Bill Bass - Full Transcript

Bill BassEmeritus Professor of Forensic Anthropology, University of Tennessee

Interview location: The Anthropology Research Facility ("The Body Farm") University of Tennessee, Knoxville, USA. 
Interview date
: 29th and 30th November, 2007


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Background to the Body Farm

[We start out with a visit to the Body Farm]

Bill Bass at the Body FarmBB:  Let me go back and give you just about a three-minute history.  I taught for 11 years at the University of Kansas, from 1960 to1971.  I identified skeletal material for law enforcement agencies in Kansas, but don't ever remember getting a maggot-covered body -- they were all skeletal remains.  I came here to Knoxville June 1st of '71 to take over a three-person department that was an undergraduate programme only and to build it into a graduate programme.  The Medical examiner The term for coroner in the US.  To qualify as a medical examiner, a person must have an MD and be licensed as a pathologist.  A coroner needs to be qualified in either law or medicine. [equivalent to the coroner in the UK] in Tennessee knew me and asked if I would serve as a forensic anthropologist for the medical examiner system, and I said yes.

It wasn't long before bodies started coming in.  Now, the police don't ask you, who is that?  They ask you how long have they been there?  I think the reason for that is that in a criminal justice system they're trained that the sooner you get on the chase the more likely you are to solve a crime.  Well, I didn't know anything about maggots, so I looked in the literature and there was very little in there.  I won't say there was nothing, but there wasn't much in the literature dealing with length of time since death.  So I decided, "You know, if I'm talking to the police about how long somebody's been dead, I better know something about it."  So I went to the Dean, and asked if I could have some land to put dead bodies on.  He said, "Yes", and he gave me the name of the man over on the agricultural campus who handles land. 

I started up with the sow barn up at the Holston Farm, which is about 12 miles up the river from where we are right now.  We used that from '71 until '80.  Now business was picking up and really expanding and it was kind of too far to go out there and get back -- you spent a whole morning or an afternoon doing any research.  So I went back to the university and asked for more land.  Where we are right now was where the university used to burn its trash, and sometime in the 1960s, before I came, the Environmental Protection Agency says, "You can't have open burning."  So they covered this over with dirt and it just grew up with bushes and so forth.  And I reckon they figured, "It's been a dump for all these years, might as well go give it to Dr Bass for his dead bodies!"  There are somewhere between two and three acres right here. 

Bodies put almost anywhere you can put a bodyWhen we first started there was nobody out here at all, and then, as you know, all hospitals are expanding, and now we're surrounded by parking lots on three sides so we literally can't expand any more here.  This is way over used, by the way.  There are about 150 bodies out here right now.  And we don't have any sterile land, if you want to call it that, for a student wanting to do research -- there have been bodies put almost anywhere you can put a body.  So we went back to the university and asked for additional land, and it's taken a while.  There are problems; not everyone wants to be a neighbour of the body farm!  And you need infrastructure -- you need lights, and you need water and you need sewerage.  You just can't go out somewhere in the middle of a cow pasture and set up a facility like this.  So it's taken a while, but when we leave today I will take you up and show you where the new facility is going to be.
Not everyone wants to be a neighbour of the body farm!

And we have just gotten external funding – a grant from outside the university.  We're going to build a million dollar processing facility, to process all the skeletal material after the decay process.  And there's money in there to hire a full time faculty member – what's called a post doctoral position.  This will be a person with a new PhD who wants to spend a year or two doing research in 'length of time since death' and things like that, the decompositional area.

Getting it wrong: the Colonel Shy case

SA:  Bill, just one thing, there was a story that I read somewhere about what made you think of doing something like this.  As you say, the maggots -- you realised there was very little written about the maggots, but wasn't there something also about being asked to  judge how long a body had been dead and you miscalculated by…

BB:  112 years!  [We both laugh]  This is the Colonel Shy case.

SA:  Yes, tell me about that.

BB:  Alright.  In the Civil War in the United States you had the north fighting the south, and this was a war in which not every family agreed with which side they were on -- you had families split.  One of the well-to-do families in Tennessee at that time was the Shy family, and one of the sons, William, became a colonel in the Confederate Army, that’s the southern army.   He was killed in the battle of Nashville in 1864, not too long before the end of the war.  He was killed within about 12 or 15 miles of his home, which was just south of Nashville, and he was taken back and buried in the family cemetery. 

You could see pink tissue on the femurAs time goes by, the Shy family moves away (they all live in Texas now).  The house had been sold a couple of times and it was being remodelled.  The wife of the physician had bought it, and she was coming out and checking on the remodelling, and found out that there had been a grave disturbed in the family cemetery behind the house.  She called the sheriff and the sheriff came out and decided they needed me.  So I went over and we got the body up.  The body had on civilian clothing.  It was so well preserved that you could see pink tissue on the femur.  There was no skull.   And I thought -- in my frame of reference as to how long somebody would be dead and still have pink tissue on them -- that they probably hadn't been dead more than just a few months.  So I thought, "You know, one of the ways of getting rid of a body is to go to the cemetery and dig a hole on top of a grave and put the body in there."  Well, that was on a Friday.  By Monday we figured, no, the person we had was really the Civil War colonel. 

What happens to bodies in coffinsWhat had happened there was that when Colonel Shy was killed, he was embalmed with arsenic and was buried in a cast-iron coffin that did not leak.  And he was dug up by the people who were remodelling the house, who said they'd heard that all Civil War colonels were buried with their swords.  Well that wasn't true anyway; and in this case he was not buried in his uniform, he was buried in civilian clothes.  (In fact there's a picture of him taken before the Civil War in the suit that he was buried in, so there's a good history there.) 

But nobody had ever looked at what happens to bodies in coffins.  Nobody had ever looked at arsenic as an embalming agent.  And so this was the beginning of a whole series of studies.  One of my doctoral students, a man named Doug Owsley, now works at the Smithsonian – he has continued on looking at a number of early burials in the Maryland area, and he's building up quite a collection.  The earliest one of these though is the Colonel Shy case. 

But to me, I had removed a German Lutheran cemetery in a little town called Wartburg about 50 miles from where we are now, and that cemetery was used from 1830 to 1890, so it bracketed the Civil War period, which was 1861 to 1964.  We found 18 burials and you could have held the remains of all 18 in one hand – there just wasn't much there.  So when I found this body that you could still see pink tissue on the femur, and the whole body was there, my experience was, well, this had to be somebody who died within the last six months.

SA:  So was that one of the clinchers – a case that made you feel you'd got to have a facility where you studied the process of decomposition?

BB:  Exactly.  That was the straw that broke the camel's back, as they say!  Yup.

Alright, so let's go and look.  I'm going to get you a little pair of bootees to wear. 

Tour of the facility

[Bill kits me out with 'surgical' type over-shoes and then gets out his bunch of keys as we move to the gate.]

SA:  So how much security do you have to have in a place like this?

You don't get much smell in the winterBB:  A lot!  My people aren't going to get out, but everybody wants to get in to see my people!  We put the chain link fence up first and found out that doesn't do much, so there's razor wire round the whole thing.  And let me show you something – that is the tallest building in the medical centre.  You see on the far left corner that white object sitting up there?  That's a camera, and that camera checks out the parking area  here, but they also train it at night to look over the fence and make sure there's nobody out here. 

You picked a perfect time to come because the weather's great.  Can you get a little smell there?  You will in just a minute!  Although this is a good time to come, because you don't get much smell in the winter.  Summer time is bad, oh yeah!  [laughs]  

Now, how about if I take you on a 15-minute tour, just to kind of give you an idea of what goes on.

By the way, you'll be interested in this. See that little 'Bobcat' there? [We're looking at a mini-forklift truck.]  When I first started teaching, all of the graduate students were males, and then we began to get a few graduate students who were females -- and now every one of the graduate students we have is female. We have five graduate assistants assigned out here to make this place work.  Now we are a population in America that's obese -- the average person we get would probably be 250-300 lbs.  Well you can't get a 90 lb girl to pick up somebody like that, so we now have a Bobcat to pick up bodies and carry them around. 

[We walk around the area on a cool autumn day.]

“The smell of decay”

If you kill your wife, what do you do with her?I'll hang on to you because this may be a little muddy.  Now, this is a concrete slab that runs down to right in there somewhere [pushing leaves off with his foot].  We in America tend to kill our husbands and wives off!  And if you kill your wife, what do you do with her?  Well, you can take her out in the yard and bury her.  But then the neighbours look over and say, "What are you digging?" you know?  So what you do is you dig a hole to put your dead wife in, and you cover it with a concrete slab so you have a little patio area where you can go and sit. 

Now it's very difficult to find bodies like this.  The best procedure right now is to get what's called a 'cadaver dog' – that's a dog trained to smell decaying bodies.  They come out and sniff around the edge and pick up the smell of decay.  But [what we're looking at] was a masters thesis using ground-penetrating radar – it goes through the concrete to pick up the bodies underneath.  We had six of these; this is the only one left.  There were bodies buried at 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 feet deep, and we looked at those over about a seven or eight month period to see if you could use this technology to find buried bodies.

SA:  And did it work?

Maggots do not like sunlightBB:  Yeah, it worked.  And there's a body still under this one here.  We covered half the bodies with trash and junk and buckets and stuff like that, and the other half with dirt and rocks.  But you could distinguish, you could see what was going on under there.

You'll see that most of the bodies are covered with plastic -- see a skull over there? Maggots do not like sunlight, so if you have a body out there the maggots will leave the skin as an umbrella and they'll eat all of the interior organs away.  It looks like the body's in pretty good condition, but it's not – I mean when you get there there's nothing but the skin (it's really like leather) over it.  And what we're doing is trying to get the skeletons down to nothing but bones, so we can study the skeletal material, and so that's why we put black plastic on most of them.

SA:  How long do you generally have a body out here to study, and then what do you do with it?

We're trying to get the skeletons down to nothing but bonesBB:  Normally not more than a year.  If you leave them more than a year the weather begins to break them down.  And so what we do is we take them in and we clean them up.  Each of them has a number.  For example the first body in 2007 is 1/07.  Okay.  That number stays with that skeleton forever.  I mean when this goes in to be cleaned up – and I'll take you in a while to show you what these look like after they've gone through the processing -- they end up in a box 1 x 1 x 3 feet long, and that number stays with them.  We don't have the names assigned to the bones or the boxes.  You can look up the master list and find out what the name is, but there's a number on the box so you don't run into the problem of having someone say, The weather begins to break them down"Well I don't want my loved one identified" and things like that.

SA:  And what are the things you're looking at, other than the maggots and the ground penetrating radar?

