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The Pillaged Grave of a Civil War Hero, Part 2

Vandalism of the Grave

The grave of Colonel Shy lay peacefully behind the beautiful antebellum home on Del Rio Pike with little notoriety for over a hundred years. Then, on Christmas Eve of 1977, local police officers were called to investigate a report that the grave had been disturbed. Upon arriving, the deputies discovered a headless body on top of the casket and thought someone had placed a murdered man in Colonel Shy's burial plot. Local authorities could not match the headless corpse with any of their missing persons reports. Wild theories abounded, some even speculated that the head might have been removed to hamper identification of the body.

Dr. William M. Bass, Forensic Anthropologist and Head of the Anthropology Department, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, was called in to aid with the removal and identification of this unknown body. If one had followed the story in the newspapers it would have read much like a condensed version of a Damon Runyon murder mystery. Excerpts from some of these newspaper articles are as follows:

Dec. 21, 1977 Franklin.
Williamson County authorities investigating the tampering of a Civil War soldier's grave discovered that a second body had been placed in the grave probably within the last year. The body is an adult male, clad in what appeared to be a tuxedo. The body of Colonel Shy, in its steel vault, was undisturbed, officials said (Nashuille Banner, Dec. 31, 1977).

Dr. Bass arrived and a more thorough search turned up the head and other missing body parts. Four days later this article appeared:

Jan 4, 1978. The body was found in a sitting position. Bass estimated the body to have been dead two to six months (Nashville Banner, Jan. 4, 1978).

A couple of days later the plot thickened:

Jan. 6,1978. The corpse apparently died from a blow to the head. Bass said that the victim was a white male with brown hair, approximately 5'11", 175 pounds and was from 26 to 29 years old. Bass determined that the man had been dead from six to 12 months. "It looks like we have a homicide on our hands", said Chief Deputy Fleming Williams (Nashville Banner, Jan. 6, 1978).

By January 9th the truth was beginning to become evident. By now Dr. Bass had taken the remains back to his laboratory in Knoxville for a more thorough examination. It was now becoming obvious to the investigators that the corpse was very likely that of Colonel Shy. Dr. Bass stated:

Jan. 9, 1978. "I got the age, sex, race, height and weight right but I was off on the time of death by 113 years." (Nashville Banner, Jan. 9, 1978).

The article goes on to explain that Dr. Bass does not normally deal with embalmed bodies. This corpse had the appearance of one that had been dead but a few months. Some of the flesh was still pink and there were remnants of brain and intestinal matter found in the body. By January 13th, all of the evidence had been examined and most of the tests returned. The three-week-old mystery about the body, believed at first to be that of a recently murdered man, was solved to everyones satisfaction. The Nashville Tennessean by-lined:


It went on to quote Williamson County Chief Deputy Fleming Williams as saying: "Our conclusion is that whoever dug down into Colonel Shy's grave found the cast iron coffin, broke through the top of it and pulled Colonel Shy out, then stripped him of everything of value." (Dawson 1978:13).

Scientific Evidence Collaborating Colonel Shy's Identity

Because the body was in such an excellent state of preservation no one involved with the case even considered that it might be Colonel Shy, who had been buried some 113 years. Another problem causing the confusion was the fact that the public and press were demanding an immediate answer to the riddle without allowing Dr. Bass sufficient time to conduct his examination in a slow, scientific manner. With more time, and under proper laboratory conditions, evidence was soon gained that proved that this was definitely not a recent murder victim but was more likely the body of Colonel William M. Shy. (Pertinent information was drawn from the official report submitted by Dr. Bass to the concerned law enforcement and state medical officials and is shown here in the following condensed form.)

The following determinations were made after the skeleton was examined by Dr. Bass in Knoxville (Bass n.d.):

SEX: Male. Based on both morphological observations and anthropometric measurements of the cranial and post cranial skeleton (Bass 1971). The pelvis is that of a male, the skull has brow ridges and large mastoid processes, and, to quote Dr. Bass: "The squarest chin I have ever observed on a mandible."

AGE: 26-29 The age estimation is based on closure of all the epiphyses and morphological changes on the pubic symphsis (McKern and Stewart 1957). (Shy was 26 when killed.)

RACE: White (Caucasoid). Based on morphological features of the skull and the association of a large amount of light brown hair with the body (skull) which is also indicative of a white or Caucasoid individual.

