Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Body Farm

From Counseling to Corpses

Bill Bass examines mandible
Bill Bass examines mandible

Dr. Bill Bass has assisted with hundreds of death investigations, from historic burials to homicides to mass disasters. He received his undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Virginia. "When I was an undergraduate there, they had only one anthropologist who was in the sociology department," he said. "I started taking anthropology courses during my junior year. I took all the courses they offered. Hindsight is always better than foresight, so while I was obviously hooked, I didn't yet realize it."

He did a stint in the military and afterward went to the University of Kentucky, intent on getting a master's degree in counseling. He also took the unusual step for a graduate student of adding a minor in anthropology. Then it hit him: Bill Bass saw his true calling. "After my first semester, I decided to switch from counseling to anthropology."

At Kentucky, Dr. Charlie Snow became his mentor and was instrumental in changing his direction: "He took me out on my first forensic case." Bass was invited to look at the remains of a woman who had been killed and burned in a truck accident, and for him, that was the "aha" moment. Right then he knew without a doubt the profession to which he wanted to devote his life.

Forensic anthropology is the application of physical anthropology to the medico-legal process. That is, forensic anthropologists assist law enforcement investigators and medical examiners to identify human skeletal and decomposing remains, generally working in cooperation with pathologists and odontologists to estimate the age, sex, ancestry, stature, and unique bony features of the deceased. Using their specific expertise, they may furnish clues pointing toward foul play.

Dr. Wilton Krogman
Dr. Wilton Krogman

Once he had his M.A. in this subject, Bass applied to several schools for a Ph.D. program, but he wanted only to attend the University of Pennsylvania to study with Dr. Wilton Krogman, known as "the bone detective." To his delight, he was accepted into that program. He worked alongside Krogman on his forensic cases and in February 1957, they were called to examine the remains of a young boy who had been murdered and dumped in the Fox Chase area of Philadelphia. As disturbing as the case was, no one knew that it would become a famous investigation.

It started when a young man chased a rabbit into a weedy lot and spotted the diminutive victim. The body had been wrapped in an Indian-style blanket and left inside a furniture box. Police were called and experts, including Bass, evaluated the remains of the blond Caucasian boy between age 4 and 6, who was malnourished and had been badly beaten. Yet someone had recently, and amateurishly, trimmed his nails and hair, and hair clippings still clung to his body. With the time since death uncertain, the cause was determined to be severe head trauma from multiple blows.

"I remember going over there with Krogman and looking at that little boy," Bass recalled. "It was disturbing because it was a child. The cases that most bother me are children. He was a nice-looking little fellow, but to see him badly bruised and beat up was unsettling."

Several clues indicated the possibility of a quick identification: unique scars and moles, the furniture box was from a local store, a man's customized cap was found near the scene and traced to the seller, and the boy's nude body had been wrapped in two sections of an unusual blanket. However, every potential lead dried up.  

Vidocq Society logo
Vidocq Society logo

Many investigators, haunted by the tiny victim, continued to search on their own time. In 1998, the Vidocq Society, a group of forensic professionals based in Philadelphia, adopted the case. The organization rechristened "the boy in the box" as America 's Unknown Child and brought national attention to the case via America's Most Wanted. The boy's remains were exhumed for DNA testing and then reinterred in a new location in Ivy Hill Cemetery.

Word got around. In June 2002, police officers who had been involved with the case for several decades interviewed a woman through her psychiatrist. She told investigators that her abusive mother had purchased a toddler in the mid-1950s, whom they called Jonathan. Her parents kept him in a box in the cellar, and her mother killed him when she banged his head on the bathroom floor. The woman recalled both the blanket in which they wrapped the dead boy and the box into which they placed him. She herself had trimmed his fingernails, while her mother cut his hair. Her initial disclosures, the psychiatrist attested, had predated the AMW broadcast and the Web site.

Only years later, after he read about this apparent resolution in the Vidocq Society newsletter (which eventually proved to be another deadend), did Bass realize that the boy he had examined as one of his early forensic cases was this same "Boy in the Box" who had inspired so much attention.

It would not be his last high-profile case.