BB:  Okay.  The decay of the soft tissue, how long does it take?  How long does it take for the right arm to fall off?  What happens to the hair?  What happens to the fingernails?  I mean you name it, there's a graduate student either has done it or is going to do it one of these days.  What happens to the hair?Most of the research out here is either a masters thesis or a doctoral dissertations.   

I'm going to show you a project now – see all the little flags? This is a long-term faculty project.  One of my doctoral students is a man named Arpad Vass who works over at Oak Ridge, which is the national atomic energy facility about 20 miles away.   There are four bodies here, and you see this pipe sticking out of the ground?  Remember I told you, when we were down there, that we bring the dogs in to see if they can smell a decaying body? 

We don't know what cadaver dogs smell.  As we stand here today we don't know that -- nobody has ever found that out.  We have been wondering, "What does that dog smell?"  So we have buried four bodies and there are these pipes that run down and run through the body so that we can catch the compounds that are given off of decaying bodies without disturbing the body.  We just unscrew the cap, suck a little air out to get the compounds, and put the cap back on.  We have found over 400 compounds. We don't know what cadaver dogs smellThe body as it decays gives off what are known as volatile fatty acids – 'volatile' meaning that they dissipate.  I'm going to show you volatile fatty acid stains on the ground.  They're liquid, and they will kill the vegetation right around the body as the fluid leaches out of the body.

Now, obviously not all of those 400 compounds are important, but there would be probably 10, 15, or 20 that are.  We're at the stage now where we've been able to chemically isolate these compounds, and Arpad has just designed a sniffer to try to replace the dogs.  We're trying to do two things.  Once we find out what the major compounds are we want to bring the dogs in and say, "Okay, d'you smell A?  Or d'you smell B? What are you smelling?" And then you can take his hand-held sniffer, you can walk across the ground and it will indicate when it picks up some of these compounds that are being given off.  Eventually we'll have something that will go on a vehicle; you can drive across a field and it would tell you whether there are buried bodies out there or not.

You see these tubes right here? When we started off we had a camera – you could stick a camera down and see what's going on inside the body.  But it didn't take long for the fluid and the bugs and things to coat the tube, so if you go down there you really can't see much now.  But we were trying to take pictures of it…We had all kinds of stuff going on.

Decomposition and environmental conditions

SA:  Can you see differences in the process in different sort of climatic conditions as well?

The major factor in decay is temperatureBB:  Oh yes, there's a big difference between summer and winter.  I mean the major factor in decay is temperature.  You decay faster in the summer than you do in the winter.  You decay faster in Florida than you do in Wisconsin.  You'd decay faster in southern England than you would in northern England.  (Watch the wire right there…this was set up to keep the racoons out of the place!)

You see the white material right there?  Well that's adipocere – that body decayed when it was wet, and the fat has turned to a soapy-like substance known as adipocere.  Adipocere is called 'grave wax' in the old literature.  I'll tell you what they look like, the really good ones; they look like in a wax museum.  I had a woman killed her husband (or had her husband killed) and they 'buried' him in the basement.  It was a wet basement and he was dead about five years when we found him.  Why, you could look at him and tell who he was, no problem at all!  Every whisker was in place…

They look like in a wax museum, every whisker was in place...SA:  What had happened?  Why hadn't the maggots got at him?

BB:  Oh because he was in the basement of a house, wrapped up in plastic and it was wet.  The maggots don't get to you if you're buried, essentially.  Because the flies don't dig down to get at you.  They may dig a little bit, but not very much.

SA:  [Looking at a body] Why are those bones brown?

BB:  From the stain of the leaves and things like that.  Look at this group right down here, you can see more on that one right there.  There's your skull.  Now that dark stuff right in the middle there, that kind of goo, that's volatile fatty acids.

This one has dried off.  This would be mummification here, where the soft tissue has just simply dried up and dehydrated.  It was probably open to the sun, and wasn't covered up…

SA:  And under these conditions would the maggots get inside and take the organs out?

BB:  Yes. You see those holes in the tissue?  Those are maggot holes.  Those are where the maggots have come from inside and outside.

Where the bodies come from

SA:  What sort of people leave themselves to the body farm nowadays?

We get bodies from three sourcesBB:  Well, we get bodies from three sources.  We get unclaimed bodies that come through the Medical examiner The term for coroner in the US.  To qualify as a medical examiner, a person must have an MD and be licensed as a pathologist.  A coroner needs to be qualified in either law or medicine.'s system.  These are people who have been killed, or for some reason ended up in the medical examiner's system to be identified.  And if they're not claimed, the cost of the burial falls either on the city or the county in which the death occurred.  It costs about $700 to bury a person, and they'd really rather give me the body for nothing than pay the $700. 

Second, you have a husband or wife decide, "You know when I die I want my body donated to science," but they never do anything about it.  Then one of them will die, the mortician will come to pick up the body, and the surviving spouse will say, "Well you know, they always wanted their body donated to science."  So the mortician will call me and wonder if I want a body.  And yes!

We have over 1000 people who have willed their bodiesNow, I've been on television enough that we have over 1000 people who have willed their bodies to the anthropology department. Up until 2003 most of the bodies we got in any one year came from the Medical examiner The term for coroner in the US.  To qualify as a medical examiner, a person must have an MD and be licensed as a pathologist.  A coroner needs to be qualified in either law or medicine.'s system.  In 2003 the willed bodies surpassed those, and every year since then the willed bodies have been in the majority.  Last year we had 107 bodies and this year we're going to be in the 140 range.

Here's one body, by the way, that was not covered and you can see how the skin has turned to leather.  It's a black individual, see the hair type?

SA:  What does happen to hair normally, because I can see that hair is still pretty good, isn't it?

Hair and finger nails tend to hold up.  Bones and teeth are the bestBB:  Hair will last quite a while.  I have excavated burials that were 100 years old and the hair was in good condition.  So hair and finger nails tend to hold up.  Bones and teeth are the best – they will last.  You don't want them to get wet.  If they get wet, they don't last very well.

Developing detachment

BB: Alright, let's just wander on up the hill then.  You're holding up very well!  [We both laugh]

SA:  D'you get people freaking at this sort of thing?

BB:  Oh yes, you get people coming in….you get a reporter that's never done this before, you get the whole gamut of reaction – some do well, some throw up…

SA:  But what about yourself – I mean, have you had to overcome squeamishness? 

BB:  Well, okay.  The first case that I ever worked on – I was a graduate student at the University of Kentucky, I'd just gotten out of the army in the Korean War, went back to school, and I was interested in bones, osteology.  The professor I had, Dr Snow, came in one day and said: "I have an ID case this weekend, would you like to go?"  I said, "Sure, that'll be great!"  So we went out…This was a case where two trucks had run together outside of Frankfort, Kentucky, about 6 or 7 months before I'd arrived in Kentucky. 

That's the only case I ever threw up on!The both trucks burned, and when they put the fire out there were three bodies in the trucks instead of just the two drivers.  So who was the third individual?  They really didn't know.  They thought that that person was a common law wife of the truck driver, but they didn't make a positive identification.  There was a lawyer in Lexington that knew about this case, he called Dr Snow, wanted to know if he could identify somebody burned in a fire.  And yes, you can do this. So I went out with him, dug this woman up, and Dr Snow made a positive identification.  That's the only case I ever threw up on!

But I thought, "That's what I want to do!  It's a puzzle.  It's a puzzle to see whether you can identify these individuals and figure what happened to them."

SA:  And what made you throw up that time?

BB:  The smell….I mean, it wasn't the first dead body I'd ever seen, but probably only the second or third one and it was in a bad state of repair.  It smelled horrible.

SA:  But since then nothing has freaked you?

BB:  Nope.  Nope, and it gets pretty bad!  I mean, you learn.  Now let's say you have 10 students who come and say, oh, they're going to major in forensic anthropology.  They will start off and there will be two of the 10 that just can't get over the smell, so you'll lose them for that reason.  But that's fairly typical – some people can do it and some can't.

[We walk over to a small shed and Bill describes what goes on there.]

Training: Disaster Response teams, police, and FBI

We are the only place in the United States that you can get multiple bodies for researchThe United States government divided the US up into regions, and they have what's known as DMORT – the Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team.  These are people who deal with dead bodies.  They're funeral directors, pathologists, dentists, forensic anthropologists -- all of those individuals that deal with dead bodies respond to mass disasters.  Like if you have a flood in a cemetery, bodies in the cemetery will wash away.  We've had quite a few of those in the US.  Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans -- that was a disaster way past what New Orleans, or the State of Louisiana, could manage. 

So it was recognised some years ago that you needed a federally funded and sponsored programme.  One of the divisions of DMORT is dealing with what they call 'weapons of mass destruction'.  We are very worried in the United States, and I'm sure you are in England, about biological or chemical contamination.  And we really just don't know what to do…. I mean, the problem we have is that most of the morgues in the United States are in the hospitals.  Well, you don't want to take a bunch of contaminated people to the hospital – that's the worst place possible to take them!  So how do you decontaminate them?  What do you do with them?

Okay, we are the only place in the United States that you can get multiple bodies for research like that.  So we've been working with the DMORT team, and particularly the 'weapons of mass destruction' group.  They have a training session here every September, and they send about 50 to 60 people from all over the United States for a three-day session, and they use about 25 bodies. 

SA:  And what do they do to them?

BB:  Well, we contaminate them, mainly with gasoline or fuel – something that's fairly easy to detect.  But we have now, in the United States, mobile morgues -- these are big balloons, buildings that you just blow up with air.  [Bill gestures towards the small hut.] Anyway, these are bodies that are used in that – they're in freezers, and we keep them until next fall when we're going to contaminate them and decontaminate them.

[We move away and pick up our former conversation.]

Making a science of identification

SA:  It seems amazing that you were the first person to think of doing something like this.  There must have been masses of people frustrated by exactly the same issues as you – how bodies decompose?

I never set out to do anything that was going to be world famousBB:  Before I did this, obviously people had been interested in it.  But Medical examiner The term for coroner in the US.  To qualify as a medical examiner, a person must have an MD and be licensed as a pathologist.  A coroner needs to be qualified in either law or medicine. on the job.  I mean, you have a body come in, it looks like this and then you find out when you identify him that he's been dead three weeks, and so you kind of park that in your brain.  So it was more 'anecdotal' information.  But when that medical examiner left or died, all that information disappeared, you see.

I never set out to do anything that was going to be world famous.  It was on a 'need-to-know' basis.  I needed to know, and I've always been kind of research-orientated, and I thought, "Well, we need to do some research on this."  One thing just led to another, and here you are now!

