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The Poor Dead

Halloween '12

The bodies of the unfortunate are always underfoot, and sometimes in the way

As we wind through the peaceful lanes of Buffalo’s Forest Lawn Cemetery, we can look at the many beautiful monuments, mausoleums, and sculptures placed there as memorials to the rich, powerful, and famous among the city’s past inhabitants. We can read the names of the politicians, industrialists, entertainers, teachers, artists, doctors, lawyers, inventors, veterans, and so on—carved into stone to announce to the living that they too once walked our streets, felt the warmth of our summers, and smelled wood burning in fireplaces on cool fall evenings as winds blew in off the lake, stripping the trees of their leaves to set the scene for winter’s cold embrace.

There is an air of reverence within the wrought iron fence that surrounds this gated community of the dead. True, there is a feeling of desolation in the big, grassy field near the Scajaquada Expressway, where the graves are unmarked by headstones—but even the locations of these souls are recorded in large notebooks kept in the cemetery office.

In this lonely expanse you can visit Tillie Ziegler, who was brutally murdered in 1889 by 26 blows to the head with a hatchet at the hand of her live-in companion, William Kemmler. She still rests in section 39, lot 564, in an unmarked grave. Kemmler was the first person to be executed by the electric chair, and his body was covered with quicklime before burial at Auburn prison. Alfred P. Southwick, the Buffalo dentist who invented the electric chair, is buried beside his wife and adopted daughter in another, more affluent section of Forest Lawn.

Forest Lawn was founded in 1849, to be an exquisite cemetery in the mold of Paris’s famed Père Lachaise, which had opened just 45 years earlier. Thanks to the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, Buffalo was becoming a prosperous city, but in the midst of the mid-century growth, some small graveyards in town turned into forlorn, shabby places. In 1870, while Mark Twain was living at the corner of Delaware Avenue and Virginia Street, working as associate editor of the Buffalo Express, he published a sketch entitled “The Curious Dream—Containing a Moral.” In it, Twain related his phantasmal conversation with a member of a long procession of decrepit skeletons he saw leaving the old cemetery two blocks up from his house, at the southwest corner of Delaware and North Street, carrying a splintered casket and headstone off to a more suitable resting place.

The corpse—named John Baxter Copmanhurst in Twain’s story—laid blame at the feet of the living: “Our descendants have forgotten us. My grandson lives in a stately house built with money made by these old hands of mine, and I sleep in a neglected grave with invading vermin that gnaw at my shroud to build them nests withal!”

Over time, all the remains from the North street graveyard were apparently moved. Today, the Hotel Lenox and a Walgreens drug store occupy the site.

Princes and paupers

Not all cemeteries are created equal. In other parts of our city, progress—in the form of construction projects—has led us to discover forgotten graves from the past. In 1922, a Carnegie Library was built on Ridge Road in Lackawanna, on the site of an old potter’s field known as Howard’s Cemetery. Between 1858 and 1920, roughly 3,700 indigent were buried on the 20-acre site, in shallow graves. At the time of the library’s construction, many of the bodies were moved to other cemeteries in the area. Hundreds of others were interred communally, in a concrete vault buried behind the library. Shabby record-keeping from the past is blamed for the fact that human bones continued to be found underground at the site as recently as the 1970s. In 1994, a marker was put in place noting the anonymous dead. This year, a local paranormal group claims to have detected ghostly activity at the library.

In December 2007, while preparing for Phase III of the Joint Schools Construction Project on the hilltop next to the City Honors School at Fosdick-Masten Park, workers dug exploratory shafts in the ground, searching for human remains. There was concern because the original three-and-a-half-story school had been built on the site of another potter’s field that had been in use from 1832 until the 1880s. That graveyard was opened in response to one of the many cholera outbreaks that plagued the city during the 19th century, although it was also used by Buffalo General Hospital. Preliminary tests at the site turned up the skeletal remains of one man, one woman, and one infant.

