The Body Farm
Bass began his professional work for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., cataloguing the bones of Native Americans. His initial study involved going to South Dakota for several summers to excavate Indian burial grounds. He also taught at the University of Kansas. While there, he was informed of a case that planted the seeds for the idea of the Body Farm.
Because he was a forensic consultant to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, which looked into crimes involving livestock, he was asked about a cattle-rustling case. An agent wanted to know if Bass could tell from the skeletal remains of a cow when it had died. Bass was stymied. There was no information on the subject, so he suggested an experiment that involved killing a cow and studying it. No one took him up on that, but he realized that if professionals in this field were to learn about decomposition rates, they'd have to find a way to study them in various actual conditions under scientific controls. The idea remained theoretical -- for the moment.
Moving to Tennessee in 1971 to teach at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and consult with that state's law enforcement agencies, Bass realized that compared to Kansas the dense population of Knoxville made it more likely that bodies would be detected fairly quickly. Instead of skeletal remains, he was often asked to evaluate corpses. "Half of my first 10 cases were maggot-covered bodies," he recalled. "I didn't know much about that, so I looked through the literature on the subject, and there wasn't much there."
His desire was to replace guesswork with science, but it wasn't until the late '70s that he set the wheels in motion for the Facility. One winter day, Bass was asked to estimate the age of a skeleton dug up on property that had belonged to the family of William Shy, a colonel in the Confederate army. Having once moved a cemetery in which the Civil War-era remains were mostly dust, he figured that this skeleton with pieces of flesh still attached had to be comparatively recent.
"I said that we had the skeleton of a white male between the ages of 24 and 28, and that he'd been dead about a year." While Bass got the race, gender, and age right, he was far afield on the time of death. The corpse was that of Shy himself and he had been dead and buried since 1864 -- some 113 years earlier. "That was the straw that broke the camel's back for me," Bass admitted. "I realized that there was something here about decomposition that we didn't know."
This story has been told and retold in forensics circles, not just because it's an amusing tale but also because it was a significant impetus for finding a way to achieve greater accuracy on the issue of time since death. Someone had to get serious about studying this subject.
From the university, Bass acquired a plot of land and the unclaimed cadavers of several homeless men. They received numbers like WM 52 8/86 on orange tags to identify their cases. Whatever they had been in life, in death they would make a significant contribution to solving criminal cases. As they lay out, exposed to the elements, they provided information about what happens to bodies under many different types of conditions.