Now these are all new bodies.  That's 99/07, so that's the 99th body of this year.  And they've covered him up with plastic so they want him to go ahead and decay… [We walk around]  D'you see what I mean by being overused?  The hillside's full of bodies.

We train police, we train FBI agentsWe train police, we train FBI agents, we have a national forensic academy here, and this is set up so that we can put skeletal material out, or bodies buried out here, and this is where we have training.  But it's so overused, and we're just beginning to expand this whole facility.

There's research that comes up where you want ground that's not already contaminated with volatile fatty acids, and it would be hard to find some waste place here that does not have volatile fatty acids from somebody else that's been there. 

SA:  And how long do they last in the soil, these volatile fatty acids?

BB:  Good question.  We don't know.

SA:  And do you not find animals getting in and disturbing the bodies?

Squirrels, rats, skunks and racoons will all eat on bodiesBB:  Okay, the chain link fence and the 'modesty' fence keep out the dogs and the coyotes and things like that.  It does not keep out racoons – they're smarter than people.  They climb trees, and they come over and drop down in here.  That's what that camera is, right there.  We've been doing a study on night predators.  There are squirrels, rats, skunks and racoons, and they will all eat on bodies.  They're one of Nature's ways of reducing a dead body, and we have given some papers recently and published a little bit in this area.  But we've been trying to look at what the scavengers do to bodies.  The major characters are the maggots – I mean the flies are the first ones to get there, and they do the greatest reduction of a body.

[We find a prosthesis lying on the ground…]

Flies are the first ones to get thereAll these individuals that have gone through this process are in boxes in the lab near my office, and if you're interested in orthopaedic devices, boy that's a fantastic collection!  We have all kinds of hardware in us these days!  Bits and pieces and parts.


[We stand looking across the wide Tennessee River at the university campus on the other side]

Personal feelings towards the dead

SA:  What do you personally feel about these bodies?  Are they research material, or are they former people?  How do you view them?

I hate death. But I never see a forensic case as a dead body.  I see it as a challengeBB:  Okay, that's an interesting question.  I have lost two wives to cancer.  I hate death.  I hate mourning.  I hate funerals.  I mean I just don't like any of that culture at all.  But I never see a forensic case as a dead body.  I see it as a challenge to see whether I have enough knowledge to figure out who that individual is and what happened to them.  So I don't see them as, you know, dead bodies.  I see them as a forensic case.

The Big Bopper: “You’ve given me my father.”

SA:  And how important is it to families that they know what happened to a loved one – I mean you often see cases ages and ages after a person has died.  How important is it?

BB:  Oh, I think it's very important.  Have you read Beyond the Body Farm?  Okay, you know the Big Bopper?  He was the guy that wrote 'Chantilly Lace' and so forth, and there's a good chapter in that book on that.  Here was a case in which… you know, his son was born two months after he died.  So the son never knew the father; he'd only seen him in two dimensions: the newspaper and pictures, and so forth.  And the Big Bopper's son came to me at the end of the day that I'd done that autopsy and he hugged me and he said, "I want to thank you because you gave me my father today." 

The son never knew the fatherSA:  Can you tell me the whole story….?

BB:  Okay, the Big Bopper was a radio disc jockey from Beaumont, Texas.  (This would be in the 1950s.)  He wrote the song ‘Chantilly Lace’ which was fairly popular in the United States, and I expect in the United Kingdom also.  The Big Bopper died in an aeroplane crash on February 3rd of 1959 outside of Clear Lake, Iowa, with Buddy Holly and Richie Valance and the aeroplane pilot.  There were four of them in a Beachcraft Bonanza, and it was pilot error.  They took off in a snow storm and he crashed and all of them were killed.

The Big Bopper was buried for 48 years, from 1959 to 2007.  He was buried in a section of the cemetery in Beaumont that had only horizontal markers, just so that you could mow the grass in the cemetery.  About three years ago the Texas historical commission commissioned a life-size statue of the Big Bopper, and in order for that statue to be near his grave they were going to have to move the Big Bopper from the horizontal section of the cemetery to the monuments section of the cemetery. 

That pistol was owned by Buddy HollyThe family had often wondered if their loved one had actually survived the crash.  He was the one found the furthest from the aeroplane.  Now that wasn't very far, about 20 yards or something like that.  But the plane crashes in an Iowa farm field, skids across the ground and stops at a fence row.  The Big Bopper is found on the other side of the fence row, and the family wondered two things.  They wondered: did the Big Bopper survive the aeroplane crash? 

And second, about two months after the crash, the Iowa farmer is clearing up the aeroplane wreckage out of his field so he can plant his crop, and he finds a pistol.  That pistol was owned by Buddy Holly.  The pistol had been fired a couple of times and the rumour got started – I don't know how rumours get started, but the rumour was that "They must have shot our loved one."

He could not have survived the crashAnd so when the Big Bopper's son called me, he wanted to know two things: did my father survive the crash, and was he going for help?  And was he shot?  I said, "I think I can answer both of those with an autopsy."  And so we got down there and we literally X-rayed the entire skeleton – from the top of the head to the foot – and there are massive fractures all over.  There are compound fractures in both legs, so he could not have walked away.  There are crushing blows to the chest where the ribs are attached to the spinal column and the back…Factures down both sides of the spinal column...There are fractures in the spinal column between the ninth and the tenth thoracic vertebra, massive fractures of the skull and the face.  He could not have survived the crash.  And no, he was not shot.  So you could tell all of that.

Now literally, he was in such good condition that when we opened the coffin…The son was beside me when we opened the coffin and you could look at the father and look at the son and tell they were related.

He was in remarkably good conditionSA:  There was still a lot of flesh on the bones?

BB:  Oh, absolutely! Yeah.  He was well embalmed and buried in a dry coffin. That was the sixth or eight one like that I'd done, and it was by far the best.  Most of them, there's nothing left, particularly if it's a wet coffin.  But he was in remarkably good condition.  So it was nice to be able to tell the family. And the son was there when I went through bone by bone and explained to him what happened.

SA: And he managed to watch while you opened the coffin?

There are always going to be questionsBB:  I had asked him before I went down there.  I said, "You know, no matter how good a report I write, there are always going to be questions."  I asked him, "Can you psychologically get to the stage where you could do this autopsy with me?"  And he said, "Well, I'll think about it."  It took about six or seven months to get everything worked out, and when we got down there he said, "I am psychologically ready to do this with you."  I said, "Great!"  And then literally I just lectured -- I lectured for about five hours one afternoon on what had gone on, and why this had occurred, and all that sort of stuff.  And at the end of the day he hugged me and he said, "You know, you've given me my father."

SA:  That's lovely isn't it?

BB:  Yeah, it is.  They have three children -- a girl about 20 and a boy about 15 or 16 and one about 12 – and the 15 or 16 year-old also came to me and said, "Thank you for giving me my grandfather."  But yeah, in that case it made an impact.  And I think for most families it does.  I mean, I have nothing to hide. 

Mass of maggotsYou know, I spend lots of time with families.  But in the United States people have gotten very leery of the government – they think the government's trying to pull something over on them.  And this has gotten over into the body area.  I have problems… Sometimes when we get a body and we bring it out here, the family thinks, "Oh, I want to go and see the body." But I try to tell them that "I'm not sure you really want to see your loved one in the condition they're in right now. I don't want your last view of your loved one to be this mass of maggots, you see. "   And they think, "What have you done to them?  You've done something to them." I say, "No, we've not done anything."  But if they insist, I tell them, "What you're seeing now,you're not seeing your loved one; you're seeing the carcass that's left of a loved one who is in an advanced stage of decay."

You're not seeing your loved one; you're seeing the carcassSA:  And do they come?

BB:  Occasionally.  Occasionally they will.  Not often.  But I'd rather have them come and know that I've been honest than to have them think, "Oh well, he's doing something that they don't want to tell us about."


[We go to his office, which is located in the dingey old locker rooms of the huge Knoxville sports stadium on the edge of the university campus.  Bill takes me first to the room where all the bodies finally end up – each now reduced to bones and stored in its own labelled box.]

BB:  These are all forensic cases, all police cases.  Here's a good one.  Hear that? [rattling] That's his brain.  Now you see the eyebrow, see the hair?  You can tell that this individual has been embalmed, for a couple of reasons.  The skin looks like old paint, where it's kind of dried up; eyebrows; hair -- all of that would indicate that that individual had been embalmed.

[We look through a number of boxes and Bill discusses each case. He pulls out one box where the individual has committed suicide by shooting. This archive is used for training students.]

Japanese trophy skulls

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There's one story after another in here.  Let's see what this one is.  You see the spray painting on the top?  This is a Japanese trophy skull brought back from the Second World War. This was a Japanese fighter pilot from Okinawa, and the guy that found him and brought the skull back was from East Tennessee. He wanted to use it during Halloween with a light bulb in there, but the foramen magnum -- that's the hole in the bottom of the skull through which the spinal cord enters -- wasn't big enough for the light bulb, so he broke it to stick the light bulb in and have the light shine out like that.  Then the kids all grew up and he had it sitting in his shop, spray painted, and that's why you've got spray paint on top…

SA:  How do you remember that story?

BB:  I wrote an article on Japanese trophy skulls. 

SA:  Did quite a lot of people collect them then?

BB:  Yes, during the Second World War.  Very few from Europe.  I won't say there were none, but I don't know of any from Europe.  But you know, we were German ancestry and so forth, and the Germans were 'human'.  But the Japanese weren't human – anybody that could bomb a naval base on Sunday morning wasn't quite human.  And so most of the skeletons -- I'd say 95% or 98% of skeletal material that you find now from the Second World War -- came from Japan.  I have two in this collection.

SA:  What did you think when you first found them?  Were you shocked at human remains being…?

We really need the skullBB:  Okay, let me tell you the story about this.  We have a lake west of us in which people fish, and one time a fisherman hooked on to a body that didn't have any head.  Still had his belt on -- no identification, but still had his belt on.  They brought me the body, and I said, "Gee, we really need the skull."  This is a rural community with a weekly newspaper, so it was a big story you know: "Fisherman finds dead body…police looking for skull."  In the next two days, three skulls came into the police department and this was one. 

We never found the skull of the body in the lakeNow this skull came in from a man who goes out and buys junk, old cars and things.  He went up to a rural area in the northern part of the county and this skull was sitting in the motor compartment of an old car, they'd taken the motor out.  So he brings it back.  Couple of weeks go buy.  Then he reads: "Police looking for skull."  He gets worried, and so a policeman brought this to me and he said, "Is this the skull of the guy?"  I looked at it and I said, "No, it's not."  "Well," he said, "how do you know?" Okay, there were two reasons I knew. I said, "You see that dry house dust right there?  That's where the skull has been sitting so long. That's not somebody that's modern.  Then you feel how smooth that is on top?  That's because it's been used and worn -- people have felt it and played with it and so forth.  Skulls aren't like that; that's come from people feeling the thing."  He went back and found out that the guy that owned the farm that sold the old truck had been military in the Second World War, and had brought this skull back.  We never found the skull of the body in the lake – it's out there in the bottom of the lake somewhere!