When construction resumed, contractor LPCiminelli came upon many more unexpected bodies—as many as 250 sets of remains, according to news reports. “A large number of people [who were buried in the cemetery] would have been living on the margins of respectable society,” explained a URS archeologist, “and their deaths were not recorded by and large.” Plans for exhuming and relocating these unknown dead were filed with the New York State Historic Preservation Office in Albany. At the time, former Buffalo Schools chief operating and financial officer Gary Crosby was quoted as saying: “There’s going to be some bureaucracy to deal with and some red tape, but I don’t expect the City Honors project to be delayed in any way.”

Like the wayward corpses in Twain’s story, these forgotten pilgrims pulled up stakes—with a little prodding from the heavy wheels of progress. They eventually found a new final resting place in Forest Lawn, two miles to the north.

A curious case

In both of these instances, documentation that could have identified the poor, deceased individuals was not to be found. In the 1800s, while a towering pink obelisk was being erected to mark the grave of a former US president in Forest Lawn, it appears that the passing of an impoverished immigrant, or a destitute widow, or a sick orphan, often did not even merit an entry in a ledger.

If this was what death was like for these nameless poor—buried in unmarked, shallow graves; exhumed when their resting places conflicted with the plans of the living—what were their sad lives like?

We can really only learn about them in the abstract. We know that on March 20, 1828, the New York State legislature passed an act that directed a number of lots in Black Rock to be used as the site of Erie County’s first almshouse. Here, 83-cents per person/per week was budgeted for the care of the penniless.

It was at this first almshouse that a “curious case” was documented in the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, in 1840:

His external appearance was as follows. Hair, black and long, arranged after the feminine mode. Face, having a masculine coarseness, but with a fair, feminine complexion. Some beard on the chin and upper lip, which had evidently never been shaven. Ear-rings in the ears. Hands, delicate but large. Feet, large and masculine. He was dressed in pantaloons and a frock coat. His voice and manner of walking resembled those of a female. The former in tone was not peculiarly feminine, but the air and manner of speaking strikingly so. The gait, in walking was so peculiar, that no one could avoid the suspicion that the individual was a woman in male attire. I was informed that he had been carried before a magistrate, on the charge of being a female disguised in men’s clothing, and by him sent, in the first place, to the jail, and from thence to the Almshouse. He had previously been known about some portions of the city as an hermaphrodite; and I was told that stories were current of his performing the copulative functions of either sex.

Authorities asked the inmate to display his sexual organs, but the request was denied, even after bribery and threats. Finally, he consented to an examination by an old woman, also an inmate of the poor house. She related that he was endowed with perfectly formed male and female organs. He stated that he “had been brought up as a girl, had lived in service as a kitchen maid in this city; and, formerly, had performed as a female in a circus.” After a few weeks as an inmate, he contracted pneumonia and died, about the age of 25.

After his death, doctors conducted the examination they were denied while he was alive and discovered “male organs entire and well developed, and no semblance whatever of those of the female.” It was concluded that his “imposture must, manifestly, have been commenced at an early age. The motives which led to its adoption by himself or others, and induced its continuance, I leave for conjecture.” There is no record of his burial.

Down on the farm

Around 1850, 153 acres of farmland located on Main Street about six miles north of the city proper were purchased for $10,000 as a site on which to build the new Erie County Almshouse. As it was at the first poor house, able-bodied inmates were expected to work for their room and board in some capacity. Men tended to the garden, which was designed to supplement the diet of the inmates—although we shall see that that plan did not work in practice. Women were expected to perform sewing, cleaning, and nursing duties. The first structure was built there at a cost of $20,000, but just a few years later, in 1854, the worst cholera outbreak in local history struck. A July 22, 1854 New York Times article described the epidemic as it decimated the poor house, which was by then also tending to patients with mental disorders:

BUFFALO, NY—In consequence of various rumors concerning a large number of deaths by cholera at the Poor-House in this city, a large party of physicians and citizens visited the house to-day, and found everything connected with the establishment in the most horrible condition. Within 24 hours 15 insane persons and seven others had died of cholera, and four more were then in a collapsed state. The house was found to be so foul that it was almost impossible for persons to enter it. Its inmates are in the most awful condition imaginable. On inquiry it was found they had been kept on insufficient food, and that of the worst quality. Their regular diet has been: For breakfast, a piece of bread cut in pieces about five inches square, with coffee made from barley, and a piece of salt pork; for dinner they had the same fare with the exception of the coffee; and for supper they had bread and tea. This is the kind of food the poor inmates have been accustomed to. Scurvy was also found to be raging in the building as well as cholera. Several deaths from actual starvation had taken place among the children. The disclosures caused the most intense excitement throughout the city.

