Cover image for Death's acre : inside the legendary forensic lab the Body Farm where the dead do tell tales
Death's acre : inside the legendary forensic lab the Body Farm where the dead do tell tales
Bass, William M., 1928-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : G.P. Putnam's Sons, [2003]

Physical Description:
xii, 304 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Program Information:
Accelerated Reader AR UG 9.2 18.0 79336.
Added Author:
Format :


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Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GN69.8 .B37 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Nowhere is there another lab like Dr. Bill Bass's: On a hillside in Tennessee, human bodies decompose in the open air, aided by insects, bacteria, and birds, unhindered by coffins or mausoleums. At the "Body Farm," nature takes its course, with corpses buried in shallow graves, submerged in water, concealed beneath slabs of concrete, locked in trunks of cars. As stand-ins for murder victims, they serve the needs of science - and the cause of justice.

For thirty years, Dr. Bass's research has revolutionized the field of forensic science, particularly by pinpointing "time since death" in murder cases. In this riveting book, he investigates real cases and leads readers on an unprecedented journey behind the locked gates of the Body Farm. A master scientist and an engaging storyteller, Bass shares his most intriguing work: his revisit of the Lindbergh kidnapping and murder, fifty years after the fact; the mystery of a headless corpse whose identity astonished the police; the telltale bugs that finally sent a murderous grandfather to death row; and many more.

Author Notes

Jon Jefferson is a veteran journalist, science writer, and documentary filmmaker. His writing has been featured by The New York Times , Newsweek , USA Today , and Popular Science .

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Bill Bass' forensics lab at the University of Tennessee is like no other. At the "Body Farm," corpses are allowed to decay naturally, exposed to the elements; they are locked in automobile trunks, submerged in water, buried in shallow graves--all to help pathologists understand what happens to people after they die. In this informative book, cowritten with science writer Jefferson, Bass gives us a guided tour of the Body Farm and takes us behind the scenes of some of his most interesting cases, including his reappraisal of the Lindbergh kidnapping. Fans of the forensics-oriented novels of such mystery writers as Kathy Reichs and Patricia Cornwell (who supplies the introduction to this book), not to mention television series like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation0 , will make an eager audience for this one. On the other hand, readers whose queasy meter hits the danger zone at the mention of decaying flesh should proceed with caution. --David Pitt Copyright 2003 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this memoir, Bass, a premier forensic anthropologist, recounts how a life spent studying dead bodies led to the creation of "The Anthropolgy Research Facility" (aka the Body Farm), a plot of land near the University of Tennessee Medical Center where Bass and his colleagues monitor the decomposition of human corpses in various environments. The book is structured around the 1981 creation of the Body Farm, and the early chapters focus on some of Bass's trickier cases to demonstrate his need for more information about the science of forensics. The later chapters take a closer look at how the scientific analysis of Body Farm corpses has helped Bass and other anthropologists solve some of the toughest and most bizarre cases of their distinguished careers. Though professional and conscientious when describing the medical facts of each case, Bass, writing with journalist Jefferson, proves to be a witty storyteller with a welcome sense of humor. He also does a nice job balancing accounts of death and decomposition with decidedly not-so-morbid tidbits from his personal life. Furthermore, the poignancy of how he reacts to the deaths of his first two wives reflects the compassion he feels for the dead and their surviving family members he encounters in his working life. Bass may deal with the dead, but he has a lust for life that comes across in his writing. While the grisly details may not make this a must-read for everyone, those who do pick it up might just be pleasantly surprised by how Bass brings death to life. (Nov.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

School Library Journal Review

