Albany paupers' graves excavated

Work leads to increase in information about life of the poor in the 1800s

April 21, 2002|By Cathy Woodruff | Cathy Woodruff,ALBANY TIMES UNION

ALBANY, N.Y. - Archaeologist Andrea Lain used the wooden handle of her trowel to lightly scrape away another thin layer of clay-rich mud, revealing a bit more of a skeleton within the shell of a disintegrated wooden coffin.

As she slowly uncovered more of the remains, Lain began forming a mental picture of the person whose bones had endured in an unmarked pauper's grave - beneath pavement and parked cars - for 100 years or more.

"I think of her as a woman, but I don't really know," said Lain. "I have this impression, I think, just based on her jaw line. She has a feminine jaw line."

The body is one of perhaps 200 or more, most believed to have been residents of the old Albany Almshouse for the poor. They are now being painstakingly unearthed from a 1-acre site jumbled with graves three levels deep, in preparation for a $60 million biomedical research in the city's University Heights section.

When complete in 2003, the center, built by the Clifton Park-based Charitable Leadership Foundation, is expected to house 300 scientists, researchers and support staff from the Wadsworth Laboratory, Health Research Inc., Albany Medical Center and the Albany College of Pharmacy.

Dental care lacking

Lain said the woman was likely 40 years old or more when she died, judging by the density of her bones and shape of her frame. With just one tooth remaining, she clearly suffered from a serious lack of dental care common among poor people of her time.

The remains would be fully intact if not for a large cement piling installed through the foot of her coffin during construction of a long-demolished World War II-era tank repair shop behind the New Scotland Avenue Armory.

Specialists from the New York State Museum are examining the bones in search of clues to what life was like in the state capital in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The next step is to rebury the remains at Albany Rural Cemetery.

Since work began in early February, 153 whole bodies and 115 partial bodies have been found, according to Beth Liebich of the foundation. Many more may be found if the dig expands to its full potential area of 3 acres.

In addition to a long list of almshouse residents recorded as buried there, it is apparent that the graveyard also was the burial place for transients, drowning victims and perhaps even some residents of a nearby orphanage and the jail, historians say.

Very delicate work

"Somewhere out in that field of University Heights, there could be 1,500 bodies," said State Museum archaeologist Chuck Fisher.

It is very delicate work, done on an ambitious timetable aimed at completion of the dig in June. The Charitable Leadership Foundation has put tight security measures in place at the site and a nearby temporary lab, where the remains are being cleaned and studied.

Strict guidelines issued by the state Health Department on the handling of human remains govern much of the work, which is sanctioned by the terms of a state Supreme Court order that was sought by the Charitable Leadership Foundation.

"It's a pretty complicated project," said Fisher. "It's not a typical archaeological excavation for us."

Fisher and his archaeological colleagues from the State Museum are most intrigued by what the project may tell them about the conditions and lives of the poor in the late 1800s and early 1900s - people whose lot was largely ignored by journalists and keepers of official records.

"We think we'll have this incredibly valuable database on health conditions of the poor in Albany at the time," Fisher said.

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