The Cult of Forensics Expert Dr. Bill Bass

Knoxville's hottest celebrity digs up bodies for a living — then writes about them.

It's a free alumni series lecture on a slow winter weeknight, but still people are being turned away, first from the University of Tennessee student center auditorium into the adjacent ballroom, then from the ballroom, too—fire department regulations.

Hundreds, maybe a thousand, have gathered to hear a retired professor and his writing partner speak, and they are following every word—even those watching them on a grainy widescreen.

"It takes longer to burn a 90-pound individual than a 300-pound individual," one speaker is explaining. "The increased amount of fat on the larger individual accelerates the cremation process."

No one so much as flinches. When a young man and his backpack scoot down the aisle and out the door as the speaker is pronouncing "you cannot get DNA out of a cremated body," a young couple quickly scamper to share his seat for the remaining 10 minutes. They get to hear an audience member in the other room ask about crematory remains one grieving family received that looked like lumps of clay.

"Um, had they gotten wet?" quips the man with the microphone, and a chuckle ripples the room before he asks if there is a funeral director present who could perhaps speak to the questioner separately. There is. More than one.

In the hallway afterwards, a young, fit, very attractive co-ed is wondering what all the hubbub is about as the audience streams out. "Oh no," she says in dismay. "The cremation talk? I missed it? I so meant to go!"

Bones of Betrayal

Such is the extraordinary, sometimes disconcerting, appeal of forensic anthropologist Dr. Bill Bass. His straight talk about pulverizing bones and rotting cadavers has found a dedicated audience that cuts across age, gender, socioeconomic, education, and even international boundaries. He's always been popular with students at UT, where he founded the Forensic Anthropology Center, also known as the Body Farm, and retired 14 years ago. He's long been deeply appreciated by academician colleagues, scientists, and the law enforcement agencies that benefit from his detective work.

But now Bass has another fan base: mystery readers. Since 2006, he's collaborated with Jon Jefferson to produce four Body Farm forensic detective novels as "Jefferson Bass." Half a million Jefferson Bass books have been printed as of 2008, the first in 14 languages, and two have already become New York Times bestsellers. The main character in all is one Dr. Bill Brockton, who works as a forensic anthropologist at UT's Body Farm and consultant to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

The latest addition, Bones of Betrayal, came out Feb. 3, a couple weeks after the packed house speech at the UT Center. The sign in front of Hargreaves Booksellers for two weeks before said simply, "Dr. Bass book signing," and the date.

At an age—81—when most are quietly contemplating a round of golf or what's for lunch, Bass is once again half of a book tour celebrity team.

"Boy, I'll tell you, our books come out the first week in February, and HarperCollins literally owns you for about six weeks after that. They tell you where and when to go there. Last Thursday, we left for Nashville and talked to the bar association for three hours. Then we signed books at Davis Kidd and ate dinner with my second wife's daughter. Friday morning we did a TV interview at 6:20 and another at 8 o'clock, stopped at Franklin to sign books at three places on the way to Huntsville, Ala., and did a really big book signing. Got up early Saturday to drive to Atlanta and speak at 1 o'clock. By the time I got back to Knoxville Saturday at six, I was tired.

"I just can't believe that many people come to hear Bill Bass talk. That is something I never, ever, expected," says the tall, fit scientist with his white flat-top and wire rim glasses. "There used to be maybe 1,000 who knew who I was. Now it's in the tens of thousands. I never set out to be a celebrity."

It was really more about maggots.

"At the University of Kansas, I had a doctoral student, Bob Gilbert, who was wondering if females age the same as men," Bass says. "Well, nobody knows. Cadaver populations are notorious for having people in the older ranges. You get old and crotchety and drive your friends away, when you die, your body ends up in the anatomy department. A young person dies, the family buries them. We had very little data dealing with younger individuals, excepting the skeletal remains of American prisoners who had died in North Korean prison camps. How do you get these things? I had been working with a number of pathologists in the country on various little things and I started asking if, when they did an autopsy on a young female, would they save the pubic synthesis for Bob Gilbert? One who did, fortunately, was Jerry Francisco in Tennessee. When UT decides they want to hire me, Jerry asked if I would be the forensic pathologist for the Tennessee State Medical Examiners System.

"He notified the 95 Tennessee county medical examiners that they had me on staff, and the bodies started coming in. The first 10 I got had maggots. I didn't know about maggots. Kansas had twice the amount of land as Tennessee, and half the people, so the chances people smelling a body and finding it while it still had maggots was pretty small back there. I looked in the literature for more about maggots, and there wasn't much. So I went to the UT dean and said, ‘I need some land to put dead bodies on.' He picks up the phone and I started with a former sow barn on the ag campus."

