Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Body Farm

Death's Acre:
the Book

Death's Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab, the Body Farm, Where the Dead Do Tell Tales
Death's Acre: Inside the Legen-
dary Forensic Lab, the Body
Farm, Where the Dead Do Tell

In Death's Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab, the Body Farm, Where the Dead Do Tell Tales, Dr. Bass describes how learning from his errors—some of which came back to haunt him more often then he liked -- was the original inspiration for the Anthropology Research Facility. But coupled with that was his growing awareness of the need to know more about what happens to bodies under many different conditions.

Bill Bass with a group of students
Bill Bass with a group of students

The state-of-the-art in forensic anthropology during the 1960s and '70s was mostly anecdotal. So with the assistance of eager graduate students, Dr. Bass set up the first basic experiments. "It came from humble beginnings," Bass wrote about his research facility, "and it progressed by small steps." The initial questions about teeth, bones, flesh, and insects were elementary, but they needed to be answered with good scientific methods and documentation.

Bass's students eventually branched out into other areas, such as insect activity, measurement of odor, and decomposition leakage into soil. Many of them went on to become prestigious in their own right. In fact, over half of the practicing forensic anthropologists practicing today in the United States have studied with Bill Bass.

It wasn't always easy, and this is where the background tales give the book added dimension beyond what's already been written about the Body Farm. Early on, there were misunderstandings about what Bass was doing and protests from groups who thought bodies were sacred, as well as a bit of negative press intended to pressure the school supporting it. Yet Bass found many sympathizers as well, since it was clear that this type of study, gruesome as it might be, greatly benefited law enforcement. Step by step, he expanded the work and offered what he learned to medical examiners, police officers, FBI agents, physicians, and anyone else who was interested. People began to learn about the place and arrived for further education. Some decided as a result that they wanted to leave their body to science, specifically to the Body Farm.

As Bass tells the history and development of this one-of-a-kind place, he utilizes cases that taught him something new or put his acquired knowledge to the test, so the book sometimes has the quality of a detective novel.

Among these tales are:

A mass murder in Mississippi. In December of 1993, "Big Mike" Rubenstein called 911 to report the deaths of his relatives in a cabin. Investigators responded and found the decomposing bodies of a man, a woman, and a four-year-old child. Rubenstein claimed to have visited the cabin in mid- and late-November, but found it empty. Then he'd come again in December and saw the bodies. It appeared to be the case of a shocked relative stumbling by accident into a crime scene, but when Rubenstein quickly applied to collect the insurance money, investigators grew suspicious. The accumulated mail and spoiled food also put Rubenstein's tale into doubt, so Bass was asked to help construct a timeline for when the deaths had actually occurred. Based on knowledge of insect development cycles and rate of decomposition in certain temperatures, he and his staff placed the deaths in mid-November---exactly when Rubenstein had admitted visiting the cabin. Ultimately he was convicted.

The 1999 murder trial of 38-year-old Thomas D. Huskey, accused killer of four women. This was the first documented serial killer in Knox County, Tennessee, and prosecutors were seeking the death penalty. The two sides focused not only on the issue of his mental state at the time of the offenses, but also used insect analysis to evaluate the time since death of two of the victims.   Prostitutes had dubbed Huskey the "Zoo Man" because he once had worked at the Knoxville Zoo and he liked to take women close by for rough sex. Bass was called in after three of the victims had been discovered in a wooded area. His job was not only to estimate time since death but to determine if the victims had been killed where they lay or if the death scene was in fact elsewhere. He used his knowledge about what happens to bodies in the woods—specifically, the biomarkers in the vegetation and soil--to make the all-important determinations.

Tri-State Crematory entrance
Tri-State Crematory entrance

The Tri-State Crematory scandal in 2002. More than three hundred decaying human bodies sent for cremation had been discovered left out in the open, buried in shallow pits, or crowded into vaults. Countless families were horrified to learn that the "ashes" of their loved ones were not human remains but possibly cardboard or wood ashes, and that the deceased could be among those left in an undignified position. Tri-State's operator, Ray Brent Marsh, was arrested and charged with multiple counts of fraud and abuse of a body. The long process of identifying the remains began, and in many cases relatives filed lawsuits against Marsh and his business. Bill Bass assisted by analyzing the remains and letting people know exactly what they had.

The book is filled with the fascinating and educational work of this bone detective, and even includes an introduction penned by Patricia Cornwell. To see photographs of the Body Farm and more information about the book and documentaries, link to