Friday, April 24, 2009

Cemeteries and the National Register of Historic Places

I suspect that anyone who reads this blog is familiar with the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), but I’m going to give a brief overview before delving into the subject of NRHP eligibility for cemeteries.
The NRHP was created by the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Under this act, the Park Service was charged with maintaining a register of properties of historic significance. All nominations are done through the state’s State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO) except in cases of federal land/projects and/or tribal land. I’m not going to go into details of nomination; it can be a long process. For an actual nomination you might consider hiring a professional. However, if you’d rather go through the process yourself a good place to start is the National Register Fundamentals page on the NHRP website.

In this post I’m going to cover the criteria that determine if a cemetery is eligible for nomination to the National Register. Cemeteries are a category of sites that are specifically excluded from eligibility except in certain cases. This isn’t due to some sort of secret anti-cemetery cabal in the Park Service (at least, I’m pretty sure it isn’t…) – it’s due to the practical reason that cemeteries are normally well protected by state and local laws and have significant cultural, familial, and personal ties that can make objective analysis difficult. Let me go ahead and say – if your favorite cemetery isn’t eligible for the National Register don’t assume its doomed, odds are there are state and local laws that protect it to some degree (probably as much as being listed on the National Register does, anyway).

I’m going to be drawing my information from the National Register Bulletin #41: Guidelines for Evaluating and Registering Cemeteries and Burial Places. and Listing a Property. I’ll condense a few key points from these bulletins, if you’re interested in nominating a cemetery check the links above for more information regarding this process.

Any property (cemetery or otherwise) nominated for the National Register must have maintained its historic integrity and must meet one of the four significance criteria:

Criterion A: Properties can be eligible for the National Register if they are associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history.

Criterion B: Properties may be eligible for the National Register if they are associated with the lives of persons significant in our past.

Criterion C: Properties may be eligible for the National Register if they embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or that represent the work of a master, or that possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction.

Criterion D: Properties may be eligible for the National Register if they have yielded, or may be likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.

Further, there are special considerations that must be taken in to account, known as Criteria Considerations:

a. A religious property deriving primary significance from architectural or artistic distinction or historical importance; or
b. A building or structure removed from its original location but which is primarily significant for architectural value, or which is the surviving structure most importantly associated with a historic person or event; or
c. A birthplace or grave of a historical figure of outstanding importance if there is no appropriate site or building directly associated with his or her productive life; or
d. A cemetery which derives its primary importance from graves of persons of transcendent importance, from age, from distinctive design features, or from association with historic events; or
e. A reconstructed building when accurately executed in a suitable environment and presented in a dignified manner as part of a restoration master plan, and when no other building or structure with the same association has survived; or
f. A property primarily commemorative in intent if design, age, tradition, or symbolic value has invested it with its own exceptional significance; or
g. A property achieving significance within the past 50 years if it is of exceptional importance.

What does all that mean for a cemetery?

