Death's Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales

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9780425198322: Death's Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales

Dr. Bill Bass, one of the world's leading forensic anthropologists, gained international attention when he built a forensic lab like no other: The Body Farm. Now, this master scientist unlocks the gates of his lab to reveal his most intriguing cases-and to revisit the Lindbergh kidnapping and murder, fifty years after the fact.

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About the Author:

Dr. Bill Bass, a legend in forensic circles, has assisted with hundreds of cases for the FBI and numerous other law-enforcement agencies. He created the world's first laboratory devoted to human decomposition: the University of Tennessee's Anthropology Research Facility. He has written or coauthored more than two hundred scientific publications, many based on murder cases and other mysteries he has helped to prosecute or solve. A gifted teacher, he has been named "National Professor of the Year" by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education.
Jon Jefferson is a veteran journalist, science writer, and documentary filmmaker. His writing has been featured by The New York Times, Newsweek, USA Today, and Popular Science.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

A DOZEN TINY BONES, nestled in my palm: They were virtually all that remained, except for yellowed clippings, scratchy newsreel footage, and painful memories, from what was called "the trial of the century."

That label seems to get thrown around quite a lot, but in this case, maybe it was right. Seven years after the Scopes "Monkey Trial" and half a century before the O.J. Simpson debacle, America was mesmerized by a criminal investigation and murder trial that made headlines around the world. Now I was to decide whether justice had been done, or an innocent man had been wrongly executed.

The case was the kidnapping and death of a toddler named Charles Lindbergh Jr.-known far and wide as "the Lindbergh baby."

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh, a former barnstormer and airmail pilot, had flown a small, single-engine plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, across the Atlantic Ocean. He did it alone, with no radio or parachute or sextant, staying awake and on course for thirty-three hours straight. By the time he reached the coast of France, news of his flight had reached Paris, and Parisians by the thousands flocked to the airfield to welcome him. The moment he touched down, 3,600 miles after leaving New York, the world changed, and so did Charles Lindbergh's life. His achievement brought him fame, fortune, and a pair of nicknames: "Lucky Lindy," which he hated, and "the Lone Eagle," which reflected both his solo flight and his solitary nature.

Five years after he flew into the limelight, Lindbergh and his wife, Anne, were living in a secluded New Jersey mansion. They had a twenty-month-old son; his parents named him Charles Jr. but journalists called him "the Eaglet." It was the heyday of sensational journalism, and savvy reporters and publishers knew that a Lindbergh story-almost any Lindbergh story-was a surefire way to sell newspapers. So when the heir and namesake of Charles Lindbergh was kidnapped, a media frenzy broke out: The case attracted more journalists than World War I had. The ransom notes-at first demanding $50,000, then later upping the ante to $70,000-made front-page headlines and newsreel footage; so did the claims, emerging from towns throughout America, that the Lindbergh baby had been found alive and well. But all those claims, and all those hopes, were laid to rest two months after the kidnapping, when a small child's body was found in the woods a few miles from the Lindbergh mansion. The body was badly decomposed; the left leg was missing below the knee, as were the left hand and right arm-chewed off, it appeared, by animals.

On the basis of the body's size, the clothing, and a distinctive abnormality in the one remaining foot-three toes that overlapped-the remains were quickly identified as the Lindbergh baby's. The next day they were cremated, and a brokenhearted Charles Lindbergh flew out over the Atlantic, alone once more, to scatter his son's ashes. No one called him Lucky Lindy now.

The police eventually arrested a German immigrant named Bruno Hauptmann, a carpenter whose garage rafters had apparently been used to construct a makeshift ladder used to reach the Lindberghs' second-floor nursery. Hauptmann was arrested after police traced a large portion of the ransom money to him. He was charged with kidnapping and murder: The baby's skull had been fractured, though the injury might actually have resulted from a fall, since the ladder broke during the abduction. Despite allegations that some of the evidence against him was suspect or fabricated, Hauptmann was convicted. He died in the electric chair in April of 1936.

Fifty years after the crime, in June of 1982, I was contacted by an attorney representing Bruno Hauptmann's widow, Anna. All these years after his execution, Mrs. Hauptmann was still trying to clear her husband's name. Her only chance was a dozen tiny bones. Recovered from the crime scene after the body's cremation, they had been carefully preserved ever since by the New Jersey State Police. At the request of Mrs. Hauptmann's attorney, I drove up to Trenton to see if this handful of scattered bones might somehow show that the body had been incorrectly identified-that a rush to judgment had triggered a terrible miscarriage of justice. Let them be the bones of a younger boy, an older boy, a girl of any age, she must have prayed. Anything but the bones of Charles Lindbergh Jr.

