Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Body Farm

One thing I'm going to do this weekend is plunge into Death’s Acre. Death’s Acre is a book about the notorious Body Farm, an outdoor forensics lab in Tennessee. The wooded grounds contain hundreds of corpses, laid to rest in conditions that closely mimic the ways murderers "dispose" of their victims. Scientists are then able to study stage by stage how a body that was, say, pitched into the East River wearing a pair of concrete overshoes would rot and decompose.

As the dustjacket blurb points out, the Body Farm bodies are cadavers that were donated to science--they serve as “stand ins” for murder victims so that when a real murder victim is, for example, recovered from a shallow grave in the woods, the trunk of a Plymouth Duster, or the bottom of a river, scientists will have a much better idea of when the murder occurred simply because they’ve studied in minute detail the progression of decay for such corpses.

I heard a story about this book on NPR a while back and just recently a science-y friend of mine recommended it, so I decided to check it out from the library. I have a feeling it’s going to be one of those books that, despite its gruesomeness, is hard to put down. Here’s an excerpt in which the author, Dr. Bill Bass AKA "The Mayor of the Body Farm," talks about what can go wrong when some hapless goombah has to relocate an overripe corpse. Please don’t read this if you are eating or if you are repulsed by the very thought of the Body Farm:

“Whoever had moved the body—Fat Sam or his henchmen—had done a pretty sloppy job of it, but that wasn’t surprising. Put yourself in the shoes of a body-mover and you’ll see why: You go out to dig up a body and hide it someplace else. This body, mind you, has been decomposing in a shallow grave for three months now, so it’s going to be really smelly and mighty rotten. You hold your breath, grab an arm, and give a pull...and the arm comes off in your hands. At this point, unless you’re exceptionally conscientious and have an iron stomach, what you’re going to do is scoop up whatever big pieces you can grab between breaths of fresh air—a head, a torso, a couple of legs, most of the arms—and then hightail it out of there as fast as you can. Fortunately for me, most bad guys sent to move a rotten body don’t know or don’t care that teeth can fall out after a few weeks, hands can drop off or get gnawed off, bullets can work free and get left behind.

Since the grave appeared shallow, we excavated with trowels rather than shovels....we’d found a jumble of other things besides the ulna...A fragment of a long bone, possibly from a tibia (shin). Human hair. Empty pupal casings left behind by maggots metamorphosing into adult flies. Tatters of cloth. A bullet.”

It's ghastly to read about hands getting gnawed off, and I'll probably never think kind thoughts upon reading the word maggot, but think about it--those maggot pupal cases are key clues--if maggots have had time to metamorphose, then the body’s been there at least as long as the life cycle of a maggot. Maggots can help pinpoint the time of a crime! Can't you just picture them in miniature deerstalker hats? Apparently, the research done over the years at the Body Farm has proved an invaluable tool in solving murders—so I guess working at the Body Farm is one of those “someone’s gotta do it” kind of jobs.


Blogger Rusty said...

Let us know what you think of it. Sounds interesting.

My wife just got done reading Devil in the White City (or something like that), true crime story about a serial killer who took advantage of the Chicago World Expo to lure his prey. She was engrossed in it, and I was a bit sad that she gave it back to her friend before I had a chance to take a peek.

Currently reading Tuesday's With Morrie.

Happy New Year.

7:58 PM  
Blogger Rozanne said...


B loved Devil in the White City! B and I are both former Chicagoans, so it was that much more interesting to him because he was familiar with where the crimes took place. I meant to read it but haven't so far. Maybe after Death's Acre.

9:39 AM  

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