'Body Farm' Yields Data on Decomposition, Death Pioneering forensic anthropologist Bill Bass has created a revolutionary laboratory dedicated to researching human decomposition. Bass is the author of Beyond the Body Farm; he discusses what decomposing bones can tell police about a crime.
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'Body Farm' Yields Data on Decomposition, Death

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'Body Farm' Yields Data on Decomposition, Death

'Body Farm' Yields Data on Decomposition, Death

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IRA FLATOW, host:

For the rest of this hour, more crime, more forensic crime, this sort of done the old-fashioned CSI way you may be more familiar with, you know?

There is that old saying, dead men tell no tales. Well, actually, that is not true. Dead men and women can tell a lot of tales. You just have to know how to listen. And by looking at the body, the right listener can tell an awful lot -the cause of death, how long ago it happened, what the person looked like, and in the case of a murder maybe even who done it.

Being able to interpret what a body is telling you involves a little bit of art and a lot of science. By studying bones and decomposition rates, even what kinds of bugs might colonize a dead body, forensic scientists have added a lot of tools to be crime fighter's arsenal.

And joining me now to talk more about it is one of the best forensic scientists in the world, Bill Bass. He is a forensic anthropologist and founder of the Body Farm. If you don't know what the Body Farm is, go to our Web site at sciencefriday.com and you can look - and you can see a video tour of the Body Farm. It's a little gruesome, so be ready for the, well, bitter shock in the Body Farm.

Bill Bass' new book is called "Beyond the Body Farm: A Legendary Bone Detective Explores Murders, Mysteries and Revolution in Forensic Science." Welcome to the show, Bill.

Dr. BILL BASS (Author, "Beyond the Body Farm: A Legendary Bone Detective Explores Murders, Mysteries and Revolution in Forensic Science"): Thank you, sir. Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: I'm very happy to have you. Tell us a bit about "Beyond the Body Farm." Why did you call it beyond? Are you going in place where no one has gone before?

Dr. BASS: "Beyond Body Farm" is a collection of cases that I have worked on in the past that have taken - you may well call them cold cases, maybe. It's taken 20 or 30 years to solve the case. And the theory behind it is what have been the scientific changes in the technology that forensic people have used in determining what happened to people.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Tell us what a standard technique is - when you come across a body that's, you know, tell us what you're looking for at the site and what you find there.

Dr. BASS: Ira, when the police call me and ask me to identify a skeleton or a maggot-covered body or something like that, I think they're asking me two or three questions. They're asking me, can you determine who this individual is? In other words, they're seeking the identity of the deceased person. And also, they are asking any help that I can give them on the manner in which that person may have died.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BASS: So, I think they're asking - they're also asking how long have they been dead. So they're asking a series of questions that we hope that we can answer as many, if not all, that they ask.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Our number: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking with Bill Bass, who is author of "Beyond the Body Farm," also co-authored by John Jefferson. If you want to ask a question, that was our phone number. You can also go to "Second Life." We're in the Science School area of "Second Life" and ask somebody with a SCIENCE FRIDAY T-shirt on. Good question there.

How new is the science, you know, of looking at the bugs and investigating the sites - of the site. Is this relatively new technique?

Dr. BASS: Well, if you look - if you're talking about bugs and entomology, that is entomology or forensic entomology is probably the most recent of the forensic fields.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. BASS: There have been individuals who have studied insects and their relationship to decay rates for, say, half a century or something like that. But there have been very few, until just the last, say, 20 years that have applied much of this to a study human situation and the deaths of humans.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You tell a story of a woman in your book, "Beyond the Body Farm," you were trying to identify. And in this case, the DNA evidence was actually wrong.

Dr. BASS: That's right. You don't think about having false DNA reports, but we have one in the case of Leoma Patterson, who was a 50's-year-old grandmother who disappeared in '78 in one county here in east Tennessee. And the next spring, they found a dog-scattered skeleton in a neighboring county. And there was, in that case, a false DNA report that was done in the early 2000s.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. When I last met with you - it was old good 15 years ago, when we did this video that's on the Web site, on my sciencefriday.com Web site at the Body Farm - it was set up to investigate and to study what bodies look like in the wild, in natural situations of deterioration, so you can understand them when you met them in - outside of laboratory situation. Is the Body Farm still active in that kind of manner?

