The shallow graves beneath New Haven Green
The shallow graves beneath New Haven Green – Among the death and destruction wrought by Sandy, the monster storm toppled a 103-year-old tree in central New Haven, Conn., and unearthed a little history – at least two partial skeletons buried in what was the Colonial settlement’s first graveyard. A skull, spine and rib cage were found tangled in the roots of the historic “Lincoln Oak,” which blew down Monday evening in the New Haven Green, the public square completed in 1638 by Puritan Colonists. Authorities theorized Tuesday that the bones may have come from a person who died from yellow fever or smallpox between 1799 and 1821.
Then, during a late-night dig, a Yale University anthropologist and state death investigator discovered facial bones from two people, reports the New Haven Independent, which broke the story Tuesday. On Wednesday, the sleuths, joined by a state archaeologist, found a “hand-wrought iron coffin nail from the 18th century,” suggesting burial in the 1700s. Assistant Police Chief Archie Generoso said, after consulting with the scientists, the bones likely date from the late 1700s, the Independent says, pointing to a theory that the bones were of victims of a smallpox epidemic between 1775-82.
“We will have a ceremonial burial and re-bury these people,” Generoso said, though it hasn’t been decided where that will happen. The dig is expected to continue for a week. A “cement box” was also found among the bones, reports WVIT-TV (aka NBC Connecticut), which it says is “believed to be some sort of time capsule.” A city spokesman said officials would decide what to do with it “at a later date.” The tree fell near the corner of College and Chapel streets. On Tuesday afternoon, Katie Carbo spotted the bones and called the police. “I took a stick and unearthed it more,” she told the New Haven Independent. “It was just crazy. I just couldn’t believe it. I knew it was a cemetery here.”
Robert Greenberg called it “an ironic Halloween twist”: the discovery of skeletal remains in the root system of an oak tree on the New Haven Green toppled Monday by Hurricane Sandy. Greenberg, a collector of New Haven historic artifacts who lives near the Green, came over Tuesday night to join in all the excitement surrounding the rare find. “It was surreal,” he said. “You had the full moon and spotlights. It was an Indiana Jones-like situation. There were a lot of people here.” Greenberg Wednesday recalled that scene as he again stood on the Green with a crowd of gawkers, watching three experts dig around the massive trunk, sifting through the dirt.
The trio included Connecticut State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni, who said they were recovering coffin nails and body fragments that are being turned over to the office of the state’s chief medical examiner for analysis. Greenberg, who has researched the history of the Green, especially its use as a mass burial ground during colonial times, is convinced the investigators have found the remains of more than one individual. “If they go down lower, they’re going to start hitting lots of bodies,” he said. “When do you stop?” But Bellantoni said they won’t dig any lower than about two feet. He said there “could be more than one body.” “I’m just shocked it (the site of the body fragments) is so shallow,” he added.
The initial remains – a skull, spine and rib cage – were found in the base of the tree. The discovery was made Tuesday afternoon by Katie Carbo, one of the protesters of Occupy New Haven, an encampment on the Green that began last October and continued until they were evicted in the spring. Greenberg said this was also ironic. “When they were here, I warned them they were desecrating a cemetery.” Greenberg believes the bodies with the tree were buried there during the late 1700s. In 1797 the Grove Street Cemetery was established and the headstones and a few of the bodies were moved there. But up to 5,000 bodies are still beneath the Green.
“The tree’s root system brought the bones up,” Greenberg said. “As the tree fell over, any bodies underneath the roots came up with it.” Greenberg was mourning the loss of “this magnificent ‘Lincoln Tree.'” He said it was planted in 1909 to mark the 100th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth. “It’s ironic,” Greenberg said, “that this tree falls and unearths skulls and skeletons two days before Halloween. All these crazy things came together.” He said that before the body parts were found, he had been looking for Lincoln pennies that might have been buried with the tree. Watching the forensic experts digging around the trunk, Greenberg scoffed at the yellow “crime scene” tape that police had erected around the site. “This isn’t a crime scene,” he said. “It’s history.”
“I’m happy that this happened,” he added, “because it got people into the mystery of the New Haven Green.” “So many things have happened on this Green,” he noted, and the skeletons add to the mystery. “It’s almost like opening a box that you can never close. Almost like the unknown soldier in Arlington.” Greenberg was carrying a binder full of historic photos depicting the Green’s history. One of the shots from 1912 showed two small trees; Greenberg said one of them was the “Lincoln Tree.” Greenberg speculated the forensic experts might determine the recovered bodies show traces of smallpox or yellow fever, two epidemics that raged through the region in the late 1700s. He said the many victims often were “dragged out in the middle of the night, wrapped in a sheet” and buried in unmarked graves. “We don’t know who is there. They were just trying to get them into the ground.”
Bellantoni took a break to say the goal is to come up with “demographic information” such as age, sex and perhaps a cause of death. After the fragments are sent to the state medical examiner for further analysis, Bellantoni said, “We’ll see that they’re properly re-buried.” Working alongside him were Dr. Gary Aronsen, a biological anthropologist with the Yale Department of Anthropology, and Daniel Forrest, a staff archaeologist for the state Office of Historical Preservation. Aronsen said he too will analyze the remains to try to identify their sex, age, and cause of death. “I’m looking for disease indicators and indications of trauma.” When he arrived at the scene Tuesday night, Aronsen recalled, “There were dozens of people hooting and hollering.” Asked about the appropriateness of doing this work so close to Halloween, Aronsen said, “I work with skeletons and bodies all the time. For me, every day is Halloween.”
Wikipedia offers this history of the Green as a cemetery:
The Green was used as the main burial grounds for the residents of New Haven during its first 150 years, but by 1821 the practice was abolished and many of the headstones were moved to the Grove Street Cemetery. However, the remains of the dead were not moved, and thus still remain below the soil of the Green. It is estimated that between 5,000 and 10,000 people remain buried there, including Benedict Arnold’s first wife, Reverend James Pierpont (founder of Yale University), members of President Rutherford B. Hayes’ family, and Theophilus Eaton, one of the founders of New Haven and the church and governor of the New Haven Colony for 19 years. Wikipedia’s estimate of remaining burials is five to 10 times larger than the figure Smithsonian Magazine attributes to historians: “more than 1,000.”
Here’s what Historical Sketches of New Haven, published in 1897, says about the early burial ground:
In 1639, Ne-pau-puck, a persistent enemy, was beheaded here, and perhaps this ghastly yielding of savage ferocity to Anglo-Saxon law is the darkest picture the Green has offered. After the English custom, the burying-ground adjoined the church, and there were laid the wise and the good, the young and the old, of the infant settlement. Martha Townsend was the first woman buried in this ground. Sometimes, at dead of night, apart from others, the victims of small-pox were fearfully laid here. The ground was filled with graves between the church and College Street; sixteen bodies having been found within sixteen square feet when in 1821, the stones were removed to the Grove Street Cemetery, and the ground was leveled. A few stones are left in their original places.
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