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Ann and I have just recently finished the fifth installment of the Abbott and Lowell Forensic Mysteries, LAMENT THE COMMON BONES. As we’ve been getting lots of questions about this book—what it’s about and when it’s coming out—we thought we’d give our readers some upfront information now so they know what to expect.

When we left Matt and Leigh at the end of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, they’d just finished solving a trifecta of murders—one from eighty years ago, another from forty years ago, and one where the blood wasn’t even dry yet. On top of that, the subplot that started in A FLAME IN THE WIND OF DEATH continued: a mysterious figure was attempting to besmirch the name of Leigh’s father, a well-respected cop, killed in the line of duty. In TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER, the case surrounding these deliveries grew more complicated, implicating a person of authority in Leigh’s life, putting her in grave danger.

In LAMENT THE COMMON BONES, we’ll not only see a brand new murder case for the team, but we’ll also see the resolution of this subplot:

When death hides in plain sight, only the most discerning eye can see the truth.

Forensic anthropologist Dr. Matt Lowell and his team of grad students don’t go looking for death—it usually comes to them. But when one of Matt’s students suspects the skeleton hanging in a top competitor’s lab is actually from a murder victim, Matt has no choice but to sneak in to confirm a suspicious death. Once the case comes to Massachusetts State Police Trooper Leigh Abbott, the team is back together again.

While trying to handle a new murder case, Matt and Leigh also uncover new evidence behind the mysterious deliveries intended to smear the name of Leigh’s father, an honored cop, fallen in the line of duty four years before. When the person behind the deliveries is finally uncovered, it becomes clear that lives are in jeopardy if they attempt to thwart him. At the same time, as the murder case delves into underground societies and grows complicated when the killer himself becomes a victim, it will take all of Matt and Leigh’s teamwork to solve both cases and escape with their lives.

LAMENT THE COMMON BONES will release in 2016. When we have more specifics on it, we’ll announce it here and you’ll also find the details on the Abbott and Lowell book page.

Like all the other Abbott and Lowell books, I’ve started a Pinterest board for LAMENT THE COMMON BONES which can be found here. If you’re curious about some of the themes in the book and some of the real locations used, stop by for a look at Matt and Leigh’s upcoming journey.

Photo credit: University of Liverpool, Faculty of Health and Life Sciences


Skeleton Keys Archives - Forensic Case Files: The Strange Case of Colonel William Shy

Things have been a little crazy lately. Not only is it tax time on both sides of the border, but Ann and I are working on two manuscripts simultaneously right now. So instead of missing a week at the blog, I thought I'd pull one of the most popular posts out of the archives - the case that set forensic anthropology pioneer Dr. Bill Bass on the road to completely change the science to become an invaluable forensic tool. So relax, settle back, and let's revisit the very strange case of Colonel William Shy, originally posted on April 10, 2012...


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.


Forensic Case Files: The Final Journey of Richard III

We’ve been covering the fascinating story of England’s King Richard III for two and a half years now here on Skeleton Keys, so it only seems fitting to cover the last stage in his journey as well. The modern portion of Richard’s story started in August of 2012, when it was announced that the combined forces of the Richard III Society, and the University of Leicester Archeology Department had discovered very old remains under a parking lot in the City of Leicester. The remains were discovered under the posited historic location of Greyfriars church, where King Richard was supposedly buried in 1485 following his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field. The church was demolished in 1536, and its exact location lost to time in the following centuries, but meticulous research and many man hours led the combined team to this location.

Archeologists were hopeful that they had indeed discovered the remains of Richard III due to the conformation of the buried remains—the spine of the buried man had a significant curve or scoliosis. Over the centuries, the Tudor family, with the help of Shakespeare, had maligned Richard, turning the memory of a once-favoured king into that of a hunchbacked monster, and a man responsible for the death of his two nephews to ensure him the throne. But contemporary reports from Richard’s own time had simply reported him having one shoulder higher than the other, a common occurrence in those with scoliosis. Certainly, his curved spine didn’t prevent him from sitting a horse or fighting in battle. The skull also showed that the man had died a violent death, likely through battle.

In February of 2013, the University of Leicester released the news that the parking lot remains were indeed that of Richard III. Using mitochondrial DNA and tracing his line from his sister down through all the female relatives, as well as carbon dating, age and sex estimation of the remains, and analysis of the wounds to match with the account of Richard III’s death, it was determined they had a positive identification beyond any reasonable doubt.

On March 22nd, 2015, Richard III’s coffin, topped by a wreath of white roses, was transferred by horse-drawn carriage from the University of Leicester to Leicester Cathedral. Hundreds of people lined the route which passed the site of the Blue Boar, the inn he possibly stayed at during his last night; the Guildhall, built in 1390 and one of the last remaining buildings in Leicester Richard III might have seen; and the Newarke Gateway, through which his body was likely carried on its way back into the city following the battle. His body lay in state at the cathedral for the next three days as thousands came to pay tribute to the fallen monarch.

