Vegetables and Farm Animals

The Problem With Excavating Abandoned Wells

Of all the difficult situations forensic anthropologists are likely to encounter, few present more potential problems than recovering human remains from abandoned wells. In addition to the ever-present danger of the well walls collapsing, wells often become the ad hoc repository for household trash and other refuse. Dr. Snow once excavated a well that had 11 feet of deer carcasses that hunters had dumped in the well over the years. In another, he encountered an engine block, a potbelly stove, the hood of a Yugo, several hundred Playboy magazines, and countless disposable diapers.

For this reason, Dr. Snow insists that wells be excavated by heavy equipment rather than sending someone to the bottom of the well to recover the remains. There is no reason to risk the living to recover the dead. Doing so, however, comes with its own set of problems. Using heavy equipment is expensive, and the deeper the well the more equipment is required. Excavation is accomplished using backhoes, and often more than one is needed. After about ten feet, the major problem becomes removing the dirt excavated by the backhoe, often through the use of bulldozers. With each foot of depth, the cost increases. Once the well has been excavated, it then must be filled in and the surrounding area recontoured, again increasing costs. Consequently, the decision to excavate a well is not to be taken lightly.

One day Dr. Snow was contacted by law enforcement asking him to assist in the recovery of an individual who was believed to be at the bottom of a 25-foot well. After being assured that the information was believed to be accurate, Dr. Snow arrived at the location.

This is the story that law enforcement told to Dr. Snow: The complainant, who had the street name of Butterbean, said that 26 years previously he had killed an individual with the street name of Duck McLendon and had thrown him down an abandoned well. Law enforcement personnel eventually tracked down two of the McLendon clan, Hog McLendon and Chicken McLendon, both of whom were in prison. Upon questioning the McLendons, neither Hog nor Chicken could remember a family member named Duck, but they said that since all the McLendons were named after farm animals it wouldn’t surprise them if there were a Duck on some limb of the family tree. Butterbean had already pointed out the location of the well, so the decision was made to proceed with the excavation.

Excavation began with one backhoe with another backhoe and one bulldozer on standby, both of which were eventually used. As excavation became progressively deeper, Butterbean’s story began to change as well. First, the year of the alleged murder changed followed by a change in the circumstances precipitating the murder. Still, excavation proceeded. Finally, at a depth of 25 feet, the bottom of the well was reached. No Duck McLendon. The sheriff took Butterbean aside and had a rather heated heart to heart discussion with him, whereupon Butterbean admitted that he had made the story up in order to get help for his mental disorder. Before being taken to a psychiatric wing of a nearby hospital, Butterbean made a short detour to the county jail, where he was briefly locked up for filing a false report. The cost to the county was slightly over $25,000 or $1,000 per foot to a county that could ill afford it.