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Storm unearths very old skeletons in New Haven park

9:00 AM, Nov 1, 2012   |    comments
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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 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."

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. ...

As for the dearly departed oak, it was planted to commemorate President Abraham Lincoln's 100th birthday (Feb. 12, 1809). WTNH-TV erroneously claims, however, it was planted to honor New Haven-born Andrew Hull Foote, whom the station describes as one of Lincoln's "favorite Civil War admirals." As the stone marker states, the tree was planted by "Admiral Foote Post, Grand Army of the Republic."

Foote, known as "The Gunboat Commodore" for commanding a flotilla of ironclads, was born Sept. 12, 1806. He is buried in New Haven's Grove Street Cemetery, which was opened in 1797.

Coming on the eve of All Hallows' Eve, the discovery added to the Halloween atmosphere.

"It was a great deal of fun, with no disrespect intended to the dead, of course," said police spokesman David Hartman. "It was good Halloween stuff."

USA Today

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