See, all of these have stories like that.

Honouring the dead

[Next we go to the archive of the donated collection: the skeletons that have been processed after lying in the body farm and also put in individual boxes.]

We have a yearly memorial serviceBB:  We have a yearly memorial service in which we come in and randomly pick one skeleton for burial out of that collection.  One of the chaplains at the UT hospital comes over and gives a short memorial service, and that individual represents everybody in the collection.  A few families want to be notified when this occurs and they have come and been part of the little service that we have, and in two or three cases they've wanted to look at the skeletal material that we have.  It’s like going to the cemetery and visiting your loved one in a grave, except that here they're in a box. 


SA:  So let's now start at the beginning.  Tell me about yourself, and where you grew up and who your parents were and all of that.

BB:  I was born in Staunton, Virginia.  Staunton is in the western part of the state of Virginia.  My dad was a lawyer and he died when I was four, so I really don't remember much of him.  He committed suicide in 1932 during the Depression.  It was one of those things that were never talked about.  But I gather from talking to my mother a little bit that he had invested money for some people and when the stock market fell he didn't see that there was any way of coming out of it, I reckon.  I don't know.  I would like to know.  The Big Bopper's son learned more about his father than I know about mine.

SA:  And is that a gap as far as you're concerned?

BB: Yes. Yeah.  I would like to.  The older I get, the more I would like to know.  But you know, it happened...  My mother moved back to her farm, also in Virginia, and I lived there, I reckon, for four years, I went to first grade there, and then my mother remarried.  She married my father's brother, so the name never changed, and most people thought that my stepfather was my real father.  My stepfather was a geologist who ran two limestone quarries in northern Virginia, and I grew up in a little town called Stephens City, which is just south of Winchester.

SA:  And were you fond of your stepfather, was he good to you?

BB:  Yup. Yes.  We got along okay. 

SA:  And what about your mother?

BB:  My mother went to college and got her degree in 1924 when most women didn't have college degrees.  She got a degree in home economics, and taught home economics, and when the Second World War came along and most of the teachers were drafted into the military, my mother taught everything during the four war years.  That's when I was a teenager.  I was in the seventh grade when the Second World War started and my high school education was not very good because they were using people like my mother – that's not saying she wasn't very good, but she hadn't been keeping up with things as a teacher – and the church ministers. 

They were just kind of making do till the war was over and the people came back.  I realised that when I got into college --  I went to university in the fall of '46, just when the first wave of veterans were going back to school, and lord, I mean they were four years more mature, they'd been all over the world, and they ate me alive the first couple of years!  I just was not prepared for that, but I stuck in there.

Mentors, and getting interested in anthropology

I was hooked from the first classSA:  But tell me, when did you get interested in science, and when did you decide that was what you were going to do in university?

BB:  Probably my junior year.  I was a psychology major.  The junior year I had the opportunity to take some electives; I took anthropology and I see now that I was hooked from the first class.  There was only one anthropologist in the University of Virginia when I was there, a man named Clifford Evans, and I took every course he offered, which was only four.  Each semester I took a course.  I graduated in psychology, and then when my military career was over I went back to college – and I went back literally to work on a masters in counselling.  I was going to be a college counsellor.

SA:  So psychology was your main love at the time?

I was at a stage in my life where I wanted certaintiesBB:  Yes. But mainly because I didn't know any better.  I still didn't realise that anthropology was what I wanted to go into.  The first semester of my masters course I was majoring in psychology and minoring in anthropology, and the professor I had at Kentucky was a man named Charlie Snow.  Charlie Snow taught me bones, osteology.  I was at a stage in my life where I wanted certainties – if I learned that that's the femur, it's the femur everywhere; it's the femur in Africa, in Asia.  Psychology was, "Well, it's like this here, but it changes over there".  It was just concepts that kept moving, moving, and I didn't feel that I knew anything. I needed something stable to latch on to.  And then when Charlie Snow came in one day and said he had an ID case and would I like to go?  I thought, "Great, this is great – I'd like to see how this is applied." And it was "aha learning", as in "Aha, that's what I want to do!"  It was "aha learning"

“The best move I ever made”

I switched from psychology to anthropology.  All I did was just switch my major and my minor, so I didn't lose any time.  But it was the best move I ever made.  I needed something that was concrete -- something that once I knew it, I knew it was the same everywhere.

SA:  And what so fascinated you about that first case? You were telling me about it before…

It's a puzzle, it's a challengeBB:  Okay, this was the bones of a woman who had been burned in a truck, and had not been identified, and Charlie, Dr Snow, was able to identify her.  And I thought, "That's what I want to do."  It's a puzzle, it's a challenge to see if you can figure out who this individual is and what happened to her.

“The bone detectives”

So I got a masters and went specifically to the University of Pennsylvania to work with Dr Wilton Krogman, who was internationally known as a forensic anthropologist.  It wasn't called that at the time – they were called 'bone detectives'.  It was on the biological side of anthropology, physical anthropology, but it had not yet been named 'forensic anthropology'. That came in the early 70s, after I had gotten my degree. There were a number of us who were working with police and it was in the forensic area – 'forensic' means where science and law overlap -- and we said, "Well, hey, you've got forensic engineering, and forensic pathology, why don't we have forensic anthropology?"  I think it was one of those ideas that matured in everybody's minds at the same time.

SA:  Okay, so take me from when you'd got your masters – what were you aiming to do? What was your vision at that stage?

BB:  Well, I wrote my doctoral dissertation on skeletal material from the plains area of the United States.  I was working in the summers for the Smithsonian Institution, excavating burial grounds and so forth, and wrote my doctoral dissertation on prehistoric skeletal material.  There wasn't a big jump between that and modern stuff, and I saw from Charlie's work that there were people interested in modern cases, and I kind of liked that. I enjoyed going out and finding bodies and excavating bodies. 

Helping out the Tennessee police

A rural county does not have anywhere to put a dead bodyI did a lot of excavation, so I have approached it a little bit differently from most anthropologists in that when I came here [to Tennessee], I established for the Medical examiner The term for coroner in the US.  To qualify as a medical examiner, a person must have an MD and be licensed as a pathologist.  A coroner needs to be qualified in either law or medicine. a forensic response team.  I saw that there was a need…Tennessee is mainly a rural state -- there are 95 counties in Tennessee, of which probably only 10 are urban areas.  So you have 85 rural counties, and a rural county does not have anywhere to put a dead body.  You say, "Oh well, send them to the funeral home," but the funeral home doesn't want the kind of bodies I get.  They would put them out in the storage area in the back because they smell so bad.  And nobody wanted to handle them.  They didn't want to put them in police cars because they would smell, and so I thought, "Well, we need to establish a forensic response team".  Now we have a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week response team. We have a list of students who are on call at all times, and they go out and fetch bodies from anywhere and bring them to here.  And they work with the police to do the analysis. 

It was a service that was greatly appreciatedWhat we'd do was give the police the rings and the jewellery, because they're the ones that go and visit the family, but they don't have nowhere to put the maggot-covered bodies that are found, and so we brought those back and we'd analyse them and write a report and then send that report to the police.  This was paid for by the Medical examiner The term for coroner in the US.  To qualify as a medical examiner, a person must have an MD and be licensed as a pathologist.  A coroner needs to be qualified in either law or medicine. – they paid you $100 a case, or $50 to $150.  So you didn't get rich at it or anything like that, but it was a service that was greatly appreciated.

The Smithsonian and Plains Indians

SA: Okay, back to your Plains Indians stuff – what were you doing with the Smithsonian?

BB:  Okay, let's go back to the University in Virginia.  The anthropologist they had there during my junior and senior year was a man named Clifford Evans.  Clifford Evans was an archaeologist who had done work in South America, particularly Brazil.  He had come back from doing his dissertation and taught for two years at the University of Virginia and then was offered a job at the Smithsonian.  I had three courses with him -- two in my junior year and the fall semester of my senior year -- and then he left the University of Virginia and went to Washington to be an archaeologist for the Smithsonian.

Okay, I graduate, then I go into the military; I was in the military three years.  It was during the Korean War, but I didn't go to Korea -- I was assigned to the Army Medical Research Laboratory, based on my psychology.  The University of Virginia had an experimental psychology department, not a clinical psychology department, and it did research on noise and all psychological type things.  I had researched in that area, and so I was assigned to the Army Medical Research Laboratory in the noise and vibration division, studying the harmful effects of noise and vibration on the body.  It was because of my undergraduate degree. 

Then I go back to school, at Kentucky, and by the second year I had decided to be an anthropology major.  I had always liked Clifford Evans, the professor I had at Virginia, and I wrote him during my second year, saying, "Hey, I was one of your students at Virginia. I bet you I'm the only one that's ever gone on to be a graduate student in anthropology.  I have found that my interest is in physical anthropology – skeletal remains."  Well I got a note back from him immediately.  I was the only one of his students at Virginia who ever went on in anthropology. 

And he said, "The archaeologists have been excavating lots of sites, and they've been finding human bones in many of them.  These human bones have built up in the physical anthropology section of the Smithsonian, and we are looking for somebody to study them."  My God, this is just what I wanted to do and here was the opening!  Here was one of my former professors saying, "Hey, you've now got what we need.  Would you be interested?"  Well absolutely! So starting in the summer of '56, I worked for the Smithsonian every summer until 1960.

SA: And doing what?  What were you looking for?

Boxes upon boxes of bonesBB:  Okay.  In the first two summers, '56 and '57, I analysed the material that had been dug up.  Just boxes upon boxes of bones.  Some sites had only one burial; some sites might have 15 or 20.  And I wrote reports and so forth.  Then they were digging a couple of large villages in South Dakota and the archaeologists said, "We need somebody to dig burials -- why don't you send Bass out here next summer?" So in the summer of '58 I went to the field.  And then all the years after that, I went out and was digging up my own burials.  We were in an area where the Army Corps of Engineers were damming up the Missouri River for a reservoir and they were trying to recover as much of the prehistory as they could before it was flooded.  I amassed a collection of about 5,000 skeletons over those years – I spent 14 summers out there, digging in the plains. 

SA:  And what was it like?

I amassed a collection of about 5,000 skeletonsBB:  Oh great.  Best summers I ever had. I mean, absolutely hard work -- hot, dirty, all day fighting the elements.  The plains are still fairly primitive.  You get violent storms and you get tornadoes and things like that.  But I went 14 summers and I never had anybody hurt, nobody ever killed.