1. It must have historic integrity, with “historic” being generally defined as “greater than 50 years old” for the purposes of the NRHP. This means that if the cemetery has been moved it is probably no longer eligible. I say “probably” because there is some flexibility, for example, a cemetery established in 1720, with burials moved in 1770, and which continued in use for a significant period of time after the move could still be eligible. If the cemetery was moved in the last 50 years, however, it’s likely not eligible as it arguably has no historic integrity.
2. It must be significant, as defined by the 4 criteria: A, B, C, and D. In the case of a cemetery, Criteria D requires no additional special considerations and refers to a cemetery "having yielded or having the potential to yield important information in prehistory or history”. This if often interpreted as being archaeologically important, for example, a slave cemetery might yield information regarding the diet, health, and burial customs of a group with little written documentation; but it is not limited to only excavation, a study of material culture in the form of grave offerings visible on the surface could meet Criteria D. There’s a lot of room here, but to further meet this criteria generally there must be a research plan that lays out exactly what information the cemetery is likely to yield and how it will be recovered. Archaeological investigation does not automatically disqualify a site for listing, by the way.
Criterion A , B, and C require a little more documentation. Criterion A may seem a little confusing at first glance, but a classic example is a burial ground used for burial of dead soldiers during or immediately after the battle on a Civil War Battlefield. There are other examples that can meet this criteria, though, such as a cemetery dating to the early days of settlement of an area that was in use for a significant period. In such a case the cemetery could show changes in burial customs across a broad pattern of local history. The NRHP Bulletin #41 referenced above provides many other examples.
Criterion B is straightforward, with the exception that a burial or cemetery must meet Criterion Consideration c. Basically, the cemetery (or birthplace) must be the only surviving structure/site associated with the individual. The grave of William Faulkner, for example, would not be eligible under Consideration c because the house where he wrote many of his novels, Rowan Oak, is maintained as a National Register property. However, the grave might be eligible under other criteria. The main exception to this Consideration is if the grave is being nominated as part of a historic property – for example, if Faulkner were buried in the back yard of Rowan Oak, protection would be extended to the grave as part of the property’s nomination.
Criterion C covers architectural details, assemblages of distinctive markers, and similar attributes. Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans is an example of one that would qualify under Criterion C, as it represents a particular architectural style and contains the works of a locally known master designer. It would also need to meet Criterion Consideration d.

There’s a good bit more detail to the Criteria Considerations – I recommend you read NHRP Bulletin #41 in its entirety if you want to know more. It’s not the most entertaining read, but it does a good job of laying out the criteria and providing examples for each case.

There’s also a “shortcut” (although it’s not, really, the process is more work) in that if a cemetery is nominated as part of a National Historic District then the Criteria Consideration no longer apply, however, the requirements for nominating a district make the process more involved than a single property nomination and, as such, it’s way beyond the scope of this post!

Finally, like I mentioned earlier, don’t be afraid to talk to specialists. You can hire a specialist (archaeologist, anthropologist, historian, historic architect, etc depending on what you’re nominating) to do the entire process, or you could hire them as a consultant to do a specific part (identify the artistic and architecturally significant components of a cemetery). You are not required to be a professional to submit a nomination, however! If you are willing to put in the time and legwork to research a property and educate yourself on the process you can do the nomination yourself – any US citizen has the right to nominate a property. There are resources available to help you – check out the local SHPO (State Historic Preservation Office, remember), they may have resources available. Keep in mind that the SHPO are often very overworked – they wear many hats in a lot of cases, including state archaeologist, SHPO, and a host of others. In addition, they are not there to do the nomination for you, it’s not in their job description, I promise. They can point you in the right direction though. You can find a list of SHPO offices here.

There's a lot involved in making NRHP nominations, I've tried to cover the basics here. In a nutshell:

- if the cemetery is a small family plot it's less likely to be eligible, although not impossible. It might have an example of a rare marker, for example, which would give it stylistic significance.
- if the cemetery is modern, founded w/in the past 50 years, it's probably not eligible.
- if it's a larger cemetery in use for a long period, there's better odds of eligibility, as it may meet several criteria
- if it is attached to a NRHP eligible property it is automatically eligible, although check the special criteria for religious properties for churches and churchyards!

That’s a brief overview of the criteria that determine if a cemetery is eligible, I hope you found it helpful. One other resource you might consider if you are looking at nominating a cemetery is your local historical society and genealogical society. Between the two they can probably tell you if anybody of significant historical importance is buried there, the dates of the cemetery itself, and they may have contacts with professionals you can make use of. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Time Team America Preview

PBS has posted a preview (seems to be the first episode) of the new Time Team America series. It will premier on PBS in July but you can see a sneak preview on the PBS site!

