Hallowed Ground

Hallowed Ground

Can you feel them? All Hallow’s Eve is upon us, and the dead are just beneath our feet.

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 population, already in decline, 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 relics taken. It’s cold comfort that 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 New Haven Green. It’s a place for the living, replete with arching elm trees, picturesque churches and crisscrossed walkways inside a tidy iron and stone fence. But it’s also a place for the dead. Over 5,000 bodies were buried 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 constitution, depicted in the 1748 map above, eventually became a footnote of history. But “The Dead Shall Be Raised,” as Grove Street’s gateway professes, and 2012’s discovery of three skeletons uprooted by Hurricane Sandy, tangled in the roots of 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.

That kind of move wasn’t possible in 1979, when, during construction to expand the doomed Oak Street Connector, 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.

From 1979, it would be another 32 years before those early parishioners of Christ’s Church, the first Catholic church in New Haven (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. This, it turns out, was the site of the Christ’s Church burial ground. The grave markers were long gone, moved in 1898 to St. Bernard’s Cemetery on Columbus Avenue, where records of both the old graveyard and the headstones later went missing. Still, at the emergency room site, the remains of 608 people remain below.

Who or what else lies hidden beneath New Haven? Even time herself won’t necessarily tell.

Written by Colin Caplan. Image, of the New Haven Green (replete with a now-invisible graveyard) circa 1748, provided courtesy of Colin Caplan. This revised and updated story was originally published on October 31, 2013.

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