Controversies or “flea bites”

SA:  And what about the Indians who were around – how did they take to the idea of you digging up their burial sites?

BB:  That's an interesting question, and it has two answers to it.  I'd met my wife Ann  in the military. Ann had gotten her degree in food science and nutrition, and the year we were at the University of Nebraska she taught.  And then she taught when I was at Kansas, and she was interested in diabetic problems among the Sioux Indians.  Now the Indians that I was excavating were the Arikara and the Mandan – these were the sedentary tribes that were there when Lewis and Clark went up the river in 1804.  But after 1804 the Sioux started moving in, and the Sioux and the Arikara and the Mandan didn't like each other, so they fought. And so for the Sioux, me digging up Arikara bones was fine!  I mean they thought this was the final coup, you know!

I was digging up their enemyNow while we were there, before I left in the late 60s, the militant people – Russell Means and people like that, who were just against anything, you know – they were beginning to make waves.  But the other thing is that my wife Ann was working with the Sioux to try to overcome their problems with diabetes.  So they couldn't very much bitch about me, because my wife was helping them with a problem that was killing them at an early age.  And so it was kind of a two-pronged thing: I was digging up their enemy; and they couldn't complain much because my wife was helping them.  (She wrote her doctoral dissertation on diabetic problems among the Sioux Indians.)

SA:  And so were these controversies?  I mean, when you say the 'militants' started attacking you and so on, were they flea bites to you or were they serious problems?

I could not do today what I did 40 years agoBB:  Flea bites at that stage. They would be major problems now. I could not do today what I did 40 years ago, because it's been all politicised, and you just don't do that now. You know, that was not the problem at the time -- we were fighting other problems.  These are problems the theorists have come up with later on, "Oh you shouldn't have done that!"  Well, you know, it was mandated by the government that we would recover as much of the prehistory as we could. So they can't say, "You were breaking the law," because that was the law at that time.

That was the law at that timeSA:  And what did you do with the bones? What were you looking for?  What were you analysing?

BB:  Everything.  My doctoral dissertation is on skeletal changes of the Plains Indians.  That collection is downstairs in another section of this building.  There are about 5,000 skeletons.


SA:  Okay and then what?  After the Smithsonian, how did you move on from there?

I was the only physical anthropologist out thereBB:  Having worked out in the plains every summer I got to know people.  They have what is called the Plains Archaeological Conference, which is a yearly meeting usually held in November.  But they'd have what's called a Half Plains Conference, which was a little meeting in the summer.  And so even though I was a graduate student at Pennsylvania, I was out there every summer and got to meet the archaeologists of the Plain colleges and universities. I was the only physical anthropologist out there digging up bones, and so the archaeologists would call me and say, "I got a burial, can you come and help me?"  So we'd send a couple of students over and we'd do their stuff for them.

Well, I had been at Pennsylvania four years and was thinking, "What am I going to do when I get done?"  And the phone rang one night -- it was December of '59 -- and it was John Champ. John Champ was chair of the anthropology department at the University of Nebraska, and John and I had met each other at meetings, and he said,  "I have a position open for a week, a month or a year -- would you be interested in coming out here and working on skeletal collections dug up during the 1930s in Nebraska?" 

So I went to Krogman, and I said, "Dr Krogman, John Champ at Nebraska called and said he has a job for a week, a month or a year.  Could you spare me for a week and let me go and do a little research for him?" He said, "You know, you're getting to the stage where you need to fly on your own now.  A week or a month isn't going to help you; why don't you go for a year?"  Great!  I mean, I had done everything except write my dissertation.  And so in December of '59 -- we had one son, that's Charlie, the one in Tucson now -- Ann and I decided we'd got to get away from being a student somewhere, so that was it. 

So we went to Nebraska and I worked from January to September, an academic year.  John Champ had money for either one or two years – I could have stayed another year, but it was not a permanent position.  There were two jobs available that year in the physical anthropology area: one was in Kansas and one at the University of Utah.  I went down to Kansas and they liked me and I liked them, so I started in Kansas in September of '60, and was there 11 years before I came here to the University of Tennessee.

SA:  Doing what?

BB:  Teaching.  Doing research -- continued the research in the plains.  I was out every summer in the '60s.  Except in '64.  I was in Iran that summer.

The riddle of Iran’s ‘Golden Bowl’

A prehistoric forensic caseThe University of Pennsylvania had, and still has, a fairly active Iranian archaeology programme, and they were digging a large site known as Hasanlu.  Hasanlu's major claim to fame is a 4.5 lb golden bowl that had been found, which was written up in Life magazine a number of years ago.  This golden bowl was being carried by three men, or carried by one, and the other two men had swords -- they were running across the top of a palace that was being sacked and burned, then the roof falls in and they end up down in the bottom, covered up with all this debris.  They were there about 3000 years before they were found.

Bob Dyson, who was the director of the dig, wondered whether the people carrying the golden bowl were the people from Hasanlu trying to protect the bowl, or were the enemy who had stolen the bowl.  Well that's a forensic case – a prehistoric forensic case. 

SA: And so what did you do?  Had they dug up those people…?

BB:  The archaeologists had already dug up those three, but what we had to do was to establish what the people that lived there at that time were like.  So he had me go over and we excavated one summer; we excavated for 12 weeks in the burial area of the village, and we could tell from the artefacts we found what time period these burials were from.  We got a sample of what the people were like over sort of a 1000-year period, and then we tried to compare that with the three people with the golden bowl.
To make a long story short, I think the three were from Hasanlu trying to protect the bowl.  They were larger in size, they were more muscular, and they must have been the palace guard, because they were bigger than most of the people in the burial area.  If you were an attacking army, it would be very difficult to get three of the best people arriving at that golden bowl at the same time, so what I think happened was that the three biggest and best guys who were the palace guard were trying to protect the bowl.

SA:  So what was it like doing that case?  Did that kind of thing really thrill you?

BB:  Oh yeah!  Yeah, I still think about it…I would like to go back to Iran and do more.  But my chances of going back to Iran now are nil!

SA: So when did you start to do police work as well?

Learning to look

Damn, that's a good way of learning!BB:  Well I started with Charlie Snow in '54.  And with Krogman, I did a number of cases with Krogman.  Krogman is the one that taught me…He had an interesting teaching style, it was more tutorial.  Krogman would take me out on a case and he wouldn't say anything about it at all.  He would look at it; I would look at it; and then he would say, "Okay Bass, is it a male or a female?"  You could not look it up, and he'd say, "Come on guy!  How old is it? What's the race of the individual?  What's the manner of death?" and we would discuss the case -- and damn, that's a good way of learning!  And when I started teaching I did the same thing.  I always took my students out.  I didn't bring things in to a lecture and show them; we went out.  "Okay, I want you to look at that now.  While we're taking the pictures of this for the police, you determine: what's the age, what's the sex, what's the race?  Can you tell whether they were right or left-handed?" That's a little bit more difficult because you've got to look at the bones themselves. But they got so they could do that.

SA:  So a lot of it really is observation and learning from experience?

BB:  Oh absolutely.

SA:  So what skills do you think you need to make a go of a profession like this?

You have to be an observer of minutiae, little things make a differenceBB: You have to be a good observer.  You have to be an observer of minutiae – to look at the little things.  Little things make a difference.  And you have to know what those little things mean – so that's where your academic training comes in.  But they're there for you to see.  You can say things like, "Okay, have the animals been here?"

When do wasps build their nests?

We had an interesting case that I did with some students over in a county about 60 miles west of here, Cumberland County.  This was a 16-year-old girl from here in town who was killed and thrown out into a very rural area in Cumberland County.  She was missing two years.  We get over there and it's difficult to look at bones and tell whether they've been dead a year or two years.  Okay, we're looking at the skeleton, and low and behold, before we even pick the skull up we're looking through the foramen magnum and we can see a wasp nest. (The foramen magnum, remember, is the hole in the bottom of the skull through which the spinal cord enters.) Okay, this was in March that we found the skull, so what does this tell you? 

You've got to know a little bit about a lot of thingsTo be a forensic anthropologist you've got to know a little bit about a lot of things.  When do wasps build their nests?  I didn't know, I had to go and look it up, but wasps build their nests in Tennessee in May and June.  Alright, we are now in March, and we find this wasp nest in the skull -- that had to be made in either May or June.  So that means you've got to go back to the May or June before.  And the wasps aren't going to build their nests in there unless it's dry, which means you've got to go back from last May or June to give it enough time to decay -- so you've got to go back to the year before that.  This is how we, while we at the scene, knew that, hey, this is the girl that's been missing two years.

This is how we knew that this is the girl that's been missing two yearsSA:  And did your students pick that up, because it seems quite an obvious thing?

BB:  Well, it is when you call their attention to it.  I said, "How many of you saw the nest in the skull?"  Well maybe one out of five, something like that.  "So what does that tell you?", and then we discuss it.  We said, "When do wasps build their nests?  You know the body had to be dry by that stage." I knew from growing up in Virginia that wasps build their nests in the late spring, early summer. So I knew just enough to get us through that stage, and then we came back and looked up the entomological literature.  But those are the things that you can do right there at the scene, and it means something…"What is that, and why?" 

SA:  So what cases do you remember from the beginning when you started to be taken out by your professor and he was just letting you work it out for yourself?  Apart from the one of the lady who had been burnt, what other ones really stand out in your mind?  You must have a huge case book!

The boy in the box

It took them another 20 years to identify this boyBB:  There's a real famous one in Philadelphia – the boy in the box.  That happened when I was there.  Krogman took me down to the morgue.  It was the first body that I'd seen, I reckon, in the forensic situation.  The Medical examiner The term for coroner in the US.  To qualify as a medical examiner, a person must have an MD and be licensed as a pathologist.  A coroner needs to be qualified in either law or medicine. had Dr Krogman come in and look at all skeletal cases, but this was one of a boy, he was a teenager who was badly beaten, he was malnourished, very small. Krogman's major interest was in growth and development – it was obvious this boy was malnourished and underdeveloped and so forth. 

The only area of forensics that I have trouble with is death of childrenIt took them another 20 years to identify this boy…He's been identified now. He was a boy that had a few psychological problems and they just kept him in the basement, badly abused him and so forth, and finally killed him.  But we were trying to figure out: how long has he been dead?  And looking at the bruise marks I thought, "Gosh, how can anybody beat a child like that?"  The only area of forensics that I have trouble with is death of children.  I mean, I just don't understand how you could do that.

SA:  And you find it difficult to get a professional distance from that?