It's not exactly cemetery related, but I know some of the archaeologists on the show, so I'm excited to see it do well. Check it out! The British version of the show has looked at burial grounds in the past, so you might see some cemetery and mortuary themed episodes on the American version (although the laws a little different here). Sphere: Related Content

Monday, April 20, 2009

Cemetery Sunday delayed

School and work commitments have taken over my life right now - posts will probably be more spread out that usual. I should be back to a normal schedule in a couple of weeks! Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Grave News: Vet's Headstones Used to Build Patio

In Nevada, veterans are upset with the news that a cemetery employee used headstones to pave his patio. The headstones were "retired" stones that had incorrect information or had been replaced for other reasons, so it's not quite like he was secretly stealing stones directly from the graves. Still, given the symbolism attached to Veteran's markers, it wasn't a good idea. It does bring up a question - what do you do with a headstone that's been replaced? In one of my previous posts I talked about the headstones of Civil War soldiers that were being replaced in Durham. I'm not sure what is being done with the replaced stones there, but I hope a few of them find their way to local museums and/or the state archives since they do have some historical significance. The headstones at the cemetery in Nevada are a different matter as they're modern stones. Perhaps following the tradition of American flags would be best - they could be reduced to gravel with due ceremony and the gravel used in the cemetery, or kept intact and put to some other useful purpose within the cemetery, one which provide a more honorable retirement than a patio.

Every day on my walk to campus I see a lone footstone. I can only pray that it was replaced by the family and not one that was stolen or illegally removed from some family plot - it's not uncommon for land owners to try to hide the presence of cemeteries when land is being sold to developers (and lots of developers are apparently very lax about researching the history of the land they're buying), and one way of "hiding" a cemetery is secretly removing all the markers and making sure they wind up far away. Here's a photo:

Stepping Stone

When you're out and about on your own wanderings, keep an eye out for orphaned stones like this. They turn up in unexpected places (I remember reading about one that served as the pastry counter in a suburban house - the flat side was used for rolling out doughs and the carvings were used as molds for decorative elements) at unexpected times. That strangely shaped piece of marble at the edge of a flower bed might be more than just a decorative touch... Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Grave News: Emails from the dead.

Almost 10 years ago, Peter Fenton wrote an article about the emerging phenomena of "emails from the dead", in which individuals reported receiving emails from loved ones, apparently written after their death and full of intimate details. Generally these were linked to glitches in mail delivery (mail is queued but not sent, then a relative logs on the computer, dials the internet, and out goes the messages).
10 years later, and there's a couple of companies basing their business model on email from the dead. and will send an email once you've shuffled off this mortal coil. You write the email and give them a list of addresses and that's it. One service relies on you failing to respond to an email for pre-set amount of time to detect if you're dead, the other relies on you having made arrangements with a family member to log in and hit send. Either way, there's potential for mistakes, but it's an interesting idea - a 21st century twist on the age old "leave a diary/letter/video for my kids/friends/loved ones".

I think the diary is a better idea though. Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Cemetery Sunday: St. James grave yard in Wilmington, NC

I've had less time to write new posts for the blog - this is a very late "Cemetery Sunday", in a few more weeks hopefully I'll have more time I hope. Anyway, today's cemetery is attached to the St. James Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC. It's one of the older grave yards in the area, with graves dating to the 18th century. Unfortunately when I got there they had just locked the gate, so I had to make use of a zoom lens and try to get decent shots. Here's the church's historic marker:


Here's a couple of interesting headstones:


This particular cemetery has a ghost story associated with it. It seems that a young man, Alexander, and his friend, Samuel, were constant companions. During an outing, Samuel was thrown from his horse and pronounced dead. He was duly buried with the proper ceremony and the heartbroken Alexander sat in his chamber that night, overwhelmed with grief. Suddenly he noticed a figure standing beside the fear. He called, and the figure turned - it was none other than Samuel! "Alexander, I am not dead! You must dig me up!", cried the specter. Alexander yelled out and the specter vanished. For three nights this continued. Finally, Alexander gained permission to exhume his friends body - granted, but only after he promised to keep the deed secret so as not to attract curiosity seekers. Around midnight, Alexander and another young man dug up Samuel's coffin and discovered to their horror that the satin lining of the coffin was in bloody tatters, and the body of Samuel lay with his fingers bloodied, face down, his face contorted in a grimace of absolute horror. Wilmington has its share of ghost stories, and the cemetery looks the part, with the trees covered by Spanish Moss and the old slate and marble stones.


