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The mystery of Col. William Shy’s burial in a cast iron casket

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Every Williamson County resident needs to visit the Williamson County Archives and Museum. It should be a requirement that the county’s school children make field trips to learn about the history of their county. They will be impressed with its displays, memorabilia, photos, artifacts and much more. 

One such display is the cast iron casket (on loan from the Carter House) that Confederate Col. William M. Shy was “originally” buried. Shy’s gravesite in Franklin was disturbed in 1977 with a bizarre incident that baffled local and state authorities at the time. 

Shy was born in Bourbon County, Kentucky, on May 24, 1838, and with the outbreak of the Civil War he enlisted as a private in Company H of the 20th Tennessee. He moved up quickly through the ranks where by 1864, Shy became a lieutenant colonel of the 20th Tennessee under the command of Gen. John B. Hood in the Army of Tennessee. 

Hood and his men suffered a humiliating defeat on Nov. 30, 1864, at the Battle of Franklin. They retreated to Nashville where trenches and defensive positions for the perusing Federal troops led by Gen. George H. Thomas were established in the hills south of the city.

Shy lost his life on Compton’s Hill on the second day of the Battle of Nashville as thousands of Union troops overwhelmed the tired, cold, hungry men in gray. Shy’s men gallantly defended their position on the hill refusing to surrender. While clutching an Enfield rifle, Shy would be shot at point-range in his head. 

The 26-year old died on Dec. 16. Shy, unmarried, would be laid to rest by his parents at the family cemetery located at Two Rivers on Del Rio Pike in Franklin for burial. The area around the Shy farm was still in turmoil since the Battle of Franklin. Compton’s Hill was renamed Shy’s Hill in his honor.

Shy would rest in peace for 113 years until a culprit or culprits interrupted his tranquility. A three-week mystery began on Dec. 24, 1977, when Ben Griffith reported to the Williamson County’s Sheriff’s Office that a grave in the cemetery behind his Two Rivers home had been disturbed. The tampered grave contained the remains of Shy whose family once owned the home. 

The grave was dug down about 4 feet, with the discovery of a body in a sitting position without a head, foot and hand on top of a cast-iron coffin. The body appeared to be wearing a tuxedo jacket. The theory was that a second body was placed on top of Shy’s coffin for some strange reason.

Dr. William M. Bass, forensic anthropologist in Knoxville, was called to aid into the investigation. After a few trips to the grave and more digging, the head, hand and foot were located inside the empty iron coffin. There had been a two-by-one-and-a-half foot hole in the top of the coffin that must have been made by the vandals. 

By Jan. 6, 1978, Bass concluded that the “victim” died from a blow to the head and was a white male with brown hair, approximately 5-foot-11, 175 pounds and 26-29 years old. The body was protruding out of the hole giving the appearance of sitting up. At the time, Bass estimated the body had been dead six to eight months and that Shy was never in the coffin. 

The Sheriff’s department now believed there was a homicide. Bass had taken the corpse to his Knoxville laboratory for more tests. After a few more days it was apparent that the remains were that of Colonel Shy after all. By Jan. 9, Bass said, “I got the age, sex, race, height and weight right but I was off on the time of death by 113 years.” 

Bass explained that he did not normally work with embalmed bodies. There was some flesh that was still pink and remnants of brain and intestinal tissue in the body, which caused some confusion. Bass had never seen a body so well preserved. The iron-cast coffin was beneficial to the preservation of the body. Therefore the hole in the skull was from the fatal gunshot that killed Shy in 1864.

The Jan. 13 Tennessean headline read, “IT’S OFFICIAL, SHY IN OWN GRAVE”

Deputy Sheriff Fleming Williams said, “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.”

One month later there was a reburial ceremony at the Shy cemetery and representing the family was Shy’s brother’s great-great-granddaughter, Mrs. W.J. Montana of Silsbee, Texas. Six civilian-dressed members of the Sons of the Confederacy carried the gray coffin to its resting place. Members of the Daughters of the Confederacy placed a Confederate flag on the grave. 

The Rev. Charles Fulton of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church said a short eulogy over Shy’s modern coffin that was donated by the Franklin Memorial Chapel. The grave robbers had heavily damaged the cast iron coffin that originally contained Shy’s body. Mrs. Montana graciously donated the coffin to the Carter House, which is presently on loan at the Archives. A suspect was identified, but no arrests were ever made in the case.

The Williamson County Archives and Museum is located at 611 W. Main Street in Franklin. Its website is Bill Traughber can be contacted at

(1) comment


Is this a Fisk casket?

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