BB:  Fortunately we don't have that many.  Now, I've had my share -- I've probably had six or eight.  And you do 'em.  And you can tell a lot.  But I just don't like that.

SA:  How do they decide whether to call in a forensic anthropologist or a forensic pathologist? What's the difference?

BB:  Well, it depends on the personality of the people.  If you're an older pathologist and, as I always say, you got your degree from God, then I probably would never be called in!  If it's a younger pathologist who realises that, hey, I [Bill Bass] know something he doesn't know, then I'll be called in.  The Medical examiner The term for coroner in the US.  To qualify as a medical examiner, a person must have an MD and be licensed as a pathologist.  A coroner needs to be qualified in either law or medicine. here, Sandra Elkins, is a younger individual; she sees the advantage of having us.  We have students now who work over in the morgue.  Most of the people who work in the morgue are our students, and she sees the value of this and she would call me frequently.

SA:  So what additional knowledge do you have that a forensic pathologist won't have?

I know the growth indicators to look atBB:  Well okay.  Going to graduate school with Krogman, I know growth.  You will occasionally get a body that you don't know how old the individual is, and I know the growth indicators to look at.  Occasionally you'll get a body where you can tell the sex and the race, but you can't tell the age, so they'll call me to come over and see if I can determine an age for it.

SA:  And you can tell that from the bones?

BB:  That's right.  Many times I can tell from the X-ray, because you don't want to dismantle the individual.

SA:  And the pathologists are dealing with the flesh? That's the sort of distinction between you?

BB:  Mainly, yeah.


SA:  Okay.  In your time as a forensic anthropologist, what new tools have come along that have really made a difference?

Your body chemistry is different from mineBB: Well the one that you think of right off the bat is DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid.  This is the material inside the nucleus of the cells of living organisms that carries genetic information (see also RNA). .  I mean DNA, we didn't have 20 years ago; we didn't have it 15 years ago.  And then there have been increases in all of the technologies.  Beyond the Body Farm is about cold cases – that is cases that have taken 20 to 30 years to solve.  But the science behind the stories is: how has technology in forensics changed?  So there's a chapter on everything – there's a chapter on sonar, a chapter on scanning electron microscopy, three chapters on DNA. There's chapters on a whole bunch of things.  But we brought in most of the techniques that are used in forensics today to look at how they had changed from when I first looked at the cases.  One for example… there were a few references in the literature in the 60s and 70s on bone that would fluoresce different colours from different individuals.  Theoretically your body chemistry is different from mine.  If you take fluorescent light -- this is what the geologists used to look at minerals -- and if you shine the light on the bones, the bones will fluoresce different colours.  I did a case on that from '74.

SA:  And did it work?

BB:  It did in that case, although I'm not… I mean, there needs to be more work done on it.  We need to know more about it than what we do now.  But that did work.  And that was the case of Liz Wilson. 

Fluorescent bones

BB:  Liz Wilson was killed in '74.  In the Spring of '75 the Medical examiner The term for coroner in the US.  To qualify as a medical examiner, a person must have an MD and be licensed as a pathologist.  A coroner needs to be qualified in either law or medicine. in Kansas sent me the bones to look at because I was pretty well known there.  There were only 14 bones found (I think; I'd have to go back and look at the records).  She had died in the fall of '74; found in the early spring of '75, animal scatter all over, in a field that had been mowed, and they'd only found 14 bones.  They did find the skull, and she was positively identified from the dentition.  The question was: were all of these bones from the same individual?  How can you tell?  Dogs had chewed them, they didn't articulate, so I thought, "Well, let's use that old technique of fluorescing."  

So I went over to the geology department, borrowed their fluorescent light source, and sure enough they all showed the same colour.  I thought, "Well, we've got to check this."  I had brought a few skeletons from Kansas with me that were forensic cases, and I used a child only about two years old, and it fluoresced differently from Liz Wilson's.  And I thought, "Well let me try a Tennessee case."  We had a teenager from Tennessee that we tried and sure enough, they were all three different.  And so on that basis I said, "Yes, they're all from the same individual."

And they got enough to bring charges against himOkay, time goes by and nothing happens.  In 2004 – this would have been exactly 30 years after she disappeared – the phone rang one day and it was a Kansas Bureau of Investigation agent saying, "We've just arrested a man in connection with Liz Wilson's death."  I thought, "My God, 30 years!"  It was the school janitor, the janitor of the school who had stolen ether from the chemistry lab.  He got caught and then they began to tie these things together, and they thought, "Ah, maybe he used ether to subdue Liz Wilson."  And they got enough to bring charges against him. 

So I went out in 2005 (this would have been 31 years after she was killed), testified in the court case, and they found him guilty.  He was sentenced to prison, and then we have in the United States the appellate court, an appeal.  The janitor was given the death penalty, and they appeal all death penalties in the United States.  And on appeal the thing was sent back for a retrial.  So I've got to go back out there this spring, this February [2008] to go through that same case again.

SA:  Why did they throw it out?  What can you tell them new?

BB: I can't tell them anything new.  I mean they didn't reverse it on what I'd told them.  I'll show you what the judicial system in America is like… When they were trying to get evidence to bring this guy to court, there were two or three other women who came forward – these are middle-aged women now, in their forties or fifties – and they said, "Hey, this guy molested me."  And the prosecution said, "Oh great, will you testify for us?"  "Yes, we will testify for you."  So the case had at least two women who said, "Yes, he also molested me, but I didn't die".  (He gave Liz Wilson too much ether, I reckon.)  Okay.  In the judicial system you can't use prior bad acts to convict a person, so you can't tie their experiences in with the Liz Wilson case.  Even with a serial rapist you can't go back and get any of the earlier rapes to base the present case on -- which I don't think is right, but I'm not a lawyer…

You don't often get a wasp nest in a skullSA:  So among the cases that you've done, which have been the most satisfying? I mean you told me the lovely story about the Big Bopper and that was obviously very personally gratifying.  What other ones stand out in your mind as being really gratifying – or interesting in the challenge they presented?

BB:  Well, the one I told you about in Cumberland County – that's an interesting one in that you don't often get a wasp nest in a skull that you can use to figure out how long the body has been dead. 

You know, all of them fascinate me!  I'll have to be honest with you. When John and I were writing the book, we would go through the files and say, "Oh, that's a good case!" So John said, "You know, every case you come to is a good case!"


SA: Okay then another question: what is your motivation in all that you do?

The satisfaction of knowing that I've helped a family or I have helped societyBB:  A challenge to see if I have the knowledge to figure out who this individual is and what happened to them.  And the satisfaction of knowing that I've helped a family or I have helped society put away somebody that probably should be put away. 

SA:  Those are the things that drive you?

BB:  Yes.  And students.  If I didn't have students…I have two families.  I have three biological sons, and then I have all of my masters and doctoral students and we're very close.  I have for years helped students pay their bills in college.  There are a lot of my graduate students who will tell you, "I wouldn't be here today if Dr Bass hadn’t given me a place to stay at home, or…"  I had a student live in this room for three or four years for nothing.  I've paid the tuition for students.  I've always tried to…you know, you've got a good student, you don't want them to flounder because economically they couldn't get it together…

SA:  So you've really helped them in that way?

BB:  Yes, I have.

The pleasure of teaching

SA:  And tell me more about your teaching methods.  Tell me about your little black box…

It's not just what you see, but what you feel alsoBB:  The little black box…Well I'm trying to teach students that it's not just what you see, but what you feel also.  And I have always liked fun, I see humour in all kinds of things.  You know, students will come in and say, "I can't write my report because the dog ate it," and things like that.  And I say, "Well, if you're studying for your osteology exam and the power goes off, don't give me that as an excuse, because you can study osteology in the dark." I tell them, "When you get the bones you want to feel  them.  You can identify a bone from its feel; you don't have to see it."  And they think, "Oh, he's just fooling."  And so always what I'd do, I'd say, "You all pick out 10 bones from the study collection, blindfold me and I'll identify all 10 of them."  And they thought that was great.  I've done that for years, you know.  And then the black box…"Oh god, the black box!" [in a panicky voice].  The black box is the easiest part of the exam! They reach in and they say, "Oh that's that, and that's that."

SA:  So what exactly is the black box?

You had to put your hands in and tell what the bones wereBB:  During my osteology exams we had 'stations' -- there were usually 25 students in the class and we'd have 25 stations, and you'd give a minute or two at each station, so you'd have a minute to tell what it was and write it down.  And what you'd do then was move to the next station, and the black box was one where you'd arrive and you had to put your hands in and tell what the bones were.  They never had any trouble with it at all.

You'd put four or five bones in the black box and they had to reach in there and tell what they were from the feel.  You put in a radius or an ulna, a sternum or a little foot bone, a hand bone, a finger bone, something like that.  They didn't have any trouble with that!

SA:  So what else – you say feel, observation, what other senses do you need?

I have never used smell as an indicationBB:  Well, smell we don't use very much, because you get people at various stages of decay.  I don't have a very good sense of smell, but maybe that's why I went into this field -- because I can't smell worth a darn, so! [We both laugh]  But smells vary – if you're in a muddy or wet area, and you get a lot of that in the river valleys here, they will smell a little bit differently from what you find if you get one from up on the mountainside, or something like that.  So I have never used smell as an indication.  You use the colour of the bones – bones will bleach in the sun; they will also have what are called weathering cracks and you can pick those up and show the students those things.  There are many things you look at that will tell you what that bone has been in since it was live bone.

”I don’t like death”

SA:  Most of us see very little of death and as you were saying at lunch, our societies now avoid death and seeing bodies and so on.  But you have such an intimate relationship with it – what unique understanding do you think this has given you of death?

BB:  Well I don't know how to answer that.  I don't like death, as I told you.  I've lost two wives to cancer.  And I certainly don't like funerals and mourning and all that kind of stuff.  When I die I don't want them to have a memorial service or anything like that…

SA:  Really?  Why not?

I don't think I'll stop being a teacher just because I dieBB:  Well I don't know.  I don't want anyone coming to mourn for me…I think I will be cremated and I think I will donate my cremation to the collection here so that the students can learn something from them…I don't think I'll stop being a teacher just because I die.  I've been kind of impressed with cremations and have done research, and most of my stuff for law enforcement agents now is the identification of cremation remains.  There's a lot you can tell from cremation, if you know what to look for.  It's been kind of interesting to see.  I mean the last two I've done; I've made positive identification of the individuals from the dentition that's been in there. 

What the ashes reveal

SA:  And what else can you tell from cremation remains?

