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Almshouse Cemetery, Albany, NY

By Judy Patrick  -  Reporter of the Daily Gazette, Schenectady, NY

Webpage by Cliff Lamere    14 Oct 2002

 

 

Reproduced here with the permission of the author and Tom Woodman, Managing Editor of the Daily Gazette.

 

 

Headline  -  Era of the almshouse unfolds
Subheadline  -  Archaeologists discover remains of more than 1,000 poor
Dateline  -  ALBANY  -  October 13, 2002

 

 

Some were alcoholics.  Some were mentally ill.  And some had simply fallen on hard times, the result of accident or circumstance.  

Mary Barker, a single woman who emigrated from a farm in County Clare, Ireland, came to the Albany almshouse in February 1871 because she was too sick to support herself.  She died the following December and was buried on the almshouse grounds.  She was 45.  

Archaeologists don't know if Mary Barker's body is among the more than 1,000 remains excavated this past year from the land of the old Albany almshouse.   Without a cemetery map to pinpoint where people were buried, researchers have been unable to match any of the remains with names.  

From 1826 to 1926, the New Scotland Avenue almshouse and its adjacent cemetery served Albany's poorest residents.   In the years since, the 116-acre site has been subdivided and put to new uses - a National Guard armory, a school, a laboratory for the state Health Department.  

Construction crews occasionally found small sections of the old cemetery.   When plans were announced for a $60 million medical research center on a vacant portion of the old almshouse site, archaeologists at first expected to find 200 bodies.  

They found more than 1,000.  

All are now being reburied at the Albany Rural Cemetery.  When that process is completed later this fall, a memorial service will be held at Albany Rural, and one monument will be erected as a tribute to the people buried there.  

"The intent would be to recognize these folks that are buried as individuals, to give them the respect accorded the dead," said Robert Lindsay, spokesman of the Charitable Leadership Foundation.   The foundation, which is building a $60 million medical research facility of the land, paid roughly $1.7 million for the archaeological work.  

"Archaeologists tend to take bones and keep them," Lindsay said.   "We wanted to make sure that the scientists were able to study them and generate some useful scientific information. . .  but then we wanted [the remains] removed to the Albany Rural Cemetery for reburial."

Almshouses typically were government-run homes for people who couldn't support themselves.   Intake records from the late 19th century, on file at the New York State Archives, give some sense of the circumstances that forced people to come to the Albany almshouse.  

Margaret Coffee was 30 when she came to America in 1850, the daughter of an Irish farmer.   She was unable to read or write and worked as a seamstress until, at the age of 48, deteriorating eyes made it impossible to work and support herself.  

"This woman is honest, sober and industrious," the intake report at the Albany almshouse reads.   "She supported herself for a number of years after her husband's death.   Being afflicted with sore eyes, she was compelled to seek admission here."

It's not clear from the records what happened to Margaret Coffee.   The almshouse didn't begin to keep track of burials until 1878.  

We do know the names of some of the later burials, names such as Kennedy, Burns, Campbell, Hamilton and Cindillo.   They were black and white, old and young.   Some were babies, stillborn to women living at the almshouse or dead within their first year.  

Those buried on almshouse grounds were the unclaimed poor of the region - those who died at the almshouse and those who died on the streets or at the nearby penitentiary.  

Eugene Knight was buried in 1924, shot by railroad police in Ravena.   Joseph Kelly killed himself while an inmate of the penitentiary in 1924.   Gregory Kurganovitch was buried at the almshouse after his body was pulled from the Hudson River in Selkirk in 1925.  

The Albany almshouse opened in 1826 on a farm then on the outskirts of the city.   As with most almshouses of the era, a cemetery for burying the poor was part of the operation.   But as with most almshouse cemeteries, it lay largely forgotten, with no fences or headstones to serve as reminders of its burials.  

"It's somewhat offensive that we didn't even know they were there," said archaeologist Louise Basa, president of the New York State Archaeological Association.  

Albany isn't alone.   Historians say there are dozens of unmarked and largely forgotten almshouse cemeteries across the state.  

Archaeologists from the New York State Museum, which is overseeing the Albany project, say their work has already yielded valuable information.  

Studying the remains provides researchers a better understanding of the lives of poor people in the late 19th century.   "History books are full of the rich and famous, and the notorious," said Andrea Lain, an archaeologist with the New York State Museum.   But, she added, they are largely silent on the lives of the poor and working class.  

