Unmarked Graveyard Discovered
In July of 2011 the City fire department accidentally discovered an unmarked graveyard while trenching a water line for a fire hydrant.
By ISU Intern for the DHPA Judy Branham
Vigo County Poor Farm graves are not resting in peace as the remains of several graves were discovered while the Terre Haute Fire Department was at work this summer trenching a waterline to place a new fire hydrant near the Bemis Company factory there.
Because no grave stones of any kind are near the area, workers didn’t realize the area where they were digging was a grave yard for the Poor Farm inmates.
Norm Loudermilk, Terre Haute Fire Department’s training chief, said the discovery was unexpected.
“We never knew there was a graveyard there, or we would not have dug there,” he said.
Loudermilk’s crew realized they had unearthed the remains of a body, so the area immediately became a crime scene. Loudermilk alerted police and Vigo County Coroner Roland Kohr to what they had found.
Loudermilk also contacted Jeannie Regan-Dinius, Director of Special Initiatives of the DNR-DHPA, as well as ISU anthropology professor Shawn Phillips for assistance.
“Dr. Phillips, who had been involved in remediating some of these cemeteries in the past, was able to really take the project over, give me some proposals on the cost, and help really tell me what we needed to do,” Loudermilk said.
When Phillips learned about the discovery, he knew he could be of assistance. Phillips has worked on cemetery dig projects in New York, Kentucky and Wisconsin.
“The way it is being done here has been pretty exemplary,” he said. “Everything has been a very good controlled professional type response from the state level, the county and city officials, and it has gone through the channels very swiftly”, Phillips said.
Phillips is currently leading a class of anthropology students, who are studying anthropology field methods, through the process of excavating this site.
They are using ground penetrating radar (GPR) to find “subsurface distortions” in the area they classify as the graves sites. The radar assists the student team to not destroy any more graves found as would be the case if other methods were used.
“Cemeteries are well suited for a GPR study because any time you see a subsurface distortion it could be any number of things; tree roots, rocks, something buried underground, but with a cemetery you have burials that are regularly spaced,” Phillips said. “So when you start seeing a pattern of subsurface distortions you have an idea of where the graves are buried.”
According to Regan-Dinius, “State law requires that if any human remains are found, the DHPA must be called. In consultation with the County Coroner, we determine if the human remains are from before 1949 (which puts it under our jurisdiction)”, Regan-Dinius said.
While researching the Vigo County Poor Farm cemetery I discovered 49 names of people buried on the farm written between two pages which had been stuck together. Jim Gilson, the archivist of the Vigo County Public Library, unstuck the pages for me. Two ledgers dating from 1898 through 1949 are located in the library archives. Although they are missing years of data I was able to retrieve documentation of a total of 90 names of people who had been buried on the poor farm property.
Vigo County Public Library archives for the Poor Farm also reveal that slaves, prostitutes and people of Native American decent were once inmates at the facility along with diverse nationalities. Officials believe this burial site dates back as early as the 1880s.
In the late 1800’s burials from the local Vigo County Poor Farm were not recorded the same way they are recorded today. No death certificates exist for many of the people buried there, only a simple notation in the archives located at the Vigo County Public Library state “buried on the farm” or “buried here” accompanied by names, date of death, age and race. Many simply say “died” with no other notation besides a date.
Over the years some of the Poor Farm employees recorded some personal information about the “inmates” at the Farm. Some were local residents, while others were passing through the area. Research shows slaves, prostitutes and people of Native American decent were inmates at the facility. Many nationalities such as German, Irish, French, Russian and Canadian lived there for a time.
At the beginning of my cemetery research internship for the DHPA, Regan-Dinius, assigned survey forms to begin researching Parke County cemeteries. The Rockville Public Library and Parke County court house records were very helpful in recording historical information about each cemetery.
According to Regan-Dinius, “With the state having over 20,000 cemeteries, it is impossible for one person to work on every county, by having internships, not only do college students have the opportunity to learn new skills, but sites are visited and documentation found that the DHPA staff would not be able to do.”
“The goal of the Cemetery and Burial Ground Registry is to find and document (through archival means and site visits) every cemetery and burial ground in the state. By having these locations and documentation, we can prevent the accidental discovery of human remains, help communities plan better so they do not do construction projects through cemeteries (which helps them save money), and provides respect to our ancestors. The Cemetery and Burial Ground Registry was created under State Law in 2001,” Regan-Dinius said.
According to Phillips the beginning cost of $11,000 will cover taking care of the first stage, which should be complete within four weeks.
From 1898 through 1908 I found documentation of 90 people buried at the Vigo County Poor Farm on Maple Avenue. After 1907 through 1926 several notations referencing Poor Farm inmates’ bodies being sent to or buried in Bloomington, Indiana began to surface. This was very intriguing so I researched the IU Medical Center wondering if the bodies were being used for medical research.
According to the Wikipedia website, “The Indiana University School of Medicine was established in 1903, it is Indiana’s only medical school. The medical school awarded the Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree to its first class in 1907.”
The time frame was close enough to intrigue me further so I requested from my supervisor, Jeannie Regan-Dinius, if she knew anyone who could assist in answering my questions. She emailed an acquaintance, Stephen Towne from IUPUI, to gain some documentation on the situation.
According to Towne, IUPUI has some documentation of cadavers received from 1903 to 1926. Towne stated bodies came from a variety of institutions around the state, including “many of the county poor farms or homes. Vigo Co. is not listed in the early years, but shows up later, “Towne said.
Referencing the records Towne stated that many do not document where the bodies came from. However, beginning in 1905, the “State Anatomical Board” was listed through 1908.
My research found that during the summer of 2010 the Indiana Medical History Museum of Indianapolis had an exhibit called “Body Snatching in Indiana” which explored the history of grave robbing. According to their website this exhibit was developed by the Indiana State Archives and this story led to the establishment of the State Anatomical Board.
The museum website said, “In 1902, a series of grave robbings in Indianapolis prompted Detectives Adolph Asch and Chauncey Manning to begin an investigation of these mysterious disappearances. Their discovery and the media coverage that followed, led to the arrests of Rufus Cantrell, his “Gang of Ghouls,” and a number of Indianapolis physicians. It also led to the establishment of the … Indiana State Anatomical Education Program, whose aim is to “ensure the quality of education for medical, dental, allied health students.”
This could explain why records are difficult to find early on.
Towne said, “Of course, the two main proprietary medical schools in Indy, the College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Medical College of Indiana, which became the IU School of Medicine in 1907, would have obtained cadavers for study.”
Those records were not available for Towne to view.
Towne said, “For the earliest years the record provides the name, age, sex, “color,” “from whom body received,” date of death, date of receipt of body (usually a couple days after death), and tag number. The later entries provide info on the cause of death, the physician, and undertaker,” Towne added.
This information could be invaluable to someone looking for answers about an ancestor who graced the halls of the Vigo County Poor Farm. So many forgotten names of a group of people who had one thing in common, they lived under one roof on Maple Avenue in Terre Haute, Indiana due to unfortunate circumstances.
Many of the paupers had no living family. Many had family in other countries. Some did not speak English. Some did not speak. Some were thought to be insane who could have, by today’s standards, had Alzheimer’s disease instead.
No matter why their lives ended there, the most important thing now is to give those buried there the dignity they most certainly deserve.
Jeannie Regan-Dinius said, “At this time there are no future plans for the remaining graves on the farm.”
Dr. Phillips reported “there were 12 graves impacted by the water line installation. So far we have excavated 7. The preservation has been very good,” Phillips said.
Dr. Phillips has given proposals to the City of Terre Haute to exhume the remaining graves and move them to a local cemetery.