William Bass

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An aerial view of Freeman Ranch.(Daniel Wescott)

An aerial view of Freeman Ranch.(Daniel Wescott)

Body Farm

How do forensics experts know what they know? A lot of it is due to research done on body farms, research facilities that examine how bodies decompose.

Through the 1970s, forensic scientists still largely relied on research involving pig carcasses when consulting on criminal cases and attempting to determine the all-important post-mortem interval — the time between when a person dies and when his or her body is found. No one had ever watched a human body decay in a controlled setting firsthand.

That changed in 1980 at the University of Tennessee, where the anthropologist William Bass founded the first body farm. Bass got the idea after being called on to help police in a local murder case: they’d found a disturbed Civil War-era grave and suspected that the body in it was a recent one, swapped in by the suspect to conceal the evidence. Bass analyzed the body’s clothing and other factors and found that wasn’t the case. But he was troubled by the incomplete knowledge of human decomposition.

So he started collecting bodies. The very first one — a 73-year-old man who’d died of heart disease — was left to decay at an abandoned farm that had been donated to the university, just outside the town of Knoxville. Eventually, Bass and his students fenced in a 1.3-acre patch of woods on the property and began studying multiple bodies at once.

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