BB: Well, you can tell whether it's male or female; you can tell the age of the individual from burnt bone fragments.  And you may be able to tell race.  Certainly you can tell the age and the sex, but race is a little bit more difficult -- and it's certainly difficult when you burn the bones.  If you have the dentition which comes through in a cremation, if you know who the individual is you can match that with the dental records.  Or you can say, "Hey, this is not the guy."

One of the Noble, Georgia, crematory cases I was telling you about… This guy was in a nursing home and he had false teeth; he didn't have any teeth.  He dies, and he had his teeth out when he died, and so his full dentures were given to the family.  They sent his body to the Noble, Georgia, crematory, they get back ashes, and the family wanted to know if they were their loved one's ashes.  So I said, "Let me look at it."  Well, there was dental work in there, there were teeth!  [We both laugh] Well if there are teeth there and we know he didn't have any teeth, this is not him!  Right?

[The Noble, Georgia, crematory case was a famous case in which a crematory owner faked cremation, keeping the bodies and giving families boxes of random ashes, or sand and concrete dust.  Ray Brent Marsh was discovered in 2002 with 334 bodies stacked up in vaults and dumped in woods behind his facility.  He has never explained why or for what purpose he retained the bodies.]

SA:  Were these pulverised ashes?

If you go through those ashes there are still some things that you can identifyBB:  Yes, when you say pulverised, the bone is pulverised, but things like tooth caps… The pulveriser is about a 5 gallon bucket, with an axle in the bottom and a blade that cuts both ways, and the manufacturer guarantees ashes in 60 seconds.  So you put all that burnt stuff from the cremation in there, press a button, it goes zzzz, and then you get the cremated material -- what you normally think of as the ashes of an individual. But if you sit down and go through those ashes you'll find that there are still some things that you can identify. 

You look for the minutia that the average person doesn't look atYou can identify parts of the skull because you have the suture line; you will get the articular surface of a bone, and they are all different, so you can tell…if you get a convex or a concave surface, you get an idea of what bone it was.  So these are the things you look for; this is the minutia that the average person doesn't look at, you see.  There are other people who look at this, not a lot of them, but there are some.

We are going through a period in the United States now where they are harvesting parts of bodies -- hips and legs -- and sending them off to biological houses that make 'Bone Burger' out of them.  This is where they grind the bone up and then they use it in orthopaedic areas where you need some bone to fill in.  You know that hip replacement we saw in the box?  There could have been bone burger round the edge of that, put in there to poke in some of the holes, and this will incorporate into the bone.

Most of these individuals [from whom body parts have been 'harvested'] are then cremated.  So it's difficult, when they've been cremated, to know whether you got back all that you should have got back of a body.  Now in the Noble, Georgia, crematory case they only got back about half of what they should have gotten back.  Then the big question was: how do you know how much a cremation weighs? 

Well, you look in the literature and there are very few articles on cremation weights.  So one of the faculty members here and I did a study on that, and we have the largest sample ever reported.  It's three or four times the number of cases that have been reported in the literature on cremation weights. 

I've looked at four or five cases where families wondered whether they'd gotten back everything they should.  Well cremation weights fall in a bell-shaped curve – you get the big ones and the little ones – and so if you get a cremation that falls in the low end of female or the low end of males then you suspect, hey, they may not have gotten everything that was there.  All of that individual wasn't sent to the crematory, is what I'm saying.

Oh there are big lawsuits in the United States about that right nowSA:  And so does it look as though there are people taking parts of the bodies and then sending them to the crematory as a criminal thing, a scandal?

BB:  Oh yeah, absolutely.  Oh there are big lawsuits in the United States about that right now.

SA:  My goodness!  And are you being called in to investigate those?

BB:  Yeah.  I've done about six or eight of those, yeah.

SA:  And how easy is it to tell from the remains?

BB:  Well sometimes, like the guy who didn't have any teeth at all and there were teeth coming in with the ashes, you know – it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out: this ain't the guy! [We laugh] Now, it's more difficult if you have the cremations come back and they're in the low end of the range.  What I try to do is find out from the people how tall they were.  Because cremation weights are not based upon what you weighed – the soft tissue, if there's a lot of fat, that burns off.  Cremation weight is based upon whether you're big-boned or small-boned and so forth.  The other problem that you get though is that, if you were big and fat, your bones are denser because they have to hold up more weight -- so the bone density there increases.  And if you had osteoporosis, then we have another problem.  But, you see, that's getting into a grey area…

SA: So when you did your study and your paper with your student, did you look at those kind of variables – overweight people and people with osteoporosis and so on?

BB:  No we didn't. That's left for another student to do some day.


SA: One of the things I wanted to ask you -- I read somewhere that your body farm is always asking you questions.  It doesn't just give you answers, it poses lots of questions.  What have been the big questions that have come out of starting to observe the processes of death?

Nobody had done anything about smells given off of the bodiesBB:  Okay, let's just take one thing for example.  We looked at those bodies that are buried out there, okay?  When we first started, nobody had done anything about smells given off of the bodies.  How many compounds are there?  We thought about 20 or 30.  Okay, we do the study… over 400 compounds that you can identify are given off of those bodies.  Now chemically we can reconstitute those compounds, and that's where we are now.  We're saying, "Okay let's take the major ones (obviously some are given off that are not major ones), so let's take the major ones and see if the dogs smell A or B or C."  And based on that we can better train dogs on what to smell.  Then of course we have gone to that next step of "Let's us build a machine, a sniffer, that will find a body", and we're right at that stage now.

SA: So this is cutting edge stuff?

BB:  Oh absolutely.  I mean yeah, nobody else is anywhere near where we're at in that respect.

More questions for research

SA:  So what other questions are coming up?

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BB:  Well okay, a question that intrigues me (and we could do it, but I just don't have the time now) is: people with cancer who've had major chemotherapy, do they decay at the same rate as non-chemotherapy patients?  Well, we don't know; nobody's done that study.  I have noticed, even though I don't have a very good sense of smell, that people who have died of cancer who have had lots of chemotherapy, they smell different.  You would expect that, because they are chemical factories; they've had all these chemicals put into them.  But do they decay at the same speed?  Do the maggots pick up these? We would think that they do.  We're right at the stage where we can tell you what drugs people were on -- like marijuana or some of the others, cocaine and things like that.  The maggots are eating on the dead bodies; they're absorbing that, and so we have now what we call a 'maggot cocktail'.  If you want to find out what that individual was taking, you collect the maggots and you grind them up and analyse them and you can tell what that maggot was eating, and that's what that guy was taking.  So we're at that stage.  But we have not done this with chemotherapy yet – that's the real cutting edge.

SA:  Fascinating!

BB:  Yes, it is fascinating!

SA:  So is it always asking you more questions?

BB:  Oh, when you do a research experiment, you end up with more questions than the answer you were looking for.  That's almost true of every experiment: "Well how about this?  How about that?" you know?

SA: Okay going back to the philosophical issues again…Seeing what happens to our bodies, what does it tell you about human life?  Because, okay, I read a bit of your book, and sitting at the airport today I saw all these people, in their suits, looking as though they were purposeful, they were going places and so on – they were regular people.  But then I thought: we all dissolve so easily!  And I found it quite creepy, because I thought how fragile is all of this!  And I wondered what sort of perception you now have of human life from having seen what happens to us when we die?  D'you know what I'm asking?

BB:  I know what you're asking; I'm not sure I have an answer.  I'm not sure I've thought about that in any great depth. 

Life is very fragileSA: Does it make you feel that life is very fragile?

BB:  Oh, life is very fragile.  And life isn't very long, when you look at it over the history of the earth or something like that.  You would hope – I would hope – that we could learn to extend life.  I mean some people don't want to extend life, people who commit suicide don't think it's worth living.  But I want to live as long as I can because it's fun!  I've got a lot more things I want to do, some more cases I want to work on and so forth.

SA:  So what questions are still ticking around in your head that you want to do?

BB:  Well, when we did this study on cremation weights… there are two other studies, one from Florida, and one from Santa Barbara, California, that have published on cremation rates.  Nowhere near what I did in size (the one from Florida is 92 bodies: 50 males and 42 females), but our cremation weights are much heavier than theirs are.  Why?  Did I measure it differently or something?  Well, if you go look, there are two other experiments on weights of cremations that were done in the laboratory and they match exactly our sample.  So it's not that our sample is different. 

We suggest that the people that are cremated in Tennessee are heavier, they're more obese.  If you get the communicable disease centre statistics you will find that Tennessee is in the top four states for obesity.  Now if you're obese, your bones have to be denser to hold the body up, and I think this is a reason.  But I would like to try to do this in some other area.  I'd like to sometime, if I can go out to Arizona and stay for a while, I would consider finding a crematory out there that will let me weigh their bones and do a study on Arizona.  Or convince some of my students in New York or Wisconsin or somewhere else that they ought to do one to see.  Because there are these questions…we don't know, and we admit this in the paper, we don't know what this is. And we're simply asking people to, "Hey, begin to look at this and see what's out there."

Questions of race

SA: Okay, the race thing, how can you tell the difference in race from the bones?  And is that a controversial issue or not?

Some people don't believe there is such a thing as raceBB: I think the controversial issue is that some people don't believe there is such a thing as race – mainly the cultural anthropologists [we laugh].  Enough said! But there are differences between people.  I remember 30, 40 years ago, those of us who believed there are differences between people were shouted down by those who said, "Oh, we're all people… Everybody is the same."  Well now we're finding out from medicine that hey, black individuals have sickle cell anaemia.  Well there's a reason for this [it's protective against malaria, which will have given those people a selective advantage], and they're finding out.  There was a thing on US TV the other night about black women having a higher rate of breast cancer than do white women.  Well why?  And they pointed out that if your ancestors were from Africa you had a higher chance of getting breast cancer.  Well, these are differences in people!  Differences do exist. 

I worry about how scientific people are who say that everybody is alike, because we're not alike.  I mean you have the Black Plague, many people died, but some didn't.  Why didn't everybody die?  Well, because the people who didn't die had some special genetic characteristic that allowed them to survive.  The two wives that I had, neither one of them had the genetic ability to overcome cancer.  My second wife, really a sad situation…Her first husband was a chain smoker, and she lived in a house for 30 years with second-hand smoke.  We were only married three years before she died.  And it was a shame; she was really a nice, nice lady.  Died of lung cancer and never smoked a day in her life.

SA:  So what do you find in the bones that tells you the race of a person?

Race is best determined in the skullBB:  Okay, race is best determined in the skull.  Caucasians, or whites, have narrow noses; Africans, blacks, have broad noses.  You and I can take a pencil and we can touch our nose and our chin at the same time. Blacks can't do that.  Blacks have a protrusion of the bone underneath the lips known as prognathism, so if you have a black skull (I'll show you this when we get home tonight), you can touch that and it goes like that, or you can touch that in it goes like that, because the teeth come forward [demonstrating with a pencil on his face against nose and chin].

