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

Death's Acre by William M. Bass
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's review
Mar 04, 08

Recommended for: anyone
Read in July, 2004

As someone who has had a lifelong fascination with death, decomposition, murder, funerary and burial practices, and all manner of morbid stuff, I was eager to read Death's Acre. I had read a little about the Body Farm previously, so I couldn't wait to get the whole story from the man who started it all, Bill Bass.

I expected the book to focus very narrowly on the Body Farm itself, but that isn't the case. The reader does get information about Bass's background and how he got into anthropology -- and then forensics -- in the first place. This moves into logical background about Bass's initial work with corpses and the eventual founding of the Body Farm. I thought it was interesting that the Farm got started not only as a much-needed research facility for learning about an uncharted area of science, but it also seemed to have been started because Bass was running out of place to store messy dead bodies (a broom closet at the university and even the trunk of his beloved Mustang proved to be not the best places after all!).

The book then gets into some of the difficulties the Farm has had -- protests about its location, protests about the use of unclaimed cadavers (particularly those of U.S. veterans) and some of the projects it has hosted (including an adipocere formation experiment and an experiment suggested by crime author Patricia Cornwell).

But most of what comprises this book are stories about Bass's career -- his failures and successes. The failures (most notably the Shy case) point up the need for a facility like the Body Farm, and the successes point to the value of the data gathered at the site. All the workers at the Body Farm -- living and dead -- are doing a great deal to aid forensic science. In the future, justice for murder victims will be served more swiftly and accurately because of the work done at the Body Farm.

Avid readers of true crime will enjoy the specialized "professional" view of cases that may already be familiar to them. I was familiar with the Madison Rutherford and Perry/Rubinstein cases, but getting the technical details from Bass (shaped for maximum readability by his capable co-author Jon Jefferson) gave the stories a new dimension. Especially fascinating was the description of the study Bass's student made of the effects of different types of saws upon bone, which helped lead to a conviction in the death of Leslie Mahaffey, one of the victims of the diabolical Paul Bernardo, the male half of the Canadian "Barbie and Ken" husband-and-wife murder team. There's also an inside look at the infamous Tri-State Crematory case from 2002.

There's a lot of eye-popping detail in this book, some of it horrifying, some of it poignant, some of it -- dare I say -- hilarious. See if you can keep yourself from laughing when you find out why Bass had to buy his first wife two new kitchen stoves, or why he had to buy his third wife a new blender.

Even when the tone of the book becomes humorous, Bass is always professional and respectful. Bass sees himself as a scientist, first and foremost, and his ultimate goal is to use his science to bring criminals to justice. He's humble, big-hearted, and always willing to learn from anybody -- be it a colleague, one of his own students, or the voiceless dead who speak to him with their inert, shattered bones.
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