The cemetery is home to the mortal remains of soldiers, politicians, bishops, and townfolk. In addition there are headstones made of slate, marble, and what appears to be brown New England sandstone (a rarity in North Carolina). It's certainly worth a visit if you're in Wilmington! Here's some more pictures from the cemetery to close out this post:


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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Cemetery Relocations: What do you do with the evicted dead?

In the last post, I touched on the topic of cemetery relocations. This is something that doesn't seem to cross most people's mind unless they have relatives in a cemetery which is being relocated (or they're a cemetery researcher and/or work for a Cultural Resource Management firm). Usually a cemetery is relocated because it is endangered by natural forces (erosion, flooding, etc) or by construction of some sort. The reason for moving the cemetery is an important consideration in whether approval will be given. I'll talk about that a little later in this post though. The laws governing cemetery relocation vary by state, county, and even city so it's impossible to give a full overview here. Generally state laws govern cemetery relocation and protection, but there may be local county or city level ordinances as well. I'll try to outline the general process, but I'm not a lawyer nor do I have experience with cemetery relocations outside of North Carolina.

Generally, in order to relocate a cemetery, one must meet the state qualifications which often include archaeological training. For example, in North Carolina a cemetery can only be relocated under the supervision of a qualified archaeologist with a graduate degree and experience or a funeral director. There are numerous Cultural Resource Management (CRM) companies that provide cemetery mapping, surveying, and relocation services. The first steps include researching the history of the cemetery and notifying family members. Usually notification is done through the local media, including newspapers and television. You can see an example of a notice here. If there are no objections to the move, or if an agreement can be reached, the process moves on to the next step, which is locating the extent of the cemetery and identifying all the graves. This process can involve multiple techniques ranging from probing the ground with a metal rod (used to detect changes in soil density) to ground penetrating radar. The techniques are used to help define the area in which graves are likely to be located, but the only way to positively identify graves is through excavation. Generally this involves mechanically stripping the topsoil to locate the grave shafts. Once the grave shafts are identified, they can be excavated. The remains are usually placed in new caskets of some sort (which can range from simple wooden boxes to elaborately carved mortuary containers) and removed for re-interment at a new cemetery.

At least that's the ideal. Sometimes less reputable contractors take advantage of state minimum requirements to do the minimum of work. For example, at one point in North Carolina the minimum required to move a grave was to remove a prescribed volume of earth from a prescribed depth (usually 1 foot of earth at a certain depth). Sometimes dishonest contractors would simply scoop up a cubic foot of earth with a backhoe, box it, and send it off to be reburied, leaving the bulk of the remains in the ground. As a result the laws were tightened in North Carolina. If you're a developer, I'd recommend spending the money on a good, reliable, firm to handle your grave relocation - it is always bad PR when skeletons start turning up in the flower beds.

The physical part of the process requires skill and experience, but isn't as complex as the legal and cultural issues. Moving a cemetery is not something to be done lightly, it upsets the community, makes people uncomfortable, and can open old hurts in a community. There are many examples of proposed and attempted relocations that have resulted in controversy on the local and national level. On the national level, the African Burial Ground project in New York is an example of the controversy that can arise. On the local level cemetery relocations can cause controversy. The project I was involved with locally involved moving a relatively small cemetery to make room for a new dental school to serve the region. There were concerns because of the limited information on the cemetery - there were only two surviving grave markers, for example. The issue was especially sensitive as the cemetery is an African American one, and thus a sensitive subject in the South. The company which was hired to oversee the relocation was a good one though, and was able to work with the community, the school, and the city council to ensure that all concerns were met. There were even some good side-effects to the relocation - the original cemetery was poorly marked and heavily overgrown. Once the relocation was completed family members were able to visit the graves of their relatives and all identifiable individuals were memorialized on a common marker. You can read more about that project here.

