Old burial ground returns to haunt New York town

County fairground, swimming pool built over paupers' graves

February 10, 2002|By Claudia Rowe | Claudia Rowe,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW PALTZ, N.Y. - No one took much notice of Rebekah Maclang Brower during her short life, or afterward. She died at 30, deemed insane and incurable, and was buried in the fields outside what was, in 1852, the Ulster County Poorhouse.

Today, children play near her headstone, and parents spread their beach towels on the ground over dozens of other people buried here.

The poorhouse graveyard, it turns out, is now the county fairground and swimming pool.

The burial ground's existence was no secret in the 1970s, when the decrepit house, by then the County Home for the elderly poor, was closed to make way for a public recreation complex. But few people raised any objection to building in a graveyard.

Not until last year, when two college professors-turned-sleuths began studying the site and tracking down poorhouse documents. Then county officials were forced to confront the unpleasant details: 2,500 people - orphaned children, the destitute, the mentally ill and other castoffs - are interred beneath the playground, swimming pool and summertime food stands in an unmarked cemetery the size of a football field.

The discovery has stirred uneasy feelings among residents of this college town who remember the institution, and it has outraged others who knew nothing about the burial ground. It has forced county legislators to confront the decisions of former officials and ignited a larger debate about what should be done now.

$27,500 for study

No one has suggested closing the site or digging up the pool, but in May, the county Legislature voted to spend $27,500 to conduct more research and put up a monument in memory of the dead.

A few residents have complained that it is a waste to spend public money studying dead people who never amounted to much alive. But many more are captivated with this little-known, if unsavory, chapter of local and national history.

Poorhouses, they are learning, were not distant nightmares from a Dickens novel but an American commonplace, where the insane were sometimes chained to cell walls and children were hired out as virtual slaves.

The Ulster County Poorhouse, which opened in 1827 just outside the village of New Paltz, attracted attention back then as a frightening place. A state report in 1857 noted that conditions for the poor were so bad that "it is barely possible to keep them from perishing."

Even the professors uncovering this legacy admit a slight queasiness over their discovery.

`It's kind of grim'

"Is it really a good thing to know that there are hundreds of these people under the pool?" asked Brian McAdoo, a geophysicist studying the site. "There's a playground there; people put their towels on the ground there. It's kind of grim."

McAdoo, who teaches at Vassar College, and Susan Stessin-Cohn, an education professor at the State University College at New Paltz, first walked the site in the fall of 2000, hoping to find evidence of a rumored slave cemetery. Instead, they discovered a lone headstone - Rebekah Brower's - hidden behind the Ulster County Fair rabbit barn in a tangle of brambles and garbage.

The inscription read: "Wher' neath the cold damp earth lay, and sleep in quiet day by day, and have no more on earth to say, who'll weep for me?"

The words captivated Stessin-Cohn, who made it her mission to speak for Rebekah Brower and anyone else who had died, forgotten and ignored, in the poorhouse. She dug into dusty books, collected the scanty details on these inmates' lives and demanded that they be formally recognized. Meanwhile, McAdoo put his geology students to work using ground-penetrating radar to detect further evidence of a mass grave site.

Bones emerge

On various visits to the field, the professors noticed dozens of evenly spaced depressions in the ground, the size and shape of coffins. After the thaw last spring, skulls, pelvic bones and jaws with teeth emerged from the earth.

"I picked them up like you would seashells on a beach," Stessin-Cohn said. "There were just bones everywhere. It was pretty weird. I didn't know where to store them. I couldn't keep them in my car - what if someone stopped me? I put them in my laundry room, and it freaked me out all weekend."

Linda Crannell, an amateur historian in Austin, Texas, who runs a Web site dedicated to spreading the word about American poorhouses, found the tale bitterly familiar.

"It's very common for the poorhouse buildings and cemeteries to have been absolutely ignored and developed over," she said. "There was a pretty terrible feeling that these inmates were the lowest strata of society, and it didn't matter what was done with their remains - and why in the world would anyone want to preserve their memory?"

No one is accusing Ulster County officials from the 1970s of anything more than insensitivity. There was no state law addressing development on archaeologically notable grounds until 1980.

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