That was 1971. It was 1980 before any research from the center's systematic study of post-mortem decomposition was ready to be shared with even the academic journals, but already public interest in Bass' work was picking up a bit. "If you go back and look at history, Quincy (in 1975) was the first one to get it started, as a medical examiner on television. My initial lectures in the 1970s were to police and medical examiners. Some of them belonged to Kiwanis, Rotary, civic clubs, and they started saying, ‘We want you to talk to us, too.'" They probably felt Bass' forensic material would be popular with a general audience because of his high-profile cases of identifying remains for law enforcement entities, Bass says. "Newspapers always liked to write about murders, and I was doing my share of those."

He's not surprised that more and more people got fascinated with the research that in decades past would have appeared strictly in scientific journals, not on the prime-time television set. "I've never looked at forensics as being nerdy or so forth, it's always been more of a puzzle," he says. "Not everybody is into it, but a lot are these days. If they're not, I don't go out and force them. I don't march with a placard, or pass out literature like a Jehovah's Witness."

Another part of his burgeoning popularity is explained by an American culture that covers up death, says Bass. "If you have a wreck on the road and someone is killed, and you drive by, you don't see the bodies out there. They're covered with a tarp. They go in a black bag, to the morgue, and if you ever see the individual again, it's in a coffin. The whole area, from death, to being buried, to going on for years until your body decomposes, it's all been covered up. I think that's one reason the public is so interested, why they want to look at the slides I have and things like that. What goes on behind that big blue tarp?

"We've noticed, Jon and I, that when our books are printed overseas, almost every cover shows dead bodies, the bones and so forth. Boy, it's difficult to do this in the U.S. We're so much more inhibited about death."

But not Bass. Even at his home, much talk is about forensics and Bass has a lab set up in the garage where he analyzes cremated remains. "Early on in our married life, Bill wanted to know the weight of a finger, and I was not home," remembers Carol Bass. "He went in the kitchen and got my blender and took it to the garage and pulverized the finger. I came home and he came in holding the blender, saying, ‘I just ground a finger in this, but I rinsed it with the hose—do you think it's okay to put it in the dishwasher?'"

The answer: "Absolutely not."

The blender is still out there on a shelf. "She didn't want it back," he says, eyes sparkling.

"I hate funerals. I hate death."

Both of Bass' first two wives died of cancer. "My first wife and I met in the service," he says. "I was in the infantry, and then transferred to the Medical Corps. When we first came to University of Tennessee in 1971, she taught Home Ec, and I taught anthropology. She died of colon cancer in 1993. My second wife, Annette, and I were married less than three years when she died of lung cancer—she never smoked a day in her life, but her first husband did.

"I hate funerals. I hate death. I hate mourning. I don't like that scene at all.

"I never see a forensic case as a dead body. I see it as a challenge to see if I can figure out who that individual was and what happened to them. It is interesting what your mind can do. I think that you will find quite a few people in the forensic area who are like that, who shift that thing to something that is science and not emotion."

Sometimes, though, Bass' connection to the human race is palpable. For lectures, he carries a case his grad students pitched in and bought for him, containing three skulls—one white, one black, one Asian. "This black female skull, that's Mary Louise Downing, I know her," he says. "She was a mystery from Atchison, Kansas, 32, 5'6", an unsolved case, probably murdered. Her family was very poor and didn't want to pay to bury her, so they gave her to me. She teaches people. Has for decades. She has gone a lot further with me than she did in life."

Three dedicated human companions also assist Bass in his recent years of whirlwind publicity tours with Jefferson. Susan and Jim Seals, a married couple who live in Strawberry Plains, and Mary Jo Tarvin, Susan's cousin, are a competent, unassuming lot, typically wearing name tags that make it look like they share the last name Jefferson Bass.

They're the ones who painstakingly fill out the scraps of paper that plainly spell how books are to be signed, that keep the website up to date, who carry to each event great stacks of books and the paperwork people need to fill out if they'd like to donate their bodies to the Body Farm. "When Susan's with him, she sees that he gets time to eat," says Jim Seals. "She keeps those drinks handy, too. He likes the little small Cokes, the Zero. We just smooth the way."

Susan Seals met Bass at UT, where she worked at the book and supply store. Jim, who's still a full-time administrator at UT, had known Bass since the early '80s. "I used to be a detective in Sevier County—my brother's the sheriff there now—and he worked the Thomas Bird murder case there with us."

Jim doesn't see any change in Bill since the old days. "He's got a memory like a hawk. The only time you're gonna catch him in a weak moment is if he's worn out. "

Bass also likes a good joke, even on himself, says Seals. "He had his 80th birthday and we had him a party at Aubrey's. We had the back table, and Susan had it all decorated with little skeletons, and a coconut cake, that's Dr. Bass' favorite. Now Susan's cousin is petite and blond and looks like Marilyn Monroe. She had her get in a trash can and we rolled her in. We popped the top and she started singing ‘Happy Birthday, Dr. Bass' and he was like, ‘Hot damn!' That was the highlight of the evening."