Dr. BASS: It is. The Body Farm is active. Ira, most of the researching goes on out there on either master's thesis or doctoral dissertations. These are research project that the students have come up with. There are three long-term faculty projects. These are ones that have gone on for, say, five to six or seven years. But we have expanded - from what you and I saw before, we have expanded into, say, for example, the best means today of discovering a buried body is to call on a cadaver dog.

A cadaver dog is trained to smell decaying compounds that are given off of bodies. And we decided we wanted to get into that in more depths. So we have four bodies buried at the Body Farm and we have them hooked up to pipes that we can get the smells, which are the compounds off of the individuals. We are now in the process of…

(Soundbite of dog barking)

FLATOW: Right on cue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BASS: That was my dog who is barking.

FLATOW: It's okay. Go ahead.

Dr. BASS: Are you with me?

FLATOW: Yes. We're here. Go ahead. He barked right on cue, as you were talking about the dog.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. BASS: Yeah. We have devised a sniffer. This is a mechanical device that you can carry in your hand and walk across the ground. And it will pick up some of the compounds. When I say some of the compounds - we have found over 400 compounds given off of decaying bodies.

FLATOW: Wow.

Dr. BASS: Then, not all of those 400 are of equal value, we think, and so we have taken some 20 of the major compounds and we have devised a sniffer. Hopefully, we'll devise one, one of these days, that you can put on a vehicle and drive across a field, and it will tell you if Jimmy Hoffa is buried out there or something like that.

FLATOW: Oh, yeah. That's still one unsolved case, is it not?

Dr. BASS: That's right. You know, last year, the government spent quite a bit of money, digging up a farm in Southern Michigan, trying to find Jimmy Hoffa and he wasn't there, which got us sorry they hadn't called us because I think we could do it for a lot cheaper.

FLATOW: Using the dogs, you think?

Dr. BASS: Using the sniffer that we have, yes.

FLATOW: Oh, can you make a mechanical sniffer?

Dr. BASS: Yes, we have.

FLATOW: That's what it is, I see.

Dr. BASS: Yes, we have a mechanical sniffer that - I'm holding out for a dial on it that tells you whether the body you found is a male or female, but it will be a while before we get to that stage.

FLATOW: And you think you can get it to be that accurate, that specific?

Dr. BASS: Well, I don't know. I mean, I don't know whether there's any difference between the decay smell of a woman and that of a male. But, you know, that's certainly something we need to look at down the road.

FLATOW: Well, tell us what then - that's a great a challenge. What other challenges lie ahead for you in this field?

Dr. BASS: Oh, I think many - the criteria that we use to identify skeleton remains are based upon three anatomical collections that were started between 1900 and ran at about 1950. These were cadavers that were used in medical research, and instead of cremating the body or burying the body, three of the anatomists in the early part of the 19th century decided that they want to build a collection of known individuals.

And that's where we start it all. Now, when the police ask me to identify individuals, they're not asking me to identify somebody that's 100 years old, they're asking me to identify somebody that is in the modern population. And so we decided that we needed to build up a collection of modern skeletons, so that those bodies that go through the Body Farm, the ultimate of that is all of them end up in a research or study collection. And we are fine tuning, let's say that we are fine tuning the techniques that you use to determine the age and the sex and the race and the statute, hand - all of those things that will aid the police in identifying an unknown individual.

FLATOW: Did juries always believe the forensic - the bug evidence that you come up with?

Dr. BASS: Well - I don't know that they always believe. I think it depends on the person.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. BASS: Some people tend to turn off a jury with their behavior patterns or not being able to answer questions that a jury - if you realize, the jury is made up of average people in the population. And if you go in with a very academic answer and things like that, I think that they probably turn off some of the people in the jury.

The one problem I have had with insects are they're great predictor of how long you have been dead, if that body is outside where the insects can get to it. But not everybody dies outside, you see. People die in houses, and the decay goes whether there're insects there or not. The insects are one of nature's ways of reducing the body to its lowest denominator, which is the teeth and bone.

