Highland Park, paupers, and bodies in unmarked graves


My scheduled creative cemetery prompt today was a photo of the monument at Mt.Hope Cemetery, marking the place where several hundred graves of paupers, convicts, and the insane were re-interred after their bodies had been found in Highland Park in 1984, when bulldozers uncovered them while landscaping.

I scheduled the creative prompt photos days ago, and set them to post daily so that I don’t have to think about them. That means that my writing plan today was different than the photo – I was all set to write about a local madam. But this morning I decided I wanted to add something more to today’s photo caption, so I set out to find a quick fact – and ended up writing a draft about the institutions where these people lived.

It was a fascinating rabbit trail – and I’ll work on “Tilly’s” story tomorrow. But I thought you might like to see a bit of what I’ve uncovered today.

Once upon a time, the gorgeous lilac-laden grounds of Highland Park in Rochester, NY were home to Rochester’s Penitentiary, Insane asylum, and Almshouse. And underneath the blooms that every year draw visitors from around the world lie the caskets and remains of those who died and were buried on that land in the 1800s.

While fragments of bones have been found and reburied in the park over the years, in 1984 a bulldozer preparing the park for landscaping uncovered six skeletons; a later rainstorm uncovered six more. Investigators from the Rochester Museum and Science Center (RMSC) were called in to examine and excavate the remains. In total, 305 bodies were removed to Mt. Hope Cemetery; the remaining were deemed buried deep enough to not be disturbed by landscaping. It’s estimated another 600 bodies still remain under the lush grounds of Highland Park.

In the 1800s, the Penitentiary, and Insane Asylum were part of the same institution, but even after they were separated were all still located on the corner of Highland and South Avenues. Inmates of all three were buried in an enclosed part of the public farm in the rear of the Penitentiary, in unmarked graves. It was not a situation that tended to honor the dead. This is from the Chaplain’s report of December 1872 to the Board of Supervisors for their January 1873 meeting, and describes what that burying process was like:

“It was not uncommon, in such cases, to make more than one attempt in opening a grave, from the pick and shovels encountering, perhaps transversely, the mouldering coffin of some buried convict or pauper; while in spring and autumn, on a rainy time, the wetness of the ground and water in the grave, added to the pain of dishonoring the ashes of a brother man.”

At the same meeting where this was read, the Board passed a resolution to “discontinue the burial of paupers, or criminals in the old burying ground attached to the penitentiary, and to have the remains of all such interred in Mount Hope cemetery.” (By this time, the Insane Asylum had become part of the state health system.) According to the amazing site, Inmates Of Willard, some families claimed the body of their relatives when they died and buried them in their family plots; those who died without families were buried in unmarked graves at Mt. Hope. Others “were donated by state hospitals to state medical colleges for the advancement of medical science”.

Of those buried in the boneyard behind the Penitentiary? Three hundred and five were uncovered and removed to Mount Hope in 1984. It’s believed that as many as 600 bodies still remain buried in Highland Park.

The monument in Mt. Hope Cemetery that marks the plot where those anonymous unfortunates uncovered in 1984 have been re-interred bears this plaque:

“This plaque is dedicated to the men, women and children whose unmarked graves were discovered in Highland Park in 1984 and subsequently re interred here. They are believed to have been 19th century residents of the Monroe County Almshouse, Insane Asylum and Penitentiary that occupied the Highland Park site.”

You can follow along with my daily creative cemetery prompts on my Facebook page. And for more about the history of the Almshouse, Penitentiary, and Insane Asylum, visit the Inmates of Willard website.


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