Adult/High School-Not for the "faint of stomach," this is the story of one man's quest to identify murder victims. Bass, who created the University of Tennessee's Anthropology Research Facility, which is devoted to research on human decomposition, mixes scientific and personal anecdotes in such a way that readers are hooked from the first page. Readability, however, never loses out to accuracy, and the mix is quite an accomplishment. The author explains the process of decomposition and how bones give clues to identity: approximate age, sex, height, and race, all of which are needed to bring the forensic scientist one step closer to putting a name to a corpse. He describes some of the cases he has been involved with and laughs at himself when he shares stories of mistakes and assumptions. Young adults will gain insight into the forensic process and appreciate Bass's dedication to the truth and his work.-Peggy Bercher, Fairfax County Public Library, VA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter 1 A DOZEN TINY BONES, nestled in my palm: They were virtually all that remained, except for yellowed clippings, scratchy newsreel footage, and painful memories, from what was called "the trial of the century." That label seems to get thrown around quite a lot, but in this case, maybe it was right. Seven years after the Scopes "Monkey Trial" and half a century before the O.J. Simpson debacle, America was mesmerized by a criminal investigation and murder trial that made headlines around the world. Now I was to decide whether justice had been done, or an innocent man had been wrongly executed. The case was the kidnapping and death of a toddler named Charles Lindbergh Jr.-known far and wide as "the Lindbergh baby." In 1927, Charles Lindbergh, a former barnstormer and airmail pilot, had flown a small, single-engine plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, across the Atlantic Ocean. He did it alone, with no radio or parachute or sextant, staying awake and on course for thirty-three hours straight. By the time he reached the coast of France, news of his flight had reached Paris, and Parisians by the thousands flocked to the airfield to welcome him. The moment he touched down, 3,600 miles after leaving New York, the world changed, and so did Charles Lindbergh's life. His achievement brought him fame, fortune, and a pair of nicknames: "Lucky Lindy," which he hated, and "the Lone Eagle," which reflected both his solo flight and his solitary nature. Five years after he flew into the limelight, Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, were living in a secluded New Jersey mansion. They had a twenty-month-old son; his parents named him Charles Jr. but journalists called him "the Eaglet." It was the heyday of sensational journalism, and savvy reporters and publishers knew that a Lindbergh story-almost any Lindbergh story-was a surefire way to sell newspapers. So when the heir and namesake of Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped, a media frenzy broke out: The case attracted more journalists than World War I had. The ransom notes-at first demanding $50,000, then later upping the ante to $70,000-made front-page headlines and newsreel footage; so did the claims, emerging from towns throughout America, that the Lindbergh baby had been found alive and well. But all those claims, and all those hopes, were laid to rest two months after the kidnapping, when a small child's body was found in the woods a few miles from the Lindbergh mansion. The body was badly decomposed; the left leg was missing below the knee, as were the left hand and right arm-chewed off, it appeared, by animals. On the basis of the body's size, the clothing, and a distinctive abnormality in the one remaining foot-three toes that overlapped-the remains were quickly identified as the Lindbergh baby's. The next day they were cremated, and a brokenhearted Charles Lindbergh flew out over the Atlantic, alone once more, to scatter his son's ashes. No one called him Lucky Lindy now. The police eventually arrested a German immigrant named Bruno Hauptmann, a carpenter whose garage rafters had apparently been used to construct a makeshift ladder used to reach the Lindberghs' second-floor nursery. Hauptmann was arrested after police traced a large portion of the ransom money to him. He was charged with kidnapping and murder: The baby's skull had been fractured, though the injury might actually have resulted from a fall, since the ladder broke during the abduction. Despite allegations that some of the evidence against him was suspect or fabricated, Hauptmann was convicted. He died in the electric chair in April of 1936. Fifty years after the crime, in June of 1982, I was contacted by an attorney representing Bruno Hauptmann's widow, Anna. All these years after his execution, Mrs. Hauptmann was still trying to clear her husband's name. Her only chance was a dozen tiny bones. Recovered from the crime scene after the body's cremation, they had been carefully preserved ever since by the New Jersey State Police. At the request of Mrs. Hauptmann's attorney, I drove up to Trenton to see if this handful of scattered bones might somehow show that the body had been incorrectly identified-that a rush to judgment had triggered a terrible miscarriage of justice. Let them be the bones of a younger boy, an older boy, a girl of any age, she must have prayed. Anything but the bones