Tennessee's Farm of Rotting Corpses - Motherboard - VICE

Uploaded by vice on Sep 1, 2011


BILL BASS: You get a good, cold day
like this, you don't--
the decay rate is not very rapid.
It's slow.
So it's slowed down on a day like this.
If you were here in the summer, it would
be going gray guts.

I'm the person that founded what's called the Body Farm,
which is a research facility that we use to find out the
length of time since death or the changes that occur to the
body and how long does it take.
And there are multiple variables, the major factor
being temperature.
So you decay faster in the summer than
you do in the winter.
And you have all the others.
The clothing or no clothing.
And this facility is set up to look at all those variables.

I came here June the 1st of 1971.
Knew the medical examiner.
The medical examiner asked if I would serve as a forensic
anthropologist for medical examiner system.
And I said yes.
And it wasn't long before bodies started coming in.
And about half of the first 10 cases were
maggot-covered bodies.
And the police don't ask you, who is that?
They ask you, how long have they been there?
I think the reason for that, in the criminal justice system
they're trained the sooner you get on the chase, the more
likely you are to solve the crime.
Well, I didn't know a thing about maggots.
And I looked in the literature and there
really wasn't much there.
And so I thought, we'd better do some research on this.
Because I want know what I'm talking about
when I talk to police.
So I went to the dean in the fall of '71, in November of
'71 I went to the dean.
I said, dean, I need some land to put dead bodies on.
And that was the beginning of the Body Farm.
JON JEFFERSON: He was the first person to have this idea
to research what happens to bodies after
death and when it happens.
And the first person-- or at least the first person to do
something about it.
BILL BASS: We have a number of individuals who will kill
their wives or kill their husbands.
And what do you do with a dead wife or dead husband?
Well, you gotta get rid of it.
But how do you do that?
Well, one of the things is to go out in the yard.
Mainly in the flower garden.
And dig a grave.
And somebody looks out and sees and says, what you doing
over there?
Well, you can't say you're burying your husband.
So you put a concrete slab over it and say you're pouring
a little patio.
We have a lot of bodies buried under things like this in our
culture today.
This was a master's thesis in which we're using ground
penetrating radar to look through the concrete and go
down underneath it.
It's interesting looking at that project over the
nine-month period that this master's thesis ran.
You could see that there was a body under there.
And as time goes by, you can see the body decay.
But normally, if you go out to a crime scene, you wouldn't
get that nine-month sequence.
JON JEFFERSON: He's funny.
He's charming.
He's genuinely good-hearted.
I can imagine that someone without all those attributes
might try to set up a facility like this and just get
nowhere with it.
But he is legendary and beloved in east Tennessee.
BILL BASS: There's a skeleton there that has no cover on it
except for the leaves.

Here's one of the bones way down here too.
That's a [INAUDIBLE].

Put it back up there.

REBECCA WILSON: I handle the William M. Bass Donated
Skeletal Collection.
It is the end product of our donation program.
And those individuals that have willed themselves to our
program to be used for both our decomposition research as
well as the skeletal aspect of our research.

My name is Rebecca Wilson.
I am the Assistant Coordinator of the Forensic
Anthropology Center.
This collection started in 1981.
And anyone that wills themself to our program to be used for
research at the Anthropological Research
Facility is eventually brought here and is stored here in
So they are stored-- as long as we exist,
they will be here.
Currently we have just over 700 individuals in the
collection, which makes it the largest collection in the
United States of modern Americans.
It exceeds the next largest program from about 400
So it's fairly substantial.
We had individuals where they have been directly
affected by a case.
Whether they were a victim or they had a member of the
family that was a victim.
And those individuals are usually more interested in the
decomposition research.
And they really want to be used as much as possible for
forensic-related research at our research facility.
We also have people that we just want
to be used for teaching.
They're either the individuals that want their skeleton on
display in a classroom, which, obviously we cannot.
And we tell them that having a skeleton restrung or kind of
put back together is not as beneficial for us.
So we have those individuals that are just like, I want to
be used for teaching.
And those individuals that choose that and highlight that
are more of the academics.
A lot of them--
you'll see a lot of nurses and a lot of teachers that say, I
really want to be used for that aspect.
Obviously, when we go on a case, you're starting in your
head putting pieces together.
And know where to look when you get back to that lab.
So to me, having the skeletons available in the collection is
a way so that students can learn what they are expected
to find and know in the field and in the lab situation.
But also be an avenue for research with those age
Looking at, OK, the difference between males and females.
Looking at the way we age.
Because those are things that do change with time.
And having a modern collection available to do that is
extremely important.
So we get now--
this past year we've had 26 researchers from other
institutions coming just to use the collection.
And that's amazing.
And the number of requests increases every year.
And so to me, it's a value.
This is a data set.
And it's a resource for other people to use.

BILL BASS: They're having troubles in courts these days
where the average juror is a member of the community.
And CSI has been so successful that people think if you don't
do it like it's done on CSI then there's
something wrong with you.
And so you've got to convince them, hey.
We don't get it done in an hour.
And it takes a little bit more research than what CSI shows
that's going on.

We've had a couple of experiments.
We wanted to reproduce death in a trailer to see how long
it takes for a body to decay in a trailer
situation like that.
Occasionally we'll try to reproduce a crime scene which
there's not much in the literature on.
And that was one of the ones that we'd done that.
And there's a body under there.
And the reason we cover them up with black plastic is that
maggots don't like sunlight.
So when a body is out here, and you have it in the sun and
the shade and so forth, the maggots will get on the body.
But they will get down under the skin.
So they will leave the skin as an umbrella.
You will find a body out sometime.
It looks fairly good condition.
But when you get up to that body and look at it very
carefully, you'll find that the skin is just leather.
Literally it has turned to leather.
And there's nothing there but a skeleton
with a leather covering.
And what we're trying to do is to get down to
the skeletal remains.
We put that on there so that the maggots will do a better
job of cleaning the skeletons off.
We have buried here five burials.
When we buried the individuals, we ran pipes down
and ran pipes through the body.
And this is to get the compounds, the volatile fatty
acids that are given off the body.
One of my doctoral students who's doing this project has
found over 500 compounds that are given
off of decaying bodies.
Now not all 500 of those are equal in identifying a body.
But he has designed a sniffer.
A handheld device that you can walk across the ground.
And if you find one of those compounds that he's using in
his data bank, you can tell that there's
a buried body there.
So this is the type of research that we're doing.
Now the next question that comes up.
The reason they're still here.

Do you get the same compounds given off of a body that's
been dead two years that you get the first year?
We don't know that.
So we left it.
And we're now in the fourth year.
These things have been here four years.
And there are some decreases of some.
But, of course, how long are you going to leave them?
Well, I don't know how long we'll leave them.
It'll depend on when you get a point of diminishing returns.
But we do have individuals--
we do have cadaver dog handlers who say that, oh,
their dogs can smell Civil War graves.
Well, that's 140 years ago.
I don't know.
I wonder a little bit about that.
But we do now have the techniques in forensic
anthropology area that we can go about looking
at things like that.