Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead to Tell Tales
by Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson
Nonfiction; 304 pgs
Rating: (Good +)
First Sentence: 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.”
Reason for Reading: After I finished reading Mary Roach’s book Stiff, Andi, a fellow booklover, recommended that I read Death’s Acre. Although it’s taken me a while to get around to it, I finally have. This is my third selection for the Nonfiction Five Challenge.
Comments: I am not sure where my interest in forensic science began. I have long been interested in the psychological aspect of criminal behavior. I always have been drawn to crime mysteries, both in real life and fiction. What makes a person commit a crime? What is going on in his or her head? What motivates the person, spurs them on? Was there something from the past that led the person to do what he or she did? What was the breaking point that pushed him or her over the edge? What was the person thinking before, during and after? All of these questions can be summed up with a simple, “Why?”
It is impossible not to read books on these topics without venturing into the more hard science aspect of crime. I was fascinated when I first learned that there were people who studied blood spatter patterns and that there were professionals out there that specialized in the minute details of a crime scene, which could be make or break a case. It seemed only natural that my curiosity would spread into other areas related to criminal behavior, such as the evidence left behind. Yet another reason I enjoy reading mysteries, watching the protagonist put together the clues that lead to the resolution of the crime or problem. My own career led me down a similar path in a way. Although I am not in law enforcement, I was an investigator of sorts for several years, gathering information through interviews, studying evidence, all in an effort to form as clear a picture as I could to get to the truth. To a lesser degree today, I still play a part in that process.
I never was able to get into the CSI shows that air on television. Although I have heard that they are fairly accurate (and entertaining), there was something too Hollywood-ish about the shows that turned me off. But put a book in front of me on the subject, and I will devour it, just as I devoured many of Patricia Cornwell’s Kay Scarpetta novels. It was because of Patricia Cornwell that I first learned about the Body Farm in a book with the same title. Ironically, Dr. Bass devotes an entire chapter to Patricia Cornwell, praising her as a person and the interest and attention she brought to the Anthropology Research Facility at the University of Tennessee.
Dr. Bass is a modest and down to earth man, qualities that come through quite clearly throughout the book. He is hardworking, dedicated, readily admits his mistakes, and is eager to learn from those mistakes. It was because of one such mistake that Dr. Bass got the idea to start the Body Farm. He wanted to study decomposition of bodies in relation to time of death. The Body Farm is the only one of its kind in the world, a place where forensic research regarding the dead can take place in a more natural setting. It has proved to be useful both to science and to law enforcement agencies around the globe in solving crimes. Several of those crimes, Dr. Bass himself helped solve.
Death’s Acre is a small look into the world of Dr. Bass’s career as a forensic anthropologist. He discusses well-known cases like the Tri-State Crematorium scandal, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the Zoo Man serial murders, a mob hit along with other stories that put his skills to the test. I will not go into detail about each of the cases—you really do have to read them to get the full impact.
This book does require a strong stomach. The author talks at length about the decomposition of human bodies in all of its stages and sometimes the picture he paints is not very pretty. Death’s Acre is an informative book, however, and the strides forensic science has made in recent years are amazing due in a large part to Dr. Bass and other professionals like him.
Favorite Part: For some reason, I was really taken with the story of the ants. During one of Dr. Bass’s earlier excursions, he led a team of anthropologists in search of an Arikara Native American cemetery in South Dakota. He traced the path of the ants to the cemetery, having determined where they would most likely build their homes.
New Phobia Attributed to the Book: Although I have been aware of where flies come from for many years now, after reading this book I have a much stronger dislike for them. I understand their purpose on the food chain, but I’d rather they stay far away from me—while I’m alive at least.
Miscellaneous: While many major advances in forensic science have been made, the state of forensic labs and equipment throughout the United States is in sad shape because of lack of funding and attention. Much of the equipment is outdated or nonexistent. The facilities leave a lot to be desired and there are not enough qualified staff to meet the needs out in the communities. What you see on television in the movies is not often reality. As a result, crimes are going unresolved, victims’ families are left to wonder and fear, and the perpetrators remain on the streets. Author Jan Burke (who I have yet to read) mentioned the Crime Lab Project last spring at the L.A. Times Festival of Books, which began as a group of writers and producers who are interested in improving the conditions of our forensic facilities. Although the project is not mentioned anywhere in Death's Acre, Jan Burke’s words came to mind as I read. If you want to learn more, visit the Crime Lab Project website.