of Charles Lindbergh Jr. I was her final hope-a small-town scientist backing up traffic at a tollbooth as I asked directions to the headquarters of the New Jersey State Police. It was a long and fascinating road that had brought me to Trenton, and by that I don't mean the New Jersey Turnpike. What had brought me here was a path that once pointed toward an uneventful career in counseling but that suddenly veered off in the direction of corpses, crime scenes, and courtrooms. My forensic career began as a result of an early-morning traffic accident outside Frankfort, Kentucky, in the winter of 1954. On a damp, foggy morning, two trucks collided in a fiery crash on a two-lane highway. When the fire was out, three bodies, burned beyond recognition, were found in the vehicles. The identities of both drivers were easily confirmed, but the third body was a bit of a mystery. By sheer but momentous coincidence, some months after that accident, The Saturday Evening Post carried an article about Dr. Wilton M. Krogman, the most famous "bone detective" of the 1940s and '50s. Krogman was a physical anthropologist who, along with two Smithsonian colleagues, virtually created the science of forensic anthropology. He was considered such a great forensic authority that during World War II, the U.S. government had him waiting in the wings to identify the remains of Adolf Hitler. As it turned out, the Russians beat the Americans to the burned-out bunker containing Hitler's bones, so Krogman never got a look at the Fnhrer. But he had plenty of other forensic cases, from the police and the FBI, to keep him busy. In the Post article, Krogman mentioned several other scientists who also specialized in identifying human skeletal remains. One of those he named was Dr. Charles E. Snow, an anthropology professor at the University of Kentucky, where I was pursuing a master's degree in counseling. The school, Dr. Snow, and I were all located in Lexington, just thirty miles from the scene of that early-morning truck collision. Although I didn't know it at the time, I was about to collide head-on with my future. A Lexington lawyer who read the article realized that Dr. Snow might be able to identify the third victim of the fiery crash. He called Dr. Snow, who readily agreed to examine the remains. At the time, I was taking an anthropology class from Dr. Snow just for fun. When he got the lawyer's call, Snow asked if I would be interested in accompanying him on a human-identification case. This was a chance to apply, to a real-world case, scientific techniques that so far I had only read about. Why was I the one student he invited to go along? Perhaps he appreciated my budding brilliance; perhaps what he appreciated was the fact that I had a car to get us there. In any case, I jumped at the chance. The body had been buried months before, so the lawyer completed the necessary paperwork to authorize an exhumation. On a warm spring day in April of 1955, Dr. Snow and I drove to a small cemetery beside a little country church in east-central Kentucky. By the time we arrived, the grave had been excavated and the coffin uncovered. Spring rains had raised the water table almost to ground level, so the coffin was immersed in water. As it was hoisted from the grave by a cemetery truck, water poured from every seam. The body was burned, rotted, and waterlogged-quite a contrast to the immaculate bone specimens I had studied in the university's osteology lab. Traditional anthropological specimens are clean and dry; forensic cases tend to be wet and smelly. But they're intellectually irresistible too: scientific puzzles demanding to be solved, life-and-death secrets waiting to be unearthed. From the smallness of the skull, the width of the pelvic opening, and the smoothness of the eyebrow ridge, even my inexperienced eye could see that these bones came from a female. Her age was a bit trickier: The wisdom teeth were fully formed, so she was an adult, but how old? The zigzag seams in the cranium, called sutures, were mostly fused together but still clearly visible; that suggested she was in her thirties or forties. As it turned out, the police already had a pretty good idea whose body this was. Dr. Snow's job was simply to confirm or refute the tentative identification. An eastern Kentucky woman had been missing since the time of the accident; what's more, the night before the wreck, neighbors had overheard her say that she was riding to Louisville with one of the truck drivers, a man with whom she'd had a longtime relationship. The lawyer who enlisted Dr. Snow's help had already obtained the missing woman's medical records and dental X rays. Armed with this information, Dr. Snow swiftly matched her teeth and fillings with those appearing in the X rays. By confirming her identity, Dr. Snow gave the lawyer a solid legal basis for a liability claim on behalf of the woman's surviving relatives. It seems that she and her boyfriend were killed when the other truck swerved across the highway's centerline