Colonel William Shy

Remember how I did a post last week on the Fisk Mummy? Well, I found yet another bit of weirdness involving Fisk coffins (this time found on the StrangeRemains blog here).

“William Shy was a colonel in the 20th Tennessee infantry of the Confederate military. He was killed on December 16th 1864 when his unit was overrun during the battle of Compton Hill at Nashville. During the battle he was shot at point blank range with a .58 caliber minie ball to the head. Shy’s family had his body embalmed and buried in a cast iron metal coffin in a small family cemetery on their property. Unfortunately he would not rest in peace.”

“On December 24th 1977 Ben and Mary Griffith had recently purchased an antebellum estate called Two Rivers in Franklin, TN. On the grounds of the property was an old family graveyard where eight members of the Shy family were buried in the 1800’s and 1900’s. While Mrs. Griffith was showing the mansion and grounds to a friend on Christmas Eve she noticed that one of the plots has been disturbed. The grave’s headstone bore the following inscription: “Lt. Col. Wm. Shy, 20th Tenn. Infantry, C.S.A., Born May 24, 1838, Killed at the Battle of Nashville, December 16, 1864.”

“The Griffiths immediately called the Sheriff’s department. Since the sheriff didn’t consider this an emergency, because he believed that would-be grave robbers dug up the plot to steal Civil War memorabilia, he waited until after the Christmas to investigate further.

“When the Sheriff returned on December 29th and inspected the grave he discovered a headless, decomposing body dressed in a formal black jacket, a pleated white shirt, and white gloves. The investigators at the site agreed that this was the body of a recent homicide victim in an advanced state of decay. Their theory was that a murderer (or murderers) had attempted to hide the victim’s body in plain sight by burying it in a used plot, but got scared off by Mrs. Griffith and her guest in the middle of disposing of the corpse.

“Since the sheriff’s department needed help identifying the body and estimating the time since death, they asked forensic anthropologist Dr. William M. Bass of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to help with the recovery and analysis of the remains.

“As Bass excavated what was left of the body he found a small hole in the top of the coffin, possibly caused by a pick or a shovel.   When Bass looked inside the metal coffin he found nothing but sludge, which didn’t surprise him. He had exhumed a 19th century cemetery in Tennessee and found little more than small bone fragments.

“Bass examined the bones back at his laboratory.   According to his osteological analysis the remains belonged to a white male, in his mid 20’s to early 30’s, and was about 5’10”. Due to the presence of pink tissue and decomposing tissue Bass believed that this person had only been dead between six and twelve months.

“Sherriff’s investigators recovered 17 fragments of the cranium and mandible during additional inspection of the coffin (pictured here). When Bass glued them back together he found that the cause of death was a gunshot wound to the head with a large caliber gun at close range. The entrance wound was in the forehead right above the left eye, and the exit wound was near the base of the skull.

“Dr. Bass began to suspect that he had made a huge error in the time since death when the teeth and clothes were examined. When he examined the teeth he discovered that many of them had cavities, but there were no signs of modern dental care, such as fillings. Then a technician from the crime lab who examined the clothes found that there were no synthetic fibers or labels, things that are typically seen in modern garments.

“Bass realized his mistake. This body belonged to William Shy and it had been pulled out through the small hole in the lid while looters were trying to robbing the grave.

“Dr. Bass reflected on how he could have miscalculated the time since death by more than a 100 years. Though embalming does preserve human remains, a body will not stay uncorrupted forever because embalming fluids only delay the inevitable process of decomposition.

Colonel Shy’s corpse was protected from oxygen and insects inside his hermetically sealed coffin. The cast iron coffins of the 19th century were constructed to be air tight to prevent bacteria, a necessary part of putrefaction, from flourishing. The metal coffin also protected the body from insects, which can burrow through wood coffins and feast on human remains.

“This case and its errors made international headlines and lead to an innovation in forensic anthropology.”

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