According to the October 3, 1854 Proceedings of the Board of Supervisors of Erie County, there were, by the first of September, 116 cases of cholera, 60 of which were fatal—including a Mr. Hibbard, the keeper of the lunatic asylum, and a Mr. Otis, who worked as an assistant at the facility. The supervisors placed no blame on attending physician, a Dr. Pratt. It was unfortunate, the report stated, that in July three persons with cholera were admitted to the poor house when they should have been sent to a cholera hospital: “The precincts of a Poor House of all others is a place where epidemic disease is most easily kindled up and most difficult to control.”

Although there were some “water closets” located in the facility, there were no bathing facilities for residents, some of whom lived there for years. After this horrific spike in mortality, the poorly ventilated and filthy building was burned down and rebuilt the following year, in 1855, using rock quarried from the property.

Elsewhere in the above proceedings we find the following passage:

The Board are aware that by law the diet is under the exclusive control of the Superintendents of the Poor. These officers are elected by the people and are directly and only responsible to them, for the manner in which they discharge their official duties. Like other officers of trust, they act under the obligations of an oath, and as the expenses for provisions are all paid for by the County, it is difficult to imagine a sufficient motive for poor or scant supplies.

Concerning this conclusion, it is perhaps interesting to note that according to a diary entry by Joseph Bennett—a former state assemblyman, supervisor, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, and county coroner who was elected in 1859 to serve as one of three Superintendents of the Poor—the position was a lightning rod for all kinds of patronage and requests for favors. From his journal:

The amount of pressure brought to bear for appointment to the different positions is astonishing. (Then for supplies.) The butcher, grocer, merchant, druggist, and all others wishing to furnish from their special trade. We shall make no changes at present.

After the Main Street facility was rebuilt in 1855, it was reported to be a vast improvement over the earlier Black Rock almshouse as well as the subsequent cursed building that was burned down. There were separate buildings to house the insane. Children and the elderly were housed separately, and men and women occupied different wings of the main building. The orderly plan was also intended as a disincentive to poor families that might reach out for help, knowing that if they entered the almshouse they would be separated within the facility.

In 1883, there were still shocking stories of conditions there. A February 20 New York Times article from that year describes an “investigation into the management of the Erie County Almshouse by Keeper Frederick Busch.” His abuses included “the misappropriation of funds, frauds in buying supplies, drunkenness, cruelty to inmates, and immorality of other kinds.” The story also illustrates the political nature of the job:

Busch was re-elected by the people last Fall, after having served one term of three years. He was charged with irregularities during the campaign, but stoutly denied them. After the election it appeared that Busch, who is a Republican, had secured his own return by trading with the Democrats, and that the defeat of the Republican candidate for Congress in this district was almost certainly due to his treason. There is much feeling against him.

Meet the inmates

The account of the “hermaphrodite” is the most detailed description of a singular inmate that I could find, but consider all the various routes a 19th-century individual could take that would lead him or her to a life in the poor house. Many of the male inmates were seasonal workers. During warmer months, they would find employment on the canal, on the waterfront, on farms, or in some other menial capacity. When the weather turned cold these jobs went away, and their hand-to-mouth existence led them back to the poor house. For some, it was an annual routine.

A young woman might find herself in the poor house if she had the misfortune of becoming pregnant out of wedlock. Many children were born in the poor house, and in the last decade a body of research presented by Roseanne L. Higgins shows a sharply increased infant mortality rate for those born in the poor house when compared with the general population.

Long-term alcoholics made up a good portion of residents, and they were expected not to drink if they wanted room and board. The 1800s were also a particularly bad time to become a widow. As most households were supported by the man’s income, the death of the breadwinner could send a previously stable family into a spiral that would quickly end in poverty.

