It was a Friday and I was spending my lunch break walking in the back parking lot of the Citizen’s bank building. There the heavy rains had washed out one of the embankments into the parking lot. I was kicking stones into the little stream that runs in the ditch nearby to kill the time. I was pretty useless at work; It was one week exactly before my last day on the job. I was just watching the time tick down until I was free from the office forever.
Finally I decided I should head back to the office. On my way back across the washout I kicked something that looked like a stone or stick, but when I kicked it some of the dirt fell off. It was a bone; A big bone. It looked too big to be a deer; it really looked… human.
I thought that I should probably call the cops, human bones: that’s their department. But this was a crazy thing and I didn’t want to get involved. If it was just an old animal bone I’d feel very foolish calling the cops down here. So instead I called my co worker for a second opinion.
She said to definitely call the cops.
I argued that it most likely wasn’t a human bone and I’d feel silly if I got the police to come down here for something stupid. They’re pretty busy. After some time she suggested that I walk next door, to the the fire department, and get a firefighter to look at it. They might know what human bones look like and then they can call the cops. I just wanted a second opinion after all. I took a picture of it with my cellphone and, knowing full well that human bones are not the Fire Department’s department, I headed next door to the fire department.
My lunch break headed into its second hour.
I walked through the fire department’s door and into a dark hall. I heard someone call “hello?” and turned the corner to see a dozen men watching TV. I said hi to all the fire fighters and showed them all the picture on my cell phone. They said it definitely looked human so one of them called the cops.
I hung out with a friendly EMT until the cops showed up.
First the Sargent showed up. Then a regular patrol man. I showed them the pic and they wanted to go to the scene. The regular cop offered to give me a ride in his cruiser which I accepted, “Cool I’m gonna ride in a police car” I thought to myself. He opened the back door to the cop car and said that he to pat me down before I could get in the back of the car.
I was patted down and then got into the backseat, behind the barrier. I was getting that irrational fear of cops thing pretty strong right about this time. The car started to move and the officer got on his radio:
“This is officer ____ en route from fire station 4 transporting adult white male to Davol parking lot.”
I was nervous.
We drove back behind the building to the corner of the parking lot and the officer let me out of the car. The few Citizen Bank employees that were nearby starred at me.
I showed the Sargent and the officer the big bone.
“That looks human” they said
“Were there anymore?” one asked. And before I could answer the other one said “Hey there’s another one -and its even bigger!”
It was big. And then we noticed that there were bones everywhere. I had been walking all over bones for the previous hour and just hadn’t noticed a thing.
The Sargent couldn’t get Crime Scene on the phone. He called repeatedly until finally he gave up and let his phone rest. I stood back and tried to take pictures with my cell phone. The younger officer noticed me doing this and asked me to stop.
They asked me for a witness statement and all my information. Afterwards the Sargent said. “Why don’t you stick around for a bit.”
That didn’t help my irrational nervousness. My heart was beating faster. I called my boss, not just to tell her where I was, but also maybe it could turn into an excuse to leave. She didn’t answer. I left a voicemail saying that I was hanging out with the police in the back parking lot.
My lunch break stretched on.
Eventually the Crime Scene Investigation van showed up after about an hour and then things really got down to business. They took a lot of photos and then pulled the big bone out of the ground. It was obviously a femur. You could tell from the ball joint at the end.
I didn’t just find one big bone. Now I was at a crime scene. Any fun there may have been in my exciting lunch break was gone and now this was serious business. I really wanted to leave the scene now.
I called my boss again, but still no answer. I called my co worker, but she didn’t pick up either.
Then I saw my co worker. She was walking through the parking lot and bringing me a glass of water. She asked me if everything was ok and if I needed a drink. It was hot out. I was so happy to see a familiar face.
This was it; It was time to make my escape.
I asked the officers nicely if I could leave. I said “Well its been really interesting watching you guys work, but I’d like to sit down. Its hot out here. If you don’t mind I’d really like to go back inside”
The officers looked at each other for a moment in some secret cop-signal. Then the Sargent spoke.
He said “Are you just going to be inside?”
“And are we going to be able to get in contact with you?”
“Yea you can go”
I walked away. Fast, but not so fast as to look suspicious.
Inside I was bombarded with questions and people. I showed them all the bone picture on my phone. Then we went out on the roof and watched. By then the whole area was taped off with yellow crime tape and there were more cops and men with ties who were not in uniform. By the time I left channel 10 was there filming for the 6 O’clock news.
Later on it occurred to me that I still felt a little odd about kicking someone’s bones around. My apologies, sir, I did not realize that it was your leg.
