Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Body Farm

The Body Farm

Patricia Cornwell
Patricia Cornwell

In her 1994 novel, The Body Farm, Patricia Cornwell introduced readers to a "decay research facility" at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. It's actually called the Anthropology Research Facility, but Cornwell overheard a nickname that cops had adopted, and called it The Body Farm. "On any given day," she writes, "its several wooded acres held dozens of bodies in varying stages of decomposition." Given such a description, one might think this place is imaginary, but it's not. It's quite real, and Cornwell actually visited it.

The Body Farm
The Body Farm
 

In the narrative, she goes on to describe what it's like to walk through the "bizarre but necessary kingdom." The first thing she mentions is the pervasive foul odor—the "language of the dead"— and then points out the tall wooden fence surrounding the facility, topped with coiled barbed wire. She directs her main character, medical examiner Kay Scarpetta, to glance at bodies in water-filled pits tethered to cinder blocks, and indicates that Scarpetta is aware that other corpses are decomposing in cars parked around the area. A skeleton is at the wheel of a white Cadillac, and a skull grins up at her from among a pile of fallen leaves. At this facility, the dead are silent helpers for the living. In all, on that day, Scarpetta is surrounded by 44 of them.

Cornwell describes the experiments that the researchers at The Farm have done to assist Dr. Scarpetta with a murder investigation in which a corpse bore an unidentifiable mark. They have measured the decomposition rate of a body in a basement versus a body in the same condition outdoors. (Cornwell offers a vivid scenario to readers with strong stomachs as to how the changes differ between these decomposing bodies — a couple who committed suicide in quick succession over the husband's fatal illness.) The researchers have placed several metal items beneath one of the bodies to try to determine what might have made an unusual mark found on the crime victim. They turn over the corpse to examine the impressions and oxidation residue from nails, an iron drain, bottle caps, and coins, and then compare them with photographs from the victim. Impurities from the coins bear the closest resemblance. That observation, along with the photographs taken at both the distant crime scene and the facility, provides a significant lead.

Cornwell learned about this place when she was working in the Virginia medical examiner's office. She attended a slide lecture and heard an FBI fingerprint examiner mention "the Body Farm." She later recalled all this after becoming a strikingly successful novelist. Like Scarpetta, she asked the scientists to conduct an experiment for her, and because her questions were of scientific interest, the facility's founder and director obliged.

Dr. Bill Bass
Dr. Bill Bass

That person was Dr. Bill Bass, and his innovative service to law enforcement can't be found anywhere else in the world. In some ways, it was serendipitous, the result of his diverse experiences, but as one reviews Dr. Bass's extensive career, it's also clear that his pioneering spirit and desire to learn about stages of death inevitably would have yielded something interesting.

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