as if he had just gone missing without a trace. 

Further digging through news reports and records revealed that Loveless was born December 3, 1870, in the Utah Territory. Throughout his life of crime, he switched between a number of aliases, including Walter Cairns and Charles Smith. He married his second wife in 1905, with whom he had four kids, and was arrested for liquor bootlegging in 1914. He managed to break out of jail two years later and murdered his wife just a couple of months after his escape. 

While serving another term in prison in 1916, he escaped by sawing through the bars using a tool he hid in his shoes. The next part remains a mystery, but shortly after the jailbreak, he was somehow killed, decapitated, and ended up in the Buffalo Cave system. The case remains open. 

“It’s blown everyone’s minds,” Lee Bingham Redgrave, a forensic genealogist with the DNA Doe Project, told the Associated Press. “The really cool thing, though, is that his wanted poster from his last escape is described as wearing the same clothing that he was found in, so that leads us to put his death date at likely 1916.”


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