Then there were those who gained admittance as a result of being labeled an idiot, lunatic, or similar word describing various mental disorders. The helpless and infirm, those with terminal illnesses, or those who had simply grown too old to be adequately cared for, were often sent to the poor house to die. Upon an inmate’s death, an attempt would be made to contact next of kin. If the body wasn’t claimed in short order it was buried on the grounds. There was no refrigerated morgue, and in summer bodies had to be buried in a day or two. After a cholera death, the burial could be conducted in a matter of hours.

All that remains

Around February of this year, a set of human remains was discovered on the grounds of the old Erie County Almshouse when workers began digging to make infrastructure improvements at the south campus of the State University of New York at Buffalo. According to the University Archives website, the transformation from poor house to university took place like this:

By the year 1907, the University was rapidly growing, but there was still no unified campus. When the University Council members learned by inside information that the County planned to relocate the Almshouse, they decided that the grounds between Main and Bailey streets would be a perfect location for a new University campus. In 1911 the first University fundraising campaign began under the Chancellorship of Charles Norton.

With the help of the citizens of Buffalo, the University raised enough to secure the new campus.

The university got the land from the county at a very affordable price. Unfortunately, the real estate deal apparently did not include a map indicating the boundaries of any burial ground. Yet for over half a century before the sale, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of Buffalo’s unfortunate had lived and died there.

On October 1, 1964, the Buffalo Evening News reported that three partial sets of remains had been discovered by workers while paving a roadway to the dormitory near Main Street and Bailey Avenue. In 1983, another skeleton was discovered approximately 300 feet from where the first three had been discovered 19 years before.

When this year’s infrastructure project turned up a set of bones, UB Archeological Survey was called in to monitor the project. Nathan Montague, an historian there, conducted exhaustive research at University at Buffalo Archives, Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, Erie County Clerk’s office, Erie County Legislature, Erie County Health Department, Erie County Home and Infirmary, and UB’s Lockwood and Health Sciences libraries.

Montague was also granted access to records now held by Erie County Medical Center—access which Artvoice was denied. In those records he found an 1859 description of “the manufacture of a number of coffins in the carpenter shop.” In the child patient register covering the years 1864-1876, he discovered the only two pieces of evidence that burials had taken place there. From his research summary:

Child patient #169 was described as having died at the poorhouse and was ‘buried on the farm.’ Child patient #805 was ‘buried at poorhouse.’ Many of the patient records detailed how patiens died, but, with the exception of these two patient records, the disposition of patient remains was not described.

When the digging was completed at UB earlier this year, approximately 300 sets of human remains were discovered a short distance below the surface of the south campus. If these shocking finds were not enough, two of the caskets, when opened, were discovered to contain not a corpse but, rather, a log.

This mysterious discovery is difficult to explain. Perhaps this was evidence of a grave-robbing—but why replace a body with a log? To prevent the coffin from collapsing and producing a tell-tale dip at the surface? Stories also abound about 19th-century medical schools obtaining cadavers from any available source. Or, did poor house officials need to account for an individual that did not exist but for whom they were receiving compensation to care for? Could a log be a suitable stand-in during a fake burial, in other words?

The newly found remains will be interred in Forest Lawn.

It’s likely that more secrets still lie beneath the grounds of the south campus of the State University of New York at Buffalo, but then, secrets can lie anywhere. When I was denied access to the old Erie County Almshouse records by ECMC’s senior vice president of marketing and planning, Tom Quatroche, and ECMC lawyer Anthony Colucci, I was told the records were under the protection of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which went into effect in 2003. After appealing the decision, I was finally told that if I were to look at the records and print an individual’s name in the paper, ECMC could be exposed to a lawsuit. Montague was made to go through a long process involving UB and ECMC—both public entities in charge of these public records—before he was granted access.

Thus, records of countless individuals who died over a hundred years ago are now being withheld from the public by referencing a recent health insurance law. For the sake of current and future researchers, and especially for geneologists, there should be a change in HIPAA—in the name of giving more identity to all the poor who were shunned from society during their lifetimes, and for whom even the very record of their existence lies buried away from us, in a secret place.

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