FLATOW: You exhume the body of the Big Bopper. Tell us why you did that?

Dr. BASS: Well, the Big Bopper was the man that wrote "Chantilly Lace" and died in an airplane crash in February the 3rd of 1959, in outside of Clear Lake, Iowa. There were four people in the plane, the pilot; the Big Bopper - who was a man named Jiles P. Richardson, he was a disc jockey from Beaumont, Texas; and Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly were also on that plane.

The Big Bopper was the one found the farthest from the plane - now, that wasn't very far, about 20 yards. As the plane ends up, it skids into the ground. The Big Bopper is found on the opposite side of a fence that where the airplane stopped. And the family has always wondered whether their loved one survived the crash and was walking away for help.

Also, about three or four months after that crash, the Iowa farmer was out cleaning up the airplane debris in his field and he finds a pistol. That pistol was owned by Buddy Holly, and it had been fired a couple of times. And I don't know how rumors get started, but the rumor got started that the Big Bopper had been shot.

Now, about three years ago, the Texas Historical Commission commissioned a statue, a life-size statue of the Big Bopper to be built. And the - when the Big Bopper was taken back to Beaumont to be buried, he was buried in a section of the cemetery that had only horizontal markers, so it was easier to mow. In order to put up that statue, they're going to have to move the Big Bopper from the horizontal section of the cemetery to the section of the cemetery that you had aboveground monuments.

And so they were going to move him anyway. And his son saw an opportunity to see if they could answer the two questions: did my father survive the crash and was he walking away for help, and was he shot?

FLATOW: Bill, let me interrupt you because I got to give out a little ID here. This is TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News, talking with Bill Bass, author of "Beyond the Body Farm." Go ahead.

Dr. BASS: Okay. Well, he called me and asked me if I could do an autopsy and determine that and I told him, well, I think - I thought I could. And so in March of this year, John Jefferson, who's the writer with me of the book "Beyond the Farm" and I, went down and we did an autopsy. We did a full body X-ray of the Big Bopper.

The Big Bopper, by the way, was in extremely good condition. He was buried in a dry coffin and…

FLATOW: Bill, I got to ask you to cut to the…

Dr. BASS: And when you look at him, and see the likeness between he and his son to show that they were - it was so good. And what we did, we X-rayed the entire body from top of the skull to the bottom of the feet, and there are multiple fractures from the top of the head to the bottom of the feet. There are compound fractures of the femur and the tibia, which meaning they broke and were not connected.

So the answer to the first question was, no, he did not walk away from the plane and he was not walking away to seek help. He died the instant that plane crashed. And the second one, there is no evidence of any lead splatter or anything like that or lead wiped in the bones, and so he was not shot.

FLATOW: Hmm. I got about a minute left. I know that you're going to expose to exhume Harry Houdini. Can you tell me why, in a minute?

Dr. BASS: I can tell you why in a minute. I'm on a committee to identify him. During life, Houdini broke an ankle. And what we'll be looking for is not all the normal information on Houdini, but I'm looking to see if there is a heel fracture of an ankle.

FLATOW: I thought Houdini may have died under mysterious circumstances. He was supposed to be punched in…

Dr. BASS: There was a footprint on him last year that suggest that.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. BASS: Suggest he may have been poisoned instead of died from a ruptured appendix.

FLATOW: Do you think you could find that?

Dr. BASS: Oh, I think I can't find it, but they have toxicologists who will take samples and see if they can determine if there were any poisons in the body.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And that's going to happen when?

Dr. BASS: Well, I don't know. That depends on the judicial system. The lawyer who is trying to do is, the man named Jim Starrs who teaches at George Washington University. And Jim likes to dig up cases like this from the past because of the advancement of the technology in forensics. And he thinks the technology now is a lot better than it was when Houdini died in the early 1900s, and so he's hoping that he can shed some light on that death.

FLATOW: Well, I want to thank you Bill for taking time to be with us, and always fascinating to talk with you.

Dr. BASS: Ira, thanks for having me back again.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Dr. Bill Bass, author with John Jefferson of "Beyond the Body Farm: A Legendary Bone Detective Explores Murders, Mysteries and the Revolution in Forensic Science."

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