Earlier I mentioned that the reason for the relocation can have a lot to do with whether approval will be granted and with the support a relocation receives in general. In the case of the project I was involved with, the reason for the relocation of the cemetery was to build a dental school - this area is under-served by dental health practitioners, and having a local school will help to alleviate that issue. In other cases road construction and flood control can be reasons for moving a cemetery. But what about when a cemetery is to be relocated just to make way for a new shopping center? Even in that case, with the approval of the family and the community, you can argue that the jobs might make it worthwhile. What about if it's just an individual who wants to build a house though? That's when you start to get on shaky ground, especially when, well, you own over a hundred acres and still insist on plopping a house down right on top of the cemetery.

Every cemetery can't be saved, and each case has to be evaluated on historic grounds, family approval, and good to the community. As you can probably tell, I do strongly feel that the descendants have rights no matter who owns the land. It seems that many states feel the same way and have some provisions codified in law. I have to balance this with a sense of preservation though - too many landowners decide they'll just avoid the hassle by removing any grave markers and plowing up the area to destroy any evidence of graves. It has happens, it continues to happen, and it's difficult to prosecute. The best way to prevent that sort of destruction is to instill a respect for the dead at the community and local level. With relocation a viable option, maybe there will be less destruction of burial grounds. Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Photos of Elkhorn Cemetery and Elkhorn

Courtesy of MsAmazon2u on youtube, here's some more shots of Elkhorn, Montana and the Elkhorn Cemetery.

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Mental Hospitals, Asylums, and Cemeteries

I came across an article in the Tacoma Daily Index today that describes the efforts of the Grave Concerns Association to replace the numbered stone grave markers in the hospital cemetery with markers showing the name of the deceased along with birth and death dates. The cemetery contains the remains of more than 3,200 psychiatric patients, buried between 1876 and 1953. The Association is working to restore the cemetery and replace all the numbered markers with named ones. 50 markers are being installed as part of the "Dignity for 50" effort.

Unmarked graves, or graves marked only by a number, were the norm at psychiatric facilities (asylums, mental hospitals, etc) throughout the 19th and a large part of the 20th century. I was involved in a project to survey a local cemetery for additional unmarked graves in the earliest section of a cemetery associated with a mental health facility. The facility is still active, although burials are now marked by a standard flush-set stone marker showing the individuals name. The use of numbered markers has been explained as a way of avoiding the stigma of of having a family member in such a facility. Usually the facilities maintain a map and an index which is accessible to family members so they may visit the gravesite if they wish. Keep in mind, however, that depending on the time period and the area, sometimes one could be sent to such an institution because there was no where else to go - they served as "catch alls" for the homeless and elderly with no family.

By the middle of the 20th century the use of numbered graves was beginning to change, from what I've been able to find out. It may not have completely vanished - it's not a widely studied topic - but it's certainly becoming the exception rather than the rule. Many state psychiatric hospitals have closed, leaving behind massive graveyards and limited documentation. This becomes a problem if and when the land is sold off for development - relocating large cemeteries is difficult and expensive. The cemeteries aren't always abandoned when the hospital moves on, fortunately, as you can see on the site of a fellow Graveyard Rabbit Grave Addiction where you will find photos and history of the Columbus Ohio mental hospital cemeteries.