Fans include the stethoscope set

Bass and Jefferson are seated at a table in the UT Hospital auditorium, signing books, first Jefferson, then Bass. Many office managers and nurses come by, others in line have stethoscopes dangling from their necks. A group of six in blue surgical scrubs have already taken their seats for the noon talk; it's 11:35 a.m. One woman wants the whole Jefferson Bass stack autographed. She's a little flustered when she realizes that one of the books she brought, the 1994 book Body Farm, is a fictional mystery set at the Body Farm—but it was written by Patricia Cornwell, not Jefferson Bass. "In that one," says Bass, signing it with a flourish, "I'm Dr. Lyle Shade." He adds Bones of Betrayal to her signed stack. "There, now you have something new."

Long road to a happy union

Carol and Bill Bass were childhood friends. "Years ago in Campbell County, Va., his grandfather Bass owned a farm," she says. "I'm not proud to tell you, I was not allowed to play with just anyone as a child. But Bill would visit his grandfather (coming from Winchester, Va., some 150 miles away), and I was allowed to play with him. He was so nice and so kind and knew so many new things."

They kept in touch, and Carol was a bridesmaid at Bass's 1953 wedding to Mary Ann Owen. "My husband and I stayed friends with Ann and Bill, and his mother was a very good friend. His parents later moved to Knoxville to live with Bill and Ann. When Ann died in 1993, and so did Bill's father, I would come to Knoxville to care for his mother when Bill had to take a long trip out of town. I met and knew his second wife, Annette, too. When his mother passed away in March 1997, and Annette that same year in May, Bill was overwhelmed. I came to Knoxville and helped with the arrangements and the notes, then we kept up over the phone.

"One day he called and said, ‘Would you consider coming to Knoxville and taking care of me?' I was so taken aback... We had never ever thought of each other as a marriage partner before."

Carol Bass accepted the offer. "And every day since I first came here has been an adventure."

She's a frequent presence at the Body Farm. "I'm fine looking at it and hearing about it," she says, "but the odor is awful. Don't let anyone tell you differently."

She accompanies Bill on speaking engagements and consulting trips whenever possible, and particularly relishes a recent trip to Texas. "Bill has been encouraging colleagues in different climates to create facilities similar to the Body Farm, and there's a second one now in San Marcos, at Texas State," she says, and then laughs. "As soon as we touched ground in the state, they let us know... in Tennessee you have farms, in Texas you have ranches, the Body RANCH. We didn't make that mistake again."

Just this past week, notes Carol, a colleague of Bill's from Panama called requesting that he consult on possibly establishing a Body Farm there. That work, along with Bill's ongoing consulting for groups like the U.S. Armed Service Graves Registration Office and a continuing role as State Forensic Anthropologist, makes Carol a bit nervous. "Bones of Betrayal is the last of the Dr. Brockton novels in the series, but there are three more series HarperCollins wants them to do," she says. "I would love it if Bill could kind of fade to the background and Jon go to the front... I'd like to keep Bill with us."

Carol's a huge fan of the novels, even when the fictional Brockton plays a love scene. "I love to tease Bill. I've been around for a long time. In Carved in Bone, Brockton kisses a student. I know who that is..."

Not so, protests Bill. "Bill Bass doesn't do many things that Bill Brockton does. Most of the exploits Brockton is involved with are something Jon's experienced, like when he drinks moonshine or chews tobacco. When my wife says, ‘I know who that is,' that's kind of hard to answer. I reminder her that the books are fiction, and she says, ‘What about the Art Bohanan (nationally known fingerprint expert) character? He's real.'

"I've never kissed a student, that's not good for your reputation. I don't drink, I don't smoke. Jon comes up with the stories, I do the science."

He says he takes care so people could learn from the fiction. "In Carbon Body, Jon wanted to have the body in a cave. ‘Okay, Jon, wet cave or dry cave? In a dry cave you'll mummify...' The science in all the books is accurate. What we do is use different forms of anthropology for each one. If you read ‘em all, you should have a good working knowledge of each forensic anthropology area."

Another difference between he and Brockton: the fictional man jokingly tells another character to use his remains on a "spectacular research project." Bass has other plans. "After working on Georgia crematory cases for a number of years, I want to be cremated," he says. "At the Body Farm, we have a donation program for people who will be cremated, too. And I'm teaching a course on how to identify people who have been cremated. As long as the bones haven't been pulverized.

"I might as well teach students after I'm dead like I did while I was living."

Ever a long line

Jefferson thought they'd have just a few autograph-seekers at Sam's Club this February Saturday, so they've left the assistants at home. But inside, away from the parking lot with its dozens of smudged Bones of Betrayal fliers limp in the melted snow, across two aisles from where the chef with grilled chicken samples does a brisk business, Jefferson Bass is signing books for a line that's never shorter than seven. The people who come through say hello to Carol, in a cheery red suit next to Bill. He asks each, "You want her to sign, too?" They always beam and say yes, the pony-tailed construction worker, the store manager, the older guy in biker regalia. Then an ordinary looking West Knoxville weekend type, slacks and polo shirt. Bass knows him, "What have you been up to!" he sings out. "I'm retired," the fellow answers.

"No kidding," says Bass. "Me too!"