I was her final hope-a small-town scientist backing up traffic at a tollbooth as I asked directions to the headquarters of the New Jersey State Police.

It was a long and fascinating road that had brought me to Trenton, and by that I don't mean the New Jersey Turnpike. What had brought me here was a path that once pointed toward an uneventful career in counseling but that suddenly veered off in the direction of corpses, crime scenes, and courtrooms.

My forensic career began as a result of an early-morning traffic accident outside Frankfort, Kentucky, in the winter of 1954. On a damp, foggy morning, two trucks collided in a fiery crash on a two-lane highway. When the fire was out, three bodies, burned beyond recognition, were found in the vehicles. The identities of both drivers were easily confirmed, but the third body was a bit of a mystery.

By sheer but momentous coincidence, some months after that accident, The Saturday Evening Post carried an article about Dr. Wilton M. Krogman, the most famous "bone detective" of the 1940s and '50s. Krogman was a physical anthropologist who, along with two Smithsonian colleagues, virtually created the science of forensic anthropology. He was considered such a great forensic authority that during World War II, the U.S. government had him waiting in the wings to identify the remains of Adolf Hitler. As it turned out, the Russians beat the Americans to the burned-out bunker containing Hitler's bones, so Krogman never got a look at the Fnhrer. But he had plenty of other forensic cases, from the police and the FBI, to keep him busy.

In the Post article, Krogman mentioned several other scientists who also specialized in identifying human skeletal remains. One of those he named was Dr. Charles E. Snow, an anthropology professor at the University of Kentucky, where I was pursuing a master's degree in counseling. The school, Dr. Snow, and I were all located in Lexington, just thirty miles from the scene of that early-morning truck collision. Although I didn't know it at the time, I was about to collide head-on with my future.

A Lexington lawyer who read the article realized that Dr. Snow might be able to identify the third victim of the fiery crash. He called Dr. Snow, who readily agreed to examine the remains. At the time, I was taking an anthropology class from Dr. Snow just for fun. When he got the lawyer's call, Snow asked if I would be interested in accompanying him on a human-identification case. This was a chance to apply, to a real-world case, scientific techniques that so far I had only read about. Why was I the one student he invited to go along? Perhaps he appreciated my budding brilliance; perhaps what he appreciated was the fact that I had a car to get us there. In any case, I jumped at the chance.

The body had been buried months before, so the lawyer completed the necessary paperwork to authorize an exhumation. On a warm spring day in April of 1955, Dr. Snow and I drove to a small cemetery beside a little country church in east-central Kentucky. By the time we arrived, the grave had been excavated and the coffin uncovered. Spring rains had raised the water table almost to ground level, so the coffin was immersed in water. As it was hoisted from the grave by a cemetery truck, water poured from every seam.

The body was burned, rotted, and waterlogged-quite a contrast to the immaculate bone specimens I had studied in the university's osteology lab. Traditional anthropological specimens are clean and dry; forensic cases tend to be wet and smelly. But they're intellectually irresistible too: scientific puzzles demanding to be solved, life-and-death secrets waiting to be unearthed.

From the smallness of the skull, the width of the pelvic opening, and the smoothness of the eyebrow ridge, even my inexperienced eye could see that these bones came from a female. Her age was a bit trickier: The wisdom teeth were fully formed, so she was an adult, but how old? The zigzag seams in the cranium, called sutures, were mostly fused together but still clearly visible; that suggested she was in her thirties or forties.

As it turned out, the police already had a pretty good idea whose body this was. Dr. Snow's job was simply to confirm or refute the tentative identification. An eastern Kentucky woman had been missing since the time of the accident; what's more, the night before the wreck, neighbors had overheard her say that she was riding to Louisville with one of the truck drivers, a man with whom she'd had a longtime relationship.

The lawyer who enlisted Dr. Snow's help had already obtained the missing woman's medical records and dental X rays. Armed with this information, Dr. Snow swiftly matched her teeth and fillings with those appearing in the X rays. By confirming her identity, Dr. Snow gave the lawyer a solid legal basis for a liability claim on behalf of the woman's surviving relatives. It seems that she and her boyfriend were killed when the other truck swerved across the highway's centerline and struck them head-on. The truck that killed them was owned by a nationwide grocery chain-The Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company, or A&P-so there were deep pockets to be tapped in court.

Dr. Snow's consulting fee for the case was $25; he handed over $5 of that to me for taking us to the cemetery in my car. I suspect the lawyer extracted a good deal more than that from the cash registers of A&P.

I didn't get rich that day, but I sure got hooked. It was fascinating to see the way burned and broken bones could identify a victim, solve a long-standing mystery, close a case. From that moment on, I decided, I would focus on forensics. I turned my back on counseling, switched to anthropology, and set about making up for lost time.

...

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