and struck them head-on. The truck that killed them was owned by a nationwide grocery chain-The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, or A&P-so there were deep pockets to be tapped in court. Dr. Snow's consulting fee for the case was $25; he handed over $5 of that to me for taking us to the cemetery in my car. I suspect the lawyer extracted a good deal more than that from the cash registers of A&P. I didn't get rich that day, but I sure got hooked. It was fascinating to see the way burned and broken bones could identify a victim, solve a long-standing mystery, close a case. From that moment on, I decided, I would focus on forensics. I turned my back on counseling, switched to anthropology, and set about making up for lost time. A year later, in 1956, I was accepted by the anthropology Ph.D. program at Harvard University. Harvard was regarded as the best anthropology department in the country, so I was honored to be accepted, but I turned them down. There was only one place to learn what I wanted to learn: in Philadelphia, at the feet of the famous bone detective Wilton Krogman. I arrived in Philadelphia to begin my Ph.D. studies at the University of Pennsylvania in September. I was fresh from a summer job at the Smithsonian Institution, where I had analyzed and measured hundreds of Native American skeletons. I was twenty-seven years old by now-I had spent three years in the Army during the Korean War-and I had the beginnings of a family: a bright young wife, Ann-who would later earn a Ph.D. of her own in nutrition science-and our six-month-old son, Charlie. To save money, Ann and I rented a small apartment several miles west of downtown Philly. Not long after the semester started, Dr. Krogman fell down the stairs in his house and shattered his left leg. Normally he commuted to campus by city bus, but with a hip-length cast, getting to the bus stop and clambering aboard would be nearly impossible. Since Krogman lived west of the city, too, I offered to drive him to and from work while he mended. I thought we'd be carpooling for a couple of months. As it turned out, we rode together for the next two and a half years. It didn't take him nearly that long to heal, but by the time his cast came off, I had found a new mentor, and he had acquired a new disciple. Surprisingly, I took only one course from Krogman at Penn, but all those hours together in the car became my own personal tutorial with the world's best bone detective. It was like an automobile-age version of the Socratic dialogs, but unlike Plato, I had the great teacher all to myself. Krogman would assign me readings, and we'd discuss them as we drove back and forth. He had a fantastic memory for authors, dates, and publication titles, as well as every detail within the articles themselves. His ability to integrate knowledge from many sources, and to apply it to solve forensic problems, was phenomenal. Krogman didn't confine the tutorials to the car, either. Whenever he was given a forensic identification case-a set of bones from a puzzled county medical examiner or FBI agent-Krogman would call me into his lab. He would examine the bones first and formulate his analysis, but he would say absolutely nothing. Then he would ask me to look at the bones and draw my own conclusions. Then, as we compared findings, he demanded that I support and document my statements by citing recent scientific articles on the subject. Krogman was always surprised when I found something he'd overlooked. It didn't happen often, but when it did, I glowed with pride. Krogman's teaching method was remarkably effective. Not only did it help me retain the material, it also prepared me to face courtroom questioning by hostile lawyers-something I've had to do many times in the subsequent years, though I couldn't have foreseen it then. At the time, all I knew was that Krogman was guiding me, case by case and bone by bone, down a marvelous path. All too soon the path forked. I left Penn to take a nine-month teaching post at the University of Nebraska in January of 1960, followed by eleven years at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. But my association with Krogman was far from over. We always stayed in close touch, personally and professionally. And when I trotted up the steps of the red brick headquarters of the New Jersey State Police in June of 1982, I found myself walking in Wilton Krogman's footsteps once again. Krogman had been asked by the New Jersey attorney general to examine the bones five years earlier, in 1977. Because of the lingering questions surrounding the Lindbergh case, the state was considering reopening the investigation. On the basis of Krogman's findings, they chose not to. Now I was revisiting that same issue on behalf of the convicted killer's widow. By now I had attained a measure of professional standing of my own: I was the head of a thriving university anthropology department at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, as well as the creator of what would