The Making of the Body Farm

by Cassandra Sproles September 15, 2017

Bill Bass had an idea. A big idea. One that would change the face of forensics forever.

When Bass came to UT’s anthropology department in 1971, that idea had already taken root in his mind. His goal was to have the means and resources to estimate the time since death for deceased individuals—something on which very little research was available.

While teaching at the University of Kansas in the 1960s, Bass had been asked if he could tell how long a particular cow had been dead. He knew he couldn’t tell. And this sparked his big idea. According to the book Death’s Acre (written by Bass and Jon Jefferson), Bass wanted to find a farmer who would be willing to let deceased cows lie in a field for him to study. Though the suggestion was never passed along to any farmers, the idea evolved even further after a case that solidified the need for such research— only this time for humans.

It was Lt. Col. William Shy, killed at the Battle of Nashville in 1864, that really pushed Bass to bring his idea to fruition. As Tennessee’s forensic anthropologist (the state’s very first), Bass was called to a family cemetery near an old mansion in Franklin that had belonged to the Shy family. The new owners had noticed that Shy’s grave had been disturbed and called police, who after digging further into the grave, made a macabre discovery—a headless corpse dressed in a tuxedo sitting on top of Shy’s coffin. Thinking this was a recent murder victim that someone was hiding in plain sight, the police made a call to Knoxville.

Bass examined the site and brought the body back to the anthroplogy offices underneath Neyland Stadium, where he began trying to figure out who this individual was, the manner of death, and time since death. Based on the pinkness of the flesh and the relative intactness of the corpse, Bass determined the individual had been dead no longer than a year.

It was a mistake that would return to haunt him throughout his career. The body turned out to be Shy himself, who had been removed from his cast iron coffin, his skull remaining inside. Bass had studied Civil War–era cemeteries in the past and never expected that a corpse embalmed more than a century before would be so well preserved. His estimated time since death was off by 112 years.

The miscalculation, reported nationally and internationally, was a source of embarrassment for Bass and yet another impetus to make his big idea a reality.

“To understand fully what had happened to Colonel Shy—and eventually what happens to all of us—I would need to track death deep into its own territory; observe its feeding habits, chart its movements and timetables,” writes Bass in Death’s Acre.

He approached then UT Chancellor Jack Reese and asked for a small plot of land where he could allow nature to take its course on deceased individuals and study what happened.

“The idea was simple; the implications—and the possible complications—were profound,” writes Bass. “By most cultural standards and values, such research could appear gruesome, distrustful, even shocking. Yet the chancellor never questioned the wisdom of it.”

Just up the road from the university near the UT Medical Center, the Anthropology Research Facility—later to be dubbed the Body Farm by law enforcement officials—began to take shape in the fall of 1980.

Bass and his students were responsible for the construction work at the new facility. They cleared the land, put in a gravel driveway, ran water and power lines from the hospital, and built a shed to store tools and supplies—and, on its front porch, their research subjects.

In the spring of the following year, they received their first body, that of a 73-year-old man whose remains had been donated by his daughter. Bass collected him personally from a funeral home in Crossville and named him 1-81 (the first subject in the year 1981).

It was the beginning of the world’s first outdoor forensic research facility. And the research conducted there by Bass, his students, and other researchers would help solve murders, bringing killers to justice and peace to families.

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