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Lost for decades, the remains of the forgotten are found
01:00 AM EDT on Friday, June 30, 2006
BY BARBARA POLICHETTI
Journal Staff Writer
CRANSTON — They were forgotten in life and forgotten in death.
They were paupers and petty criminals. They were old or just infirm. Some of them were deemed “incurably insane.”
The one thing they had in common, at the turn of the 20th century, was that they had no place to live except the gloomy State Farm, with its barn-like dormitories off Pontiac Avenue. And when they died, many were given a no better resting place than an unmarked grave in one of the state potter’s fields.
Apparently one of these burial grounds was forgotten even by the state. It was rediscovered only last week when someone on a lunchtime stroll came upon human bones in a weed-choked field behind the former Davol building, on Sockanosset Cross Road. The remains had been unearthed by the recent harsh rains.
The site was secured by the police as a potential crime scene until experts were able to determine that the bones dated back to the early 1900s.
Now, leading Rhode Island archaeologists say the bones came from a onetime three-quarter-acre state cemetery for the indigent that now lies squarely under state Route 37. Michael Hebert, archaeologist for the state Department of Transportation, said records show that the graveyard is not far from one on state land close to the highway.
Hebert said he is scouring through old records trying to determine what happened. Thus far, he said, all documents indicate that the state did not identify the graveyard when Route 37 was built in the mid-1960s and that no bodies were removed.
Given the sad lives of the people who lived at the State Farm, Hebert said it is ironic that the portion of the highway that passes over the cemetery was built just before regulations were put in place that require an archaeological survey before land is disturbed for a major state project.
If such research had been done, “they would have found this,” he said yesterday, gesturing to old maps and state death records spread out in his office, across from the State House in Providence.
It appears that the cemetery was used by the State Farm from 1875 until 1916, he said. It is impossible to know exactly how many people were buried there, he said, because some people who inhabited the farm’s work house, almshouse, prison and insane asylum were claimed by family members upon their death.
Using estimates from the State Farm’s handwritten ledgers, Hebert said nearly 500 people died there every year at the turn of the century, falling victim to diseases such as pneumonia, tuberculosis or “senile dementia arteriosclerosis.” A quarter or more of those were left to be buried by the state, he said, so there could be anywhere from several hundred to 1,000 graves under the highway.
“At the time of construction they probably didn’t even know the cemetery was there, otherwise they would have relocated it,” Hebert said. It is likely that there was nothing to distinguish the property as a cemetery, he said, and that the graves were either unmarked or designated with wooden markers that rotted away.
At this point, he said, all the state can do is recover any remains that are in danger of being dislodged by further erosion and quickly address the drainage problems that sent the bones tumbling down the highway embankment.
Hebert and Paul Robinson, principal archaeologist for the state, have spent this week working with Public Archaeology Laboratory, of Pawtucket, as they carefully dig with small shovels to find the grave sites.
As of yesterday, eight complete or partial skeletons had been unearthed, Hebert said, and the archeologists can clearly see the outlines of the rectangular, closely spaced graves. The wood from the coffins now resembles shredded bark, and the bones are the color of the surrounding soil.
Three nameplates made of lead, one of them still affixed to a coffin, have also been found. They are all dated 1916, the last year the cemetery was in use. Hebert said the date leads him to believe that the remains being found are from the graves of people who were interred in the outermost row of the cemetery and that the rest remain under the highway.
Once the recovery work is finished, the state will have to decide where to give the remains a proper burial, Hebert said. His office is hopeful that relatives of the three people whose nameplates were found will come forward to share information.
The names are Elizabeth Anderton, from England; Dominico DePetrilio, from Italy, and Minnie Frawley, from Warren, R.I. All lived in the Almshouse.
Because Hebert’s own great-grandfather was sent to the State Farm workhouse — for failure to make child-support payments — the archaeologist said he has empathy for those in the cemetery and he searched City of Cranston death records to learn more about them.
The records show, he said, that Frawley was 53 when she died of tuberculosis, DePetrilio was 47 when he died of “dementia paralytica” and Anderton died at age 76 from senility and stomach problems.
The death register for the State Farm reads in part like a ledger from Ellis Island, listing places of birth including Canada, Ireland, Sweden, England, Italy, Russia and Turkey. The few other details logged in rounded penmanship are Dickensian, showing that many of the people at the Almshouse were working people such as mill workers, servants, stone cutters and housewives.
Sometimes whole families were sent to the poor house and sometimes children were born there. Hebert pointed to some entries that chronicled babies of unwed mothers dying shortly after birth of “premