The Death of a Census Taker

Josh Clark

A guy named Bill Sparkman was looking for extra money when he took a job as a part-time census taker (called an enumerator, Chuck and I recently learned). It turns out that he was looking for a bit more than the $350 a week the Census Bureau paid him as a part-time temporary worker. He was looking for something more like a $600,000 pay off, not for himself, but for his son whom he'd named as the sole beneficiary to two life insurance policies he'd taken out before heading door to door to count the people in Clay County, Kentucky.

Sparkman was found dead on September 12, hanging from a tree near a graveyard at the edge of the Daniel Boone National Forest. He appeared to be the victim of a violent, anti-government rage. He was nude, his glasses and Census Bureau ID were bound to his face with duct tape and his wrists were bound in a similar fashion. A rag was stuffed into his mouth. The word "Fed" was written in marker across his chest. The Census Bureau sensibly suspended door-to-door interviews in Clay County. I made the admittedly tasteless remark that the American pastime of killing census takers had begun again.

As the case evolved, Sparkman's death looked less like the result of murderous, suspicious hillbillies and more like he'd done it himself. There were, as I mentioned, the two recently-written life insurance policies. Sparkman was battling lymphoma, and apparently having a rough time of it. His son was in need of money. He lacked any real wounds, defensive or otherwise. And there were a couple of other clues that needn't even rely on Locard's exchange principle. First, while Sparkman was hung to death, he wasn't really "hung," he was strangled. A rope was indeed attached to both his neck and a tree, but he was kneeling. He'd needed only to stand up to save his life. Second, he told a friend exactly what he intended to do -- in detail -- a short while before his death.

Sometime a week or so ago, the coroner's office for Clay County ruled the death a suicide. What's weird is that Chuck and I had kind of front row seats to the case as it unfolded. Two days after we mentioned Sparkman's murder, we received an e-mail from a mysterious stranger who identified himself as "Kentucky CSI." The email told us that the investigators were strongly favoring suicide as the cause of death. I continued to scoff: How could a man bind his own wrists with duct tape? In answer, another guy who hosts TANcast posted a video to show us that it could, in fact, be done. Then, the day the story of the suicide ruling broke, we got a follow-up e-mail from our mysterious tipster with the subject line "told ya so" and a link to an article about Sparkman's death by his own hand. I can honestly say that I have never been more aware of a census taker's death than I was of Bill Sparkman's.

Which lead me to wonder what kind of guy he was. Clearly, he was the determined type. He went the extra mile in staging the scene of his death. Which leads to another point: He staged his death to point suspicion on the local hillbillies -- reasonable, but a tad stereotypical. Of course, his last act on earth was insurance fraud, but hey, he killed himself to help his son, ostensibly reasoning that his life was soon to end -- uninsured for the existing condition of cancer, one imagines -- and he would better serve his heirs by making sure they were taken care of. Hillbilly framing aside, he seems like he was a pretty good guy.

Check out SYSK on Facebook and Twitter.

More on HowStuffWorks.com: How Locard's Exchange Principle Works How the Census Works How Population Works