Death's Acre Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales
By Bill Bass
Berkley Publishing Group Copyright © 2004 Bill Bass
All right reserved. ISBN: 0425198324
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 Führer. 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.
A year later, in 1956, I was accepted by the anthropology Ph.D. program at Harvard University. Harvard was regarded as the best anthropology department in the country, so I was honored to be accepted, but I turned them down. There was only one place to learn what I wanted to learn: in Philadelphia, at the feet of the famous bone detective Wilton Krogman.
I arrived in Philadelphia to begin my Ph.D. studies at the University of Pennsylvania in September. I was fresh from a summer job at the Smithsonian Institution, where I had analyzed and measured hundreds of Native American skeletons. I was twenty-seven years old by now-I had spent three years in the Army during the Korean War-and I had the beginnings of a family: a bright young wife, Ann-who would later earn a Ph.D. of her own in nutrition science-and our six-month-old son, Charlie. To save money, Ann and I rented a small apartment several miles west of downtown Philly.
Not long after the semester started, Dr. Krogman fell down the stairs in his house and shattered his left leg. Normally he commuted to campus by city bus, but with a hip-length cast, getting to the bus stop and clambering aboard would be nearly impossible. Since Krogman lived west of the city, too, I offered to drive him to and from work while he mended. I thought we'd be carpooling for a couple of months. As it turned out, we rode together for the next two and a half years. It didn't take him nearly that long to heal, but by the time his cast came off, I had found a new mentor, and he had acquired a new disciple.
Surprisingly, I took only one course from Krogman at Penn, but all those hours together in the car became my own personal tutorial with the world's best bone detective. It was like an automobile-age version of the Socratic dialogs, but unlike Plato, I had the great teacher all to myself.
Krogman would assign me readings, and we'd discuss them as we drove back and forth. He had a fantastic memory for authors, dates, and publication titles, as well as every detail within the articles themselves. His ability to integrate knowledge from many sources, and to apply it to solve forensic problems, was phenomenal.
Krogman didn't confine the tutorials to the car, either. Whenever he was given a forensic identification case-a set of bones from a puzzled county medical examiner or FBI agent-Krogman would call me into his lab. He would examine the bones first and formulate his analysis, but he would say absolutely nothing. Then he would ask me to look at the bones and draw my own conclusions. Then, as we compared findings, he demanded that I support and document my statements by citing recent scientific articles on the subject. Krogman was always surprised when I found something he'd overlooked. It didn't happen often, but when it did, I glowed with pride.
Krogman's teaching method was remarkably effective. Not only did it help me retain the material, it also prepared me to face courtroom questioning by hostile lawyers-something I've had to do many times in the subsequent years, though I couldn't have foreseen it then. At the time, all I knew was that Krogman was guiding me, case by case and bone by bone, down a marvelous path.
All too soon the path forked. I left Penn to take a nine-month teaching post at the University of Nebraska in January of 1960, followed by eleven years at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. But my association with Krogman was far from over. We always stayed in close touch, personally and professionally. And when I trotted up the steps of the red brick headquarters of the New Jersey State Police in June of 1982, I found myself walking in Wilton Krogman's footsteps once again.
Krogman had been asked by the New Jersey attorney general to examine the bones five years earlier, in 1977. Because of the lingering questions surrounding the Lindbergh case, the state was considering reopening the investigation. On the basis of Krogman's findings, they chose not to. Now I was revisiting that same issue on behalf of the convicted killer's widow.
By now I had attained a measure of professional standing of my own: I was the head of a thriving university anthropology department at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, as well as the creator of what would come to be called "the Body Farm," the world's only forensic facility devoted to research on human decomposition. I had been named a fellow of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences and was serving as president of the organization's physical anthropology section. I had examined thousands of skeletons and assisted with more than a hundred forensic cases. And yet, despite all that, I felt nervous and small: a pygmy walking in the footsteps of a giant.
Excerpted from Death's Acre by Bill Bass Copyright © 2004 by Bill Bass. Excerpted by permission.
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