Do Not Disturb

Do Not Disturb

T he spiritual realm—can you feel it? All Hallow’s Eve is upon us, and the dead are just beneath our feet.

Many burial sites have well-constructed fences and gates to mark the resting places of the passed. Some don’t. New Haven is an old city, and there are bodies where we least expect them.

In the East Shore section of town, visitors to Fort Wooster Park along Townsend Avenue are easily enraptured by its 31 acres of wooded hillside. Little could they know that the Quinnipiac Tribe’s burial site is located on the backside of the park. The land here was part of the tribe’s reservation deeded by the English settlers, and it included their village, ceremonial site, farmland and burial ground. By 1717 the Quinnipiac’s population had been so severely decimated that town officials began selling off the land. By the mid-1800s the old graveyard was thoroughly desecrated, with many grave sites dug up and valuables taken. It’s cold comfort that at least roads and dwellings never encroached directly upon it.

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If the idea of walking on a disturbed burial ground in the woods frightens you, you might seek the open air and safety in numbers provided by the well-trafficked New Haven Green, which is by all outward indications a beautiful New England town square, adorned with arching elm trees, picturesque churches and a tidy iron and stone fence. What’s under the Green may not be such a pretty prospect: over 5,000 bodies buried here under the upper section between 1637 and 1812. Starting in 1797, after a deadly small pox epidemic caused excessive crowding, over 800 headstones were moved to the Grove Street Cemetery.

The Green’s mortuary past (depicted in the old map reproduced above) eventually became a relic of history, rarely considered in minds occupied by the needs and wants of the present. But “The Dead Shall Be Raised,” the Grove Street Cemetery gateway professes, and last year’s discovery of three skeletons uprooted after Hurricane Sandy, along with the old Lincoln Oak, raised hair in turn. The same tree fell over after a violent storm in 1962, also pulling three bodies to the surface. In that case, officials quietly reburied the remains and propped the tree back up. Now we have the internet.

By all means, continue to enjoy a midday stroll or an evening concert on our grassy green; just know that above-grounders aren’t the only ones listening.

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People have been turning over in their graves for some time in New Haven. During the construction of the Oak Street Connector’s expansion in 1979, excavations along Park Street unearthed two human skulls, which ground the proposed underground highway project to a halt. At the time, it was surmised that these were members of the old Christ’s Church graveyard, which accepted interments from 1834 to 1853. More recent research indicates that they were in fact part of the old Potter’s Field, or poor person’s cemetery.

It would be another 32 years before those early parishioners of Christ’s Church, the first Catholic church in New Haven (and not to be confused with Christ Church at 84 Broadway), were found. In 2011, a project to expand Yale New-Haven Hospital’s emergency room at the corner of Davenport Avenue and York Street opened up a hole in the earth, leading to the discovery of four well-preserved skeletons under a large slab of concrete. It turns out this was the site of the Christ’s Church graveyard, where the remains of 608 people remain.

All of the gravestones at Christ’s Church were moved to St. Bernard’s Cemetery on Columbus Avenue in 1898, and sometime after, records of both the old graveyard and the headstones went missing. The bodies, of course, remained behind, hidden until now.

What, or who, remains hidden just beneath New Haven’s surface? Impossible to say, but if there is a fitting time to consider the people who have left this earth, and whose remains have been interred into it, it’s today.

We can ask them this Halloween to leave us in peace, as they would likely ask of us.

Written by Colin Caplan. Map image of the old New Haven Green courtesy of Colin Caplan.

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Colin M. Caplan is a New Haven native, published author, architectural designer, historian and owner of Taste of New Haven Food and Drink Tours. He received his Masters of Architecture from Tulane University, is an Arts Award recipient from the Arts Council of Greater New Haven and runs Magrisso Forte, which offers historic building consulting and vintage photography services.

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