In all, archaeologists and a crew of about 120 volunteers oversaw the removal of 894 remains on the land targeted for the new medical research center.   Another 200 to 300 remains have been removed in a separate effort, coordinated by a local funeral home.  

The archaeologists found coffins in some spots layered five or six deep.   Researchers cleaned and measured the bones, counted teeth and sketched coffin positions.  

The large number of remains, said Albany city archeologist Michael Werner, is valuable in itself because it will allow researchers to generate a mass of statistical information.  

Because the people were so poor, they took little in the way of material goods with them to their graves.   Most were buried in shrouds.  

Still, archaeologists retrieved a few coins, four or five wedding rings and white buttons, ubiquitous to clothing of the time.  

Their bones, however, give more detailed information, revealing clear signs of disease, overwork, poor medical care and, in some cases, violence.  

"Their skeletons tell us a lot," Lain said.   "We can find out their underlying health and sanitation.   We may be able to find out infant mortality rates, and about the general hardness of their lives."

There were people with broken bones that never healed properly, some with anemia and rickets but just nine with signs of tuberculosis.   "Tuberculosis was very common in the late 19th century," said state museum bioarcheologist Martin Solano said at a lecture earlier this month.   "However, the [rib] bones we need to make that determination just weren't there."

In terms of demographics, archaeologists found lots of infants and lots of people in their 20s and 30s.  

"That's common with an early industrial population, with lots of infections, pollution, trauma and poor medical care," Solano said.  

At least one-third of the bodies showed signs of serious infection, but the infections hadn't killed them.   There was also lots of arthritis, even among people in their 30s.   Teeth, even in young adults, showed signs of exceptional wear and evidence of heavy pipe smoking, the cheapest way to smoke tobacco at the time.   In 30 percent of the women and 40 percent of the men, semi-circular dips had been worn into teeth at the spot where a pipe might have been clenched.  

Four women had notches in their teeth that researchers believe are linked to regularly pulling thread through their teeth, common among seamstresses.  

One man's skull was shaped like a big bullet, a congenital abnormality that would have given a very unusual head shape during life.  

Used in research Some of the bodies show clear signs that they had been used, after death, for medical research at nearby Albany Medical School.   "It was common practice of the 19th century that medical schools would borrow the poor for teaching," Solano said.  

Unique among the 894 burials was one coffin made of cast iron, with a glass viewing window at its head.   The woman inside died soon after her 40th birthday.   She was about 5 feet, 2 inches.  

"There was nothing to indicate who she was," Lain said, adding that researchers can only speculate that her family came forth upon her death and paid for the special casket.  

Eventually, the New York State Museum in Albany will create an exhibit that will put some of the archaeological findings into context.   The exhibit may even give us a sense of what some of the people looked like.   Museum researchers, using impressions taking from skulls, are attempting to reconstruct faces.  

Lain's crew began its archaeological work last January and ended Sept.  22.   Since then, workers, under the direction of the McVeigh Funeral Home, have removed about 200 to 300 more remains from the former almshouse lands.  

It's still not clear how many people were buried at the Albany almshouse grounds.   A register shows 1,800 people buried on the property between 1878 and 1926.   The register doesn't include the names of those who might have been buried from 1826, when the almshouse opened, until record-keeping began in 1878.  

Lindsay, of the Charitable Leadership Foundation, said that all excavation on the medical research center of the property is proceeding carefully, to make sure graves are identified and human remains removed from the portion of the old almshouse grounds on which the center is being built.  

"We're making sure no bodies are left," Lindsay said.  

But archaeologists say there are likely other remains elsewhere on other portions of the property.  

Remains retrieved And while the state archaeologists have stopped work, land excavation on the site is proceeding gradually, with spotters watching for signs of grave sites.   When one is found, excavation is halted, the site documented and then the remains retrieved by representatives from the McVeigh Funeral Home.   Those remains are being reburied with the rest of the almshouse burials at the Albany Rural Cemetery.  

With the project nearing completion, historians said they'd like communities to make an effort to document unmarked burial yards.   While federal legislation strictly protects American Indian burial areas, there are no similar protections for other graveyards.  

Werner, the Albany city archeologist, said better local information about such sites would allow for planning, which would be good for archaeologists and those planning new projects.   "That way, archeology isn't done on an emergency basis," Werner said.  

Basa, of the state archaeological association, said greater care needs to be taken with such sites.   "The fact is there are bodies left and there's no notice of them.   There are cars parking over them and any utility fix could dig through them.   That bothers me," Basa said.  

 

 

 

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