come to be called "the Body Farm," the world's only forensic facility devoted to research on human decomposition. I had been named a fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and was serving as president of the organization's physical anthropology section. I had examined thousands of skeletons and assisted with more than a hundred forensic cases. And yet, despite all that, I felt nervous and small: a pygmy walking in the footsteps of a giant. I would be only the second anthropologist ever given permission to examine the famous Lindbergh bones. I was ushered into a basement room of the state police building. A few minutes later a clerk brought me a cardboard evidence box. Inside were five glass vials. One of the vials had cracked at some point; it was held together with clear tape. Originally these vials had kept expensive cigars from going stale. Now, sealed with cork stoppers, they guarded a dozen tiny bones against loss or breakage-bones that represented both the premature death of innocence and the final hope of an aging widow. Two of the bones were clearly animal in origin: a two-inch piece of rib from a good-size bird, perhaps a grouse or quail, and a small vertebral arch, probably from the same bird. Both of these bore tooth marks on them-possibly from the same dog or dogs who had gnawed off the hands of the dead child hidden in the forest. Of the ten human bones, the largest of them-the calcaneus, or heel, of the left foot-was about an inch and a quarter in diameter; to the untrained eye, it could have passed for a piece of gravel. Four of the bones were from the left foot; two were from the left hand; and four were from the right hand. Despite the passage of half a century, decayed tissue, dirt, and even a few hairs still clung to several. Intact and undamaged, the bones bore no signs of trauma, no indication of cause of death. The only skeletal evidence that had pointed to that-the small fractured skull-had been cremated within hours after Charles Lindbergh identified the body as his son's. What I held in my hands-these ten small bits of hands and a foot-had been sifted from ten baskets of leaves and twigs raked up from the forest floor in the days after the body's discovery. The police had hoped to find answers-a murder weapon, a set of fingerprints, something that might point to who had stolen the child and what had gone wrong-but this handful of small bones shed precious little light. Fifty years later they still illuminated little. In childhood, skeletons are androgynous: There's no way to determine the sex of a skeleton; all you can do is measure and compare the bones you're examining with the size and development of other, known specimens. To that end, I'd brought along the two definitive reference books on this subject, Radiographic Atlas of Skeletal Development of the Foot and Ankle and a companion volume, Radiographic Atlas of Skeletal Development of the Hand and Wrist. Both represented careful studies based on X rays of hundreds of children's hands and feet. According to the measurements in those studies, the hand and foot bones from the glass vials were slightly larger than those of an eighteen-month-old male and slightly smaller than those of a twenty-four-month-old male. It took less than an hour for me to reach the same conclusion that my mentor, Dr. Krogman, had reached five years before me: There was nothing in the bones themselves to refute the notion that these were all that remained of a Caucasoid male child, aged twenty months. A twenty-month-old Caucasoid male child named Charles Lindbergh Jr.: the Eaglet. As I slipped the bones back into their glass vials and pressed the cork stoppers tight, I was struck by how little was left-how little to mark the loss of that glittering promise, the bright future, that Charles Lindbergh Jr. could have had; the relationship he might have forged with his famous father; the pride the elder might have felt as his son grew and perhaps spread his own wings, piloting airplanes or jets or even spacecraft. By 1982, I had three healthy sons of my own, ages twenty-six, twenty, and eighteen. I could scarcely imagine what it must have cost Charles Lindbergh in his soul to lose a young son to a violent death. But I did know what it cost to lose a different loved one to a violent, untimely, and senseless death, and I knew how fast such a thing could happen: A makeshift ladder in New Jersey breaks, and suddenly a kidnapping becomes a murder. Or a bright young lawyer's index finger curls around a trigger, and a bullet leaves a swift smear of carnage across a different set of lives. Across my life. It happened in March of 1932-by utter but strange coincidence, the very same month Bruno Hauptmann was nailing together a crude ladder that bore a fatal flaw. I was three and a half years old, twice the age of the Lindbergh baby. My father, Marvin, was an up-and-coming young attorney in the town of Staunton, Virginia. He was bright and good-looking; he was married to his childhood sweetheart, Jennie (twenty years earlier, they'd been crowned King and Queen of the Maypole); and he looked to have a promising future in politics. He'd already made one run for the office of commonwealth's attorney; he didn't win, but at age thirty he still had plenty of chances-or so everyone thought. We lived in a two-story white house on Lee Street, a couple of miles from the center of town, beside an apple orchard. My recollections of that time are few and fuzzy, but one memory of my father-of my father and me-remains crystal-clear: It was a Sunday morning, and he and I drove into town in our big black Dodge to buy a newspaper. (He'd come of age during the heyday of the Model T, but he'd also heard his father say, countless times, that Fords were made of tin, "and damned sorry tin at that.") The Dodge stopped at a street corner where a man stood beside a stack of papers. Daddy reached across me, rolled down the window, then handed me a dime and asked if I would pay the man. For some reason-fear? shyness?-I shook my head no and pressed my body against my father's. He smiled good-naturedly, took the coin back, and gave it to the vendor. I have photographs of this handsome young lawyer I'm named after. In some of them he holds me on his lap. In others he stands beside my mother. In most of them he is smiling. We were happy-he was happy-in those days, to the best of my memory. But the best of my memory isn't nearly good enough, because it doesn't begin to account for what came next. One Wednesday afternoon, not long after our Sunday newspaper excursion, my father closed the door of his law office and shot himself. It was early spring; the apple trees in the orchard would have been about to bloom; U.S. farm prices were finally on the rise; and my father put a bullet through his head. Decades later, in the one brief conversation we ever had about my father's suicide, my mother intimated that he'd been asked to invest money for some of his law clients and had lost it when the stock market crashed. Perhaps he was unable to face the people whose money he'd lost, or perhaps he was unable to face himself; who can say? Looking back on it today, when I am forty years older than he was when he killed himself, I can't help thinking, You could have gotten past it. If you'd just hung on a little longer, things would have worked out all right in the end. But for whatever reason, he couldn't see or feel a way, any way, to hang on. And so he let go. The instant he pulled the trigger, my father slipped from my grasp-slipped away from all of us-and he remains out of reach to this day. I still miss him. I imagine the things he and I would have done together as I grew up. I long for fatherly and lawyerly advice when I'm heading into a murder trial to face hostile questioning on the witness stand. I'm in my seventies, but I still cry like a child when I recall how I shrank from paying that corner newspaper vendor. If only I had paid the man! Perhaps that would have pleased my father; perhaps he would have smiled at the bravery of his little man, felt his heart lighten a bit, felt his own courage ratchet upward one small, crucial notch. Ironic, isn't it? Touched by death at such a tender age, you'd think I'd have had my fill of it early on and spent the rest of my life carefully steering clear. And yet, I deal daily with death. I have spent decades actively seeking it out; I immerse myself in it. Perhaps I'm trying to prove my bravery even now, across the gulf of years and mortality that separates us. Or perhaps when I grasp the bones of the dead, I'm somehow trying to grasp him, the one dead man who remains forever elusive. Sitting in the basement of the New Jersey State Police headquarters on that day back in 1982, I found nothing in those five cigar vials, nothing in those ten small bones, that could tell me anything about the Lindbergh baby I hadn't already known. Nothing to refute the evidence presented at Bruno Hauptmann's murder trial. Nothing to vindicate that half-century of hope in the heart of his widow. Anna Hauptmann, too-like the Lindberghs, and like me-had lost someone dear. Cherished husband but convicted killer, he would continue to elude her until that day when she herself slipped from those around her, finally catching up to the man she'd lived with and loved. Perhaps on that day she finally, fully grasped him. Perhaps one day soon I'll elude those who live with and love and should know me, and in that moment I'll find my long-lost father. In the meantime, I search for others among the dead. From ancient Indians to modern murder victims, I do reach others. Thousands and thousands of others. --from Death's Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales Copyright (c) 2003 by Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher." Excerpted from Death's Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab, the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales by Bill Bass, Jon Jefferson, bill bass All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.