- Summer Program
- For Educators
- For Kids
- Media & Fun
- Newtown Battlefield Tour
PAF featured on Syracuse.com
Lost souls: Poorhouse graves revive tales of the forgotten
Viewed from Onondaga Road, the project seems to be a typical excavation. Scattered workers move in and out of mounds of dirt, near a shuttered brick hospital that once served residents of the old Onondaga County poorhouse.
Yet as the archaeologist who oversees the dig walks the site, he envisions “the poorhouse when it was kind of its own world.”
Daniel Seib, from the Public Archaeology Facility at the State University of New York at Binghamton, said he can close his eyes and see men and women in 19th-century garments hurrying through the snow to complete their daily chores. He sees a quarry where poorhouse residents dug for their own stone and a busy medical building where some residents went to be cured — and many died.
Seib has witnessed that reality first-hand. Over the past six weeks, his team came upon 24 sets of human remains. Those bodies had apparently been interred, without markers, in an open area not far from the existing hospital. There were no signs of jewelry, keepsakes or other possessions.
“Just coffin nails,” Seib said. “They were buried with nothing.”
To outsiders, archaeology may seem a dispassionate profession. Seib, in conversation, shatters that notion. He expresses reverence toward these nameless men and women, who went to their graves without any gesture of farewell from the outside world.
“I find myself going the extra mile for this project,” Seib said. “These people had been sent away from society, and no one — not even their own families — wanted them back when they died.”
The dig is part of a $4.5 million plan by Onondaga Community College to transform the old poorhouse hospital into a new OCC center for higher learning. Because there is no easy way of telling age, or gender, or cause of death, each set of remains will be carefully studied by forensic scientists, who will then send them back to Onondaga for burial.
The discoveries came as no surprise to Jane Tracy, town historian. County workers in the 1990s began finding bodies when crews ripped up pavement near an old gasoline tank at the poorhouse, which was demolished in 1998. Tracy said the total count for human remains from the site is rising toward 150.
“We never stopped finding bodies, and I was sure when they went back over there (to restore the old hospital), that they would find more,” she said.
While the forgotten graves offer harsh testimony to the dead-end nature of the poorhouse, Tracy agrees with OCC President Debbie Sydow: The idea of transforming the hospital into a vehicle for education, especially for students from families of modest income, becomes a fitting tribute.
“To take a place that was once used for people who were homeless or indigent or infirm, to take it and turn it around into a place of hope, a spot that students can use as a launching pad for a start on their own mobility, that seems almost beautifully poetic,” Sydow said.
The refurbished landmark is expected to reopen for academic purposes next year. Amy Kremenek, a spokeswoman for OCC, said a historical display will remind visitors of the days when the building was part of the poorhouse complex — a reminder that Seib finds particularly appropriate.
As the weather gets colder, he becomes increasingly aware of just how isolated life must have seemed to poorhouse residents. Judging by stone foundations uncovered in the dig, the entire complex was “very compact,” Seib said — probably to minimize the need for anyone to wade through deep snow. Residents, cut off from the larger community, led an unforgiving life.
Even when they died, they could not get out.
Until now. The anonymous burial site will become a retention pond. Kremenek said the remains will eventually be moved to a public cemetery at Loomis Hill, so they can have a dignified interment. Seib, by that time, will almost certainly be finished with his duties at the poorhouse. Even so, he intends to be there for the burial.
"When you think about it," he said, "these really are the least of our brothers."