STATURE: Mean 5' 10 " or 179.21 Cm. Based on measurements of the left femur (490 mm) using the formula (Trotter and Gleser 1958) for white males.

CAUSE OF DEATH: Blow, to the left forehead, just to the left of the midline. The entrance wound is approximately 17 X 24 millimeters in diameter. An exit wound measuring 49 X 60 millimeters occurs in the right parietal. The projectile traveled in a downward path through the skull before exiting. Death would have been instantaneous. The force of the projectile was so great that the skull was fractured into seventeen pieces; both mastoid processes at the base of the skull were split.

LENGTH OF TIME SINCE DEATH: 113 years. Color and warpage of the skull indicated that it had been buried for many years.

DENTITION: No dental work (cavities but no fillings; normal condition for this period of time).

Other evidence was also now in from various laboratories scattered around the state that further substantiated that the mysterious body was most likely that of the Civil War hero. Some of the more important evidence is listed as follows:

(1). The body was dressed in a white silk shirt, trousers that partially laced up the sides and black square-toed boots (popular during the Civil War).

(2). The State's Toxicology lab showed no modern syntheic materials in these clothes.

(3). There was embalming fluid (arsenic) present in the flesh. All concerned parties were now in agreement that instead of having a murder case on their hands they had instead a morbid case of grave-robbing.

Reburial Ceremony

Colonel Shy's remains were gathered from labs across the state and plans were made for his reburial. Shy had not married and had no living descendants but other relatives were contacted and told of the upcoming ceremony. Mrs. W.J. Montana, a great-great-granddaughter of Colonel Shy's brother came to Franklin from Silsbee, Texas to represent the family. The following is a newspaper article, in part, that describes the ceremony:

On Monday the 13th day of February, 1978, a cold rain was falling. The weather was probably much like as it was at the original burial, 114 years ago. The service was brief. There was no drumroll or rifle salute. Six civilian-dressed members of the Sons of the Confederacy carried the gray coffin to its resting place. Members of the D.A.C. were also on hand with Confederate flags, and one was placed on the grave. The Rev. Charles Fulton of St. Paul's Episcopal Church said a short eulogy over the Shy coffin, donated by the Franklin Memorial Chapel. Mrs. Montana praised Franklin's historical community for its warmth and sincerity. She remarked, "I guess he could have been put back in the ground in a pine box, but the people of Franklin gave a very warm ceremony. " (Lyons 1978)

The Cast Iron Coffin

The cast iron coffin that had originally contained the body of Colonel Shy had been severely damaged by the graverobbers. Mrs. Montana graciously donated the cast iron coffin to the Carter House, a prominent home that was at the center of the heaviest fighting during the Battle of Franklin. The Carter House is now run by the Association for the Preservation of Tennessee Antiquities and has been turned into a famous Civil War Museum.

Cast iron coffins were very expensive and only people of some prominence could have afforded them; most people in 1864 were buried in pine boxes. This cast iron coffin weighs almost 300 pounds and has a glass plate over the face area for viewing the remains. It has an oval iron plate that fits over the glass just before burial. The coffin was sealed and bolted with steel screws and has four handles on each side. It had been painted white when originally used. The coffin, having been beneath the ground for 114 years, was heavily covered with rust. To prepare the coffin for exhibit it was first dipped in a vat of paint remover to remove the splotches of white paint and rust. Then a removal process, recommended by the Smithsonian Institution, was used which consisted of repeated chemical saturation, wrapping it overnight in plastic, and then steel wooling. Emery wheels on drills were used on the heaviest encrustations. The process was repeated until a smooth iron was reached. The final step was to encase the coffin in a plexiglass display case.

There is an old saying that "something good comes out of everything." If so, then the "something good" that came out of the vandalism of Colonel Shy's grave has to be that now there is this most interesting artifact (the coffin) from the Civil War period displayed for the public to view.

The furor raised over the vandalism of Colonel Shy's grave was short lived. The general public has a fickle mind; what holds their interest today is often erased by tomorrow's headlines. Colonel Shy has once more been forgotten. Reburied with dignity, the remains once more peacefully rest in the intended grave under the original headstone which reads:

Lt. Col. W.M. Shy

20th Tenn. Infantry C. S.A.

Born May 24, 1838

Killed at Battle of Nashville Dec. 16, 1864

To Part 3