One of my doctoral students is a woman named Emily Craig.   Emily Craig is the forensic anthropologist for the Kentucky Medical examiner The term for coroner in the US.  To qualify as a medical examiner, a person must have an MD and be licensed as a pathologist.  A coroner needs to be qualified in either law or medicine., and Emily, in her doctoral dissertation, found out that in the distal end of the femur, if you take a lateral X ray… You got an extra piece of paper there?  I'll show you what I'm talking about [draws it for me]… Now this is a good example of knowing something in one field that's not known in another field. 

Emily got her masters degree in medical illustration from the University of Georgia, worked for 20 years in a sports medicine clinic in which they were dealing with knees and so forth, and she said that the orthopaedic surgeons had much rather operate on the knees of a black individual than they had on a white.  And the reason for that is there's more space there – let me show you what I mean by space….If you take a lateral X ray (that's from the side) there is a feint line running across the X-ray, which is this line running down the bone between these two condyles. This is known as Blumensaat's Line, named after a German radiologist from the 1950s who first drew attention to this. [Blumensaat's Line is a shadow on lateral radiographs of the knee that gives an indication of the position of the patella, or knee cap.]

There are these differences in the skeletonEmily found out that if you draw a line down here and draw a line down there, that angle is different in blacks and whites.  And she can tell in 90% of cases whether it's a black or a white -- so in nine out of 10 cases she can give you the correct answer by just measuring that angle taken from the X ray of the femur.  Well this was never known before.  She published on that about eight or 10 years ago now. So there are these differences in the skeleton that as we look at them more carefully…And she knew this because she had experience.  The surgeons would say, "Oh, white, that's going to be difficult because there isn't enough space."  I said, "Emily, nobody knows this in anthropology – why don't you do a doctoral dissertation on this?"  So she went down to Houston Medical Clinic and she got 1,000 cases from them, she went over to UT [University of Tennessee] hospital and got 1,000 cases from there, and that's what we based it on -- and sure enough she's right nine out of 10 times.

SA:  That's amazing!  But is it now still controversial to raise these issues or is it absolutely necessary in your work?

Race is a biological conceptBB:  Well, whenever you deal with race it's controversial.  There are people who say, "Oh it doesn't exist."  Well it does exist.  I mean race is a biological concept, it's not a cultural concept. You or I, neither one of us, had any say on what our race was – it's our mother and father who decide…. What I'm trying to point out is that this is biological, it's not cultural. 

SA:  So when people raise issues like that, what do you do? 

BB:  Well now I just walk off.  I'm not good at arguing with people.  I mean I point out the science of the thing, point out that this is well-established, it's a scientific fact, it's published in the literature, it's been accepted by the courts, now if you don't like it, that's fine. I don't stand on a stump and preach, or on the street corner and hand out literature.  I mean, I'm trying to figure out how this thing works, and occasionally I'll find something that nobody else has found out, so we write a little article on it.

SA:  And is anyone sending you questions from overseas to try to solve in your body farm?  I mean, do they have facilities like this in other places?

A unique facility

You all can't use real bodies in England or Australia or New ZealandBB:  No. I tell you, our colleagues in Australia have been the most frequent -- we have four or five entomologists from Australia who spend probably a third of the year here.  They come over and spend months, because you all can't use real bodies in England or Australia or New Zealand.  You have to use dogs or pigs or something else.  Legally you can't use human bodies, I don't think.  And so they need to see if this really works on humans and so they come over here.  Ian Dadour, who's a forensic entomologist from the University of Western Australia, spends three or four months over here.  I let him use my office because I don't use it very often.  He brings a lot of his students over, and they do all kinds of interesting stuff.

Completing the puzzle

The forensic cases are a puzzle and one of the things that you want to do is complete that puzzleSA:  Bill, one of the things that really struck me…the Elmer Reynolds case, which wasn't resolved in the end, you said that you never stopped thinking about that case, and that the family had asked for the skull back, and you miss him already now that he's gone.  It occurs to me that all of these bones here, they've got a story to you;  they're living beings to you, not just dead remains.

BB:  That's true.  Particularly the forensic ones that I've worked on before – cases like Elmer Reynolds. You work on them, you get to know a bit about the people, and you think about where's the rest of that skeleton?  We know where it is, we just can't find it.  And there was a 16-year-old girl where the whole skeleton is missing there.

You're not satisfied until you've finished the puzzleIt's a puzzle…As I said, the forensic cases are a puzzle and one of the things that you want to do is complete that puzzle.  You want to have all the pieces together so that you can say "Now I see the whole picture."  Well, if there are still bones out there, there are still a few pieces of that puzzle that are missing, you see?  And so I think that you're not satisfied until you've finished the puzzle.

In the Elmer Reynolds case there was real good adipocere there.  That's where the fat had turned to a soapy like substance, particularly in the eyes.  The back of the eye is a tremendous amount of fat.  If you remember pictures of the holocaust victims, their eyes are always sunken back into the skull.  Okay the reason they've sunken back in the skull is that the body has used up all the fat available and that big fat supply at the back of the eye has been used up too. 

Well, that's really good in the Elmer Reynolds case.  And I use that to show students – what this stuff is (it looks like chalk), it's adipocere.  When Elmer Reynolds decayed he decayed in the river; it was a moist environment and so that fat turned to adipocere.  So Elmer is not going with me as a friend, as you and I would go, but he goes with me as a friend to class to teach the students: "Okay here's a good example, and Elmer Reynolds is going to show us that."

I have a skull of a black woman from Kansas named Mary Louise Downing and Mary Louise Downing has gone a lot further after she died than she ever did in life.  I mean she is a…. well, I gave you that illustration on race last night?  Okay, the black skull that's in there is Mary Louise's skull.

SA:  And what's her story?

They brought me her skull and one boneBB: She was from a very poor family in Leavenworth, Kansas, and she was killed out in the Kansas River bottoms, and was found a few months later.  Those were the days when the police didn't bring you everything: they brought me her skull and one bone, her femur, that's all.  I don't know what they did with the rest of it -- just left it out there? I don't know.  I identified her on the basis of the skull.  I don't know how she died, even, because they didn't bring me that much.  This will have been the early or mid 60s, and in those days the police didn't think that you could identify anything from bones.  And so they brought the skull over and just one bone.

Skulls tell a tale  

Mary Louise is a good example of race. This is a classic African, a black individual: protrusion of the mouth; crenulated teeth.  We haven't talked about crenulated teeth, but if you look at the occlusal surface of yours and my teeth they'll have little ridges there.  These ridges look like little valleys in between the cusps; the cusps will be the peaks of the mountains, and the valleys are these little ridges.  They are very straight forward, with little straight lines between the cusps.  In black individuals, instead of being a straight line, there are all these little small streams running into that little valley, and so they're much more complicated than are teeth in either Caucasians or monogloids.  So you can look at a tooth and say, "Oh, that's an African tooth, or a black individual's."  And Mary Louise has both those characteristics, which are very good.

The other thing you have in Caucasians, we have a sill, like a window sill, a little ‘dam’ at the base of our noses on the skull.  As you go into the nasal opening in the skull, there are these little dams at the bottom.  In black individuals you don't have that; it's just a straight shaft from the bone just above the teeth right into the nose.  And Mary Louise has a classic example of that.  These are the things you look for when you're trying to determine what the race of an individual is, and she's a good example of a black individual.  From a very poor family.  I don't know if she was married but she had a couple of children.  They didn't have money to bury her, so the Kansas bureau of investigation just gave me the bones that they brought to me, and I don't know what they did with the rest of her.  When we wrote the book Death's Acre, John found at least one of her children, who's living in Texas now.  But we didn't do anything; we didn't want to stir the pot up again.

Putting flesh on the bones

She put together anthropology and art, and they've identified four or five of the individuals she's doneSA:  The other thing I wanted to ask you was about those wonderful sculpted faces I saw in the office over the road.  What is that all about?

BB:  Okay, we have an individual named Joanna Hughes, who is not on our staff, but has worked with us and got her degree here at the University of Tennessee. Joanna Hughes is a facial reconstructionist, I reckon you would say.  One of the means of identifying people – and it's not the best means of doing this – is to do a reconstruction.  If you know your anatomy well enough, from the structure of the face you can reproduce the soft tissue, the muscles and the soft tissue.  She is one of the better people I've ever seen in doing this.  She got her degree here.  We have, for really good students, honours students, an arrangement where they can put their own programme together for their degree – and she was one of those. She's a very bright individual, and she put together anthropology and art, I reckon you would say, particularly sculpture, and she is really good at reproducing faces.  I think she's done nine, and they've identified four or five of the individuals she's done, which is a remarkable success rate. 

I can tell you the age and the sex and the race and the stature and the handedness, but I can't give it a nameI get a skeleton, and I can tell you the age and the sex and the race and the stature and the handedness, but I can't give it a name. Okay, if the police can't come up with a name from what I give them then there are two approaches to take.  One is: let's do a facial reconstruction and put the picture in the newspaper and see if anybody can recognise that individual.  That relies, however, on the dead body you've got being from this geographic area. If you've got people that have come from a long way and nobody knows them here, then that's not a very good system.  The second system is the FBI's data base on missing persons called the NCIC (National Crime Information Center).  If you have a missing loved one in the United States, you can get the data, particularly dental records and things like that, put into the FBI data bank. 

I err on the side of caution on ageNow, I'm at the other end of that line.  I get unknown individuals that I'm trying to identify, so if I can't identify them and the facial reconstruction doesn't work, I go to the NCIC and say, "Okay, I have a 20 to 25 year-old black female…"  I give as much information as I can and that data bank, that computer, tries to match any individual that's missing that fits with my description.  When I do this I err on the side of caution on age.  I might think the individual is 27 or 28 but I would use 25-30 so that I give it a few more years on either side, because the computer doesn't think, it just responds to whatever you put in there.

SA:  Do you sometimes give the length of time you think the body has been dead?

BB:  Oh yes, if I can I do that also.  We've talked about the case in Cumberland County with the wasp nest in the skull – that's a good one because you can figure out fairly closely what that situation was.  We only missed it by a month with that thing.  She was dead about two and a half years and we missed it by a month in how long we thought she'd been dead.

SA:  Pretty good!

It's not an exact scienceBB:  Yes it is pretty good!  Some of these things you look at them and you think, damn, that works! [We both laugh]  Because you don't always really know. I mean, the literature tells you that if you do this, this and this, this will happen, and you try it, but it's not an exact science; you've got to give it a little leeway here!


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