Efforts such as that of the Grave Concerns Association not only provide a fitting memorial for those who were segregated from mainstream society in both life and death, they serve as a visible, concrete, statement about the changing attitudes towards mental health care in this country. Hopefully it will also provide a little closure and comfort for families who may have had loved one's graves lost among the tangle of numbered stone. Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Cemetery Sunday: Elkhorn Cemetery, Montana (plus a bonus)

The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 was signed into law last week by President Obama. This large bill includes over 160 individual proposals affecting federal land in 9 states. Out of curiosity I pulled up the PDF version and scanned for a few keywords. "Grave" returned nothing of interest other than noting that protection of paleontological resources does not extend to those at Native American burial grounds and cemeteries in general (they're already protected under other legislation). A search for "cemetery" turned up something interesting:

(1) CONVEYANCE.—Not later than 180 days after the date
of enactment of this Act and subject to valid existing rights,
the Secretary (acting through the Regional Forester, Northern
Region, Missoula, Montana) shall convey by quitclaim deed
H. R. 146—141
to the County for no consideration, all right, title, and interest
of the United States, except as provided in paragraph (5),
in and to the parcel of land described in paragraph (2).

(2) DESCRIPTION OF LAND.—The parcel of land referred
to in paragraph (1) is the parcel of approximately 9.67 acres
of National Forest System land (including any improvements
to the land) in the County that is known as the ‘‘Elkhorn
Cemetery’’, as generally depicted on the map.
(3) USE OF LAND.—As a condition of the conveyance under
paragraph (1), the County shall—
(A) use the land described in paragraph (2) as a County
cemetery; and
(B) agree to manage the cemetery with due consideration
and protection for the historic and cultural values
of the cemetery, under such terms and conditions as are
agreed to by the Secretary and the County.

This is an unusual provision in a bill, and I wondered what the backstory was. A quick Google search later I had my answer: apparently, due to "limited information and surveying errors in the early 1900's" the cemetery was included as part of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest. This was unfortunate for local residents who continue to bury family members there, as the National Park Service discourages burials on its lands.

A local newspaper, The Helena Independent Record, has a couple of stories on the local cemetery and the residents' fight to regain the legal ownership of the cemetery. One local resident, John Bell, began a letter-writing campaign in 1992 so that his family would no longer have to go through the troubles he had in burying his father and son in the cemetery.
The cemetery is small, containing 38 known burials, although up to 150 individuals may be buried there, dates back to the early days of American settlement in the area, and is still used by many local families - clandestinely. Officially the Park Service forbids burials, fortunately, the local rangers seem to have been taking an "if we don't see it then it didn't happen" attitude towards families burying their dead there. At long last, once the paperwork goes through for the title transfer, the county will legally own the cemetery. The plan seems to be to turn control of the cemetery over to a 3 person cemetery board, which is planning on limiting burials in the old section of the cemetery to avoid disturbing burials and limiting burials to those who are related to individuals already interred in the cemetery as it has very limited space. Hand-dug graves continue to be the norm as mechanical digging is too likely to disturb any unmarked graves before they are recognized. Also, lest anybody be upset that the land was passed over by the federal government without the county paying for it: the county has spent over $10,000 for surveying and other services related to reclaiming the cemetery, all to get back land that was supposed to belong to the county in the first place.

The only other reference to a cemetery I came across in this tome of legislation relates to protections for the Baltimore City Heritage Area, which includes Mount Auburn. Mount Auburn's historic significance is tied in with the subject of my oft-promised and still delayed piece on the Rural Cemetery Movement in America.

This Cemetery Sunday has deviated from the norm a bit, as I haven't been able to visit the Elkhorn Cemetery, but it seemed a worthy topic and a truly fascinating tale! If you'd like to see pictures, there is an album at which has photos, has a good article and a few pictures, and has a good text-only article. Unfortunately, if you want to see the town you'd better hurry as it has been discovered by looters "timber salvors".

It's taken over a hundred years for these people to finally get control of their own cemetery back, but they finally have it. I wish them best of luck in their plans for this historic and locally-important cemetery. Sphere: Related Content

Friday, April 3, 2009

Tips & Tools: NC Live

If you live in North Carolina, you have access to an amazing resourcee: NC Live. NC Live provides access to any resource held in any participating library in North Carolina. This includes academic and scholarly databases such as J-Stor, which makes for an incredibly useful tool as users can directly access scholarly publications that would normally incur a fee (or simply be unavailable). Want to know more about the history of the Rural Cemetery Movement in America? You can search J-Stor and find some great articles. In addition you have access to newspaper clippings and special collections, a boon to any genealogist.

In most states, even if there is not a program such as NC Live, you can access scholarly publications in the library of public universities, and many of these archives offer the ability to download PDF copies of articles. In most states the libraries of public universities are open for use by residents of the state, you'll possibly need to sign up for a library card and provide proof of residence. It can be a hassle if you don't live near a university, but it is an option if you really need access to some material.

Do you know of similar programs in other states? Let me know - I'll post a list of websites for researchers in as many states as I can get information on. Leave a comment on this post or send me an e-mail!


I'm working on an article about the Rural Cemetery Movement, so keep an eye out. Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Site News: Feed Problems

There have been issues between Feedburner and Blogger for the past day or so that have prevented new posts from showing up in Feedburner feeds. This problem has been fixed, but you might want to refresh your feeds and make sure you've seen the posts on April 1. Sphere: Related Content

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Grave News: Update on the Alabama Mass Grave

Here's a quick update on yesterday's story about the possible mass grave in Alabama. The Montgomery Advertiser is now reporting that 3 sets of remains, found in a different location than the others, may date to 1977. Apparently a piece of plastic of a type not used in the US until 1977 was found with these remains. Police are investigating but apparently aren't calling it foul play at the moment.

Without seeing the area where the bodies were found it's hard to make a call. This is near the city cemetery, so it's possible that these 3 individuals were buried and then forgotten. That's a pretty common scenario, sadly. Sphere: Related Content

Grave News: Yellow Fever Mass Grave in Montgomery, Alabama

CNN is reporting that a mass grave has been found in Montgomery, Alabama. It seems likely that this grave contains the victims of a yellow fever outbreak in the 1870's, possibly an 1878 outbreak which swept through Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. WSFA 12 News has detailed coverage including photos of the grave site and video coverage and the Montgomery Advertiser has coverage as well including photos and a write-up.

The comments at the Montgomery Advertiser are particularly revealing (and amusing, in a twisted kind of way). Any time you have a large gravesite found speculation starts running rampant. For example, one comment author writes (in response to a request for historical documentation):

That would be too much like right. They figure they can feed us anything and we will accept it. We all know that there is something underhanded concerning these bodies. However, we will never know anything about it because noone is willing jeopardize their namesake or hertiage to tell the truth, black or white.

So far there are charges of a coverup, theories that the grave is that of "slaves who were mass killed in the early 1800's", native american's, and a slew of other suspects. Of course, the simplest answer of yellow fever victims is conveniently ignored or brushed aside.

The thing is, there were many, many, many yellow fever outbreaks on the Southern coasts (and South in general) throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. There are historic markers attesting to this fact, it is well documented on genealogy sites, documented in books, and published in journals.

The tragedy here isn't that there are people willing to leap onto any conspiracy theory, the tragedy is they do so at the expense of the memories of countless individuals - Black, White, Native American, and every other skin color, ethnicity, and religious creed you care to name. These epidemics were a part of life in the 19th century, one that we've managed to forget. The victims were often buried in mass graves, away from other burying places due to fears over contagion. These locations have been lost through the intervening years as memories faded and people pushed horrible chapters in their lives behind them. That leaves us, their descendants, to stare in mixed wonder and horror at the tolls disease took in times past. No doubt Montgomery will work to properly lay the remains of the dead to rest, and memorialize them. We should all keep in mind that these are not the nameless dead, but fathers, mothers, sons, and daughters whose bodies had to be disposed of as quickly as possible, and reflect on the lessons for today. History can spring up anywhere, and unexpected bits of history can be sharp, bittersweet lessons like that in Alabama.
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