Novelist and researcher of the dead: 'This is real life'

Novelist and researcher of the dead: 'This is real life' »Play Video
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- From freshly dead to mummified remains, decaying corpses clutter the unusual but innovative research facility at the University of Tennessee.

The body farm is the stranger-than-fiction brainchild of forensic anthropologist Dr. Bill Bass.

"This is real life. This is real research," he said.

Bass has catapulted a career of digging up bones and solving murder mysteries into a series of bestsellers. The doctor who buries bodies for research says there is one big difference between writing text books and body farm novels.

"You make a hell of a lot more money doing this than doing that, if you want the real truth," he said of writing novels.

Bass collaborates on novels with writer Jon Jefferson under the pen name Jefferson Bass. Their main character is a forensic anthropologist at UT's body farm.

"Jon Jefferson has Bill Brockton doing things that Bill Bass wouldn't do," said Bass.

Unlike his fictional counterpart, good ole boy Bass doesn't frequent transvestite bars or kiss students -- not good for the reputation or marriage.

"I wouldn't put up with that for a minute," said his wife, Carol Bass.

At age 82, Bill Bass is so big he encounters autograph seekers and even groupies wherever he speaks. And when he's not telling stories, he's solving real mysteries.

The Big Bopper's son called Bass nearly 50 years after his famous father, J.P. Richardson, died in a plane crash with rock-and-roll stars Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens.

The singer's son exhumed his dad's casket and wanted the expert to answer two questions that haunted his family about the day the music died.

"(The son wanted to know,) 'Did my father survive the crash, and was he shot?"' said Bill Bass.

A farmer found Holly's pistol in the same field as the Big Bopper's body.

"I don't know how rumors get started, but in the Richardson family they thought, 'I'll bet you they shot our loved one,'" said Bill Bass.

But Holly's X-ray autopsy revealed 200 fractures, not foul play.

"There's no way he could have survived," Bill Bass said.

Bill Bass has shifted from bones to ashes.

"I do more crematory research now than do with skeletal remains," he said. He analyzed skeletons discovered at a corrupt crematory in Georgia, where hundreds of bodies intended for cremation were stashed in sheds and dumped in woods.

Sometimes, this retired professor brings his unconventional work home. Bill Bass and his wife live in a quiet cul-de-sac in Knoxville. And inside his garage, you'll find more than cars; you'll find skeletons, skulls, and cremated remains.

"It created a little excitement when our daughter-in-law found her 5-year-old out there, playing in the cremains," said Carol Bass.

One home experiment on cremations didn't sit well with the missus.

"I wanted to grind up a finger," said Bill Bass. "What happens when you grind up a finger? What would you have left? So I came in and got the blender."

"And he said, 'I ground up a fresh finger in this, but I hosed it out in the yard. Is it OK if I put it in the dishwasher now?' (I said,) 'Well if you want to buy me a new dishwasher, help yourself,'" said his wife.

It's not the first appliance to land Bill Bass in hot water. He replaced his first wife's stove after boiling soft tissue off skulls.

"And every time the stove gets hot, it smells like dead people," he said.

In his line of work, the doctor is lucky his sense of smell is deadened as well.