Forensic Case Files: The Strange Case of Colonel William Shy

Colonel William Shy, killed at the Battle of Nashville, Dec. 16, 1864.

Colonel William Shy, killed at the Battle of Nashville, Dec. 16, 1864.

The whole affair started as an exercise in grave robbing.

In late December 1977, forensic anthropologist Dr. Bill Bass was called in to consult when the disturbed grave of Confederate officer Lieutenant Colonel William Shy was discovered. The grave was dug down three or four feet, but, most shockingly, there was a headless body in a sitting position on top of the antiquated cast-iron coffin, dressed in what appeared to be a tuxedo jacket.

In his role as Tennessee’s forensic anthropologist, Dr. Bass did an initial examination of the body on site. It was in an advanced state of decay and partially disarticulated, but some of the remaining flesh was still pink and many of the joints were still intact. He collected the remains, recovering everything but the head, feet and one hand, which was not unexpected in an outdoor burial where animal scavenging is common.

However, when the remains were removed from the grave, the team working the investigation found a large hole in the top of the coffin, approximately one-foot by two-feet in diameter, made by the grave robbers with a pick axe or a shovel. Hanging upside down over the pit and using a flashlight, Dr. Bass peered into the hole and found precisely what he expected in an 1864 burial – nothing. From other Civil War era burials in the area, he knew that more than 100 years in Tennessee’s damp conditions would break down a corpse completely, even the bones, leaving nothing but the layer of goo he found inside Colonel Shy’s coffin.

After cleaning and examining the bones, Dr. Bass concluded that the extra body in the grave was that of a male in his mid-to-late twenties who originally stood between five-foot-nine and six feet tall. There was no obvious indication of what had killed the man, but he estimated the time since death to be between two and six months. As to his presence in another man’s grave, the team postulated that the grave robbers had opened the grave to remove any valuable grave goods they could find, and were in the process of secreting a body when they were interrupted and fled.

And then some strange facts started to surface.

In the new year, when the local sheriff’s deputy and the coroner went back to excavate the grave further, they found the skull inside the coffin. It appeared that the grave robbers had been interrupted in attempting to stuff the victim into the coffin, dislodging the head. The cause of death was no longer a mystery – huge gunshot entry and exit wounds had shattered the skull into seventeen pieces. But, curiously, the dead man had clearly never been to a dentist and had significant, untreated cavities.

When the state crime lab examined the clothes, they found that they were simply made from only natural fibers and were completely without labels. The pants were also an odd style, lacing up the sides. A technician called Dr. Bass, expressing some concern about the items, but the scientist was already one step ahead.

He wasn’t sure how it could be, but he was beginning to suspect that the body in the grave hadn’t been added by the grave robbers, but instead was Colonel Shy’s disturbed body, having lost his head after being pulled from the coffin. It was a known fact that Colonel Shy, 26 at the time of his death, was killed when he was shot at point blank range with a .58 caliber ball. The remains being those of Colonel Shy would explain the lack of modern dental work as well as the clothing artifacts, but how could a body that appeared to be less than a year dead be that of a fallen war hero, nearly 113 years in the grave?

In retrospect, the reasons were quite clear. Although, it was a rarity at the time, Colonel Shy’s body had been embalmed as befitting a man of his wealth and social status, and had been buried in his best suit, the same suit he is seen wearing in the portrait above. Also, the coffin was made of cast iron, and was so sturdy that it not only kept all moisture from the body, but it also kept out the insect life and oxygen that would have rapidly progressed the decomposition process.

The miscalculation was a watershed moment in Dr. Bass’ career. He’d been a forensic scientist for over twenty years at that point, but neither he nor anyone else in the field knew enough about human decomposition to accurately estimate time since death. He made the decision then and there to address that lack of knowledge.

In 1981, Dr. Bass opened the University of Tennessee’s Anthropology Research Facility (more commonly known as the Body Farm) and the world of forensic science was irrevocably changed for the better. Next week, we’re going to delve deeper into the Body Farm and how it’s been a crucial part of forensics and crime solving from the moment it took in its very first research subject.