How a strange 19th century coffin lead to a revolution in 20th century forensic science

The "Fisk Airtight Coffin of Cast or Raised Metal" created by Almond D. Fisk.  Note the glass face plates and the shroud-like lid on the coffin on the left. Image Credit: Funeral Facts

The “Fisk Airtight Coffin of Cast or Raised Metal” created by Almond D. Fisk. Note the glass face plates and the shroud-like lid on the coffin on the left. Image Credit: Funeral Facts

The Fisk Mummy

Almond D. Fisk was granted the first patent for a cast iron coffin, called the “Fisk Airtight Coffin of Cast or Raised Metal,” in 1848. Known as the “Fisk Mummy,” this metal coffin was a little eerie because it was shaped like a corpse wrapped in a burial shroud and had a glass window to view the face of the cadaver, which could be covered with a metal plate when the coffin was ready for burial. Fisk added accents like drapery, rosewood, and silk fringe to lessen its disturbing impact on prospective customers.

The design and materials were chosen because of their ability to protect the body and prevent decomposition so that it could endure transportation or delayed internment. According to Fisk’s 1848 patent, “From a coffin of this description the air may be exhausted so completely as entirely to prevent the decay of the contained body on principles well understood; or, if preferred, the coffin may be filled with any gas or fluid having the property of preventing putrefaction.”

After Fisk’s foundry on Long Island in New York burned down in 1849, Fisk contracted an illness while helping fight the blaze and died on October of 1850. His company produced 3 models before 1854 but stopped at some point in the 1850’s.

Other companies, like Crane, Breed, and Co. of Cincinnati and W.M. Raymond & Co. of New York and Chicago, were granted licenses to produce the cast iron coffins. These companies introduced modified versions that replaced the sarcophagus shape with a rectangular casket and simplified the design so it could be mass-produced. Eventually, these metal coffins became popular among wealthy families during the Civil War because of their ability to deter grave robbers and preserve the corpse during transportation.

The Case of Colonel William Shy

William Shy (picture) 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.

The Body Farm

Sign from the Anthropology Research Center at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.  Image Credit: Lisa Bailey on Flickr

Sign from the Anthropology Research Center at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Image Credit: Lisa Bailey on Flickr

Fundamentally, Bass believed that this error was caused by a lack of understanding of what happens to the body during decomposition.  So it was the Colonel Shy Case that motivated Dr. Bass to start the Anthropological Research Facility at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, better known as the Body Farm.

The Research Facility opened in 1980, behind the University of Tennessee Medical Center, to provide a setting for forensic anthropologists to document postmortem changes and to experiment with factors that affect time since death estimates. The Body Farm received its first donation in 1981, and over 1,000 bodies have been donated since. After the cadavers are studied at the Research Facility, the skeletons are stored as part of a skeleton collection and are used for years afterwards.

Today there are six “body farms” in the United States: University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Texas State University, Sam Houston State University, Southern Illinois University, Colorado Mesa University, and California University of Pennsylvania. Earlier this year Fox Valley Technical College in Wisconsin announced that they would open their own outdoor research facility.


Collections and Research. Retrieved on October 5th 2014 from:

Crane and Breed. Retrieved on October 5th 2014 from:

Bass, W., & Jefferson, J. (2004). Death’s acre: Inside the legendary forensic lab the Body Farm where the dead do tell tales. New York, NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Behnke, D. (2014). Wis. college creates body farm for forensic research. Retrieved on October 5th 2014 from:

Meier, A. (2013). The cast iron coffin that was too creepy even for Victorians. Retrieved on October 5th 2014 from:

Ng, C. (2012). Colorado school to create newest ‘Body Farm.” Retrieved on October 5th 2014 from:

Schechter, H. (2009). The Whole Death Catalogue. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

Tersigni-Tarrant, M.A., & Shirley, N.R. (Eds). (2012). Forensic anthropology: An introduction. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Categories: Forensic Science, History

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