On March 26th, following more than a year of DNA testing, facial reconstruction, bone analysis and historical research, Richard III was finally laid to rest in Leicester Cathedral. Richard’s coffin, crafted by his decedent, carpenter Michael Ibsen, was carried into the cathedral by ten decorated Army soldiers and the service was presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury. His coffin was lowered into a tomb topped with a plinth of Kilkenny marble and will be closed with a massive block of Swaledale stone, incised across the top with a cross. Ironically, his final resting place is only forty yards from his original burial beneath Greyfriars church.

The service was attended by members of the royal family, including the Countess of Wessex, and the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. Queen Elizabeth II did not attend but sent a message that was read at the beginning of the service.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who will play Richard III in an upcoming BBC production, and who is a third cousin, sixteen times removed, of Richard III, read the poem Richard by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy (the video can be found here, for those of you who like me would listen to him read anything, including the dictionary).

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons  and The University of Leicester


Forensic Case Files: A Bad Rap for the Rats?

An interesting story broke a few weeks ago while we were on our run up to the release of TWO PARTS BLOODY MURDER. So I filed it away, with the intent of coming back to it. Last week’s story on the discovery of the Bedlam Cemetery—containing Black Plague victims, among others—reminded me about it.

We’ve covered the Black Plague on several occasions—in 2013 when victims were discovered during the Crossrail project, and in 2014, when my own university colleague, Dr. Hendrick Poinar, sequenced the genome of the 14th century pathogen responsible for that specific wave of the plague. The common belief held for centuries is that rodents, specifically black rats, were responsible for the spread of the disease through Europe. The rats carried diseased fleas from location to location, moving through cities on foot and across continents by stowing away in caravans and on boats. But authors of a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences propose that climate data from the time directly contradicts that explanation.

The optimum climate for rats includes warm summers with moderate precipitation. But looking at climate data for the time, there is no direct tie to European weather patterns. Instead, there is a direct correlation to Asian weather patterns, specifically wet springs followed by warm summers in central Asia. After each optimal Asian seasonal combination, Europe would experience a plague outbreak several weeks later. And while this is terrible weather for rats, it’s optimal for Asia’s gerbil population. These rodents could clandestinely travel the Silk Road, arriving several weeks later in Europe, bearing the plague where it then spread like wild fire. Finding a climate not to their liking, the gerbils would slowly die out and the epidemic would eventually abate. This would explain the way epidemics seemed to arrive in waves—each fresh wave was preceded by optimal Asian weather, prime gerbil breeding conditions, and a fresh arrival of disease-carrying gerbils in a vulnerable Europe.

Scientists will test this theory by examining DNA sequences from skeletons of European plague victims that died at various times. If the sequence of Y. pestis only slowly drifts over the decades and centuries, then that will support the previously held belief that there were local European reservoirs of disease from which each new epidemic sprung. But significant deviations in the DNA sequences will indicate that the disease arrived in fresh waves with each epidemic.

Maybe then, it will be time to apologize to the black rats for centuries of blame.

Photo credit: Shankar S. and S.J. Pyrotechnic


Forensic Case Files: Bedlam Cemetery Unearthed

We’ve talked about London’s Crossrail project before here on Skeleton Keys. Two years ago, this massive project to dig ­­21km of new underground tunnels in London uncovered a burial ground of Black Plague victims. Just last week, a new archeological treasure was unearthed—a cemetery of over 3,000 16th and 17th century skeletons, many of which came from London’s infamous Bedlam Hospital.

The word ‘bedlam’—a term associated with insanity or madness—comes from the real name of the first European hospital specializing in mental illness: the Hospital of St. Mary of Bethlehem, founded in 1247 as the priory of New Order of St. Mary of Bethlehem. ‘Bethlehem’ was often referred to as ‘Bethlem’, which in turn took on the nickname ‘Bedlam’. Never originally intended to be a hospital, Bedlam originated as a collection center for alms to support the Crusades. However, by the late 14th and early 15th centuries, it was being used to house and care for the insane, with patient records dating back to 1403. By 1460, the hospital had taken on this role as its specialization.



The Bedlam burial ground, London’s first municipal cemetery, was originally located just outside the city walls. It was not only used by Bedlam hospital, but by the city as a whole—it contains Black Death victims from the Great Plague of London in 1665, as well as victims on the Great Fire of London in 1666 (the 1660s really weren’t a great time to live in London!). The death toll from the Great Fire is unknown due to a lack of record keeping of the lower and middle classes—officially only six upper class individuals died in a fire where nearly 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 houses were lost; this seems like an unrealistically low number. But an estimated 100,000 or 25% of London’s population died in the Great Plague, many of whom were interred in the Bedlam burial ground.

I admire the Crossrail administrators for their involvement in their city’s history. On multiple occasions, the project has screeched to a sudden halt as important Roman or Renaissance artefacts or skeletons were discovered during the dig. Each time, the project has paused in that area for months while archeologists swooped in to recover their priceless pieces of history. In this case, a team of sixty archeologists working six days a week hope to excavate and remove all the skeletons in the next four weeks, after which, excavation will continue. After examination, the skeletons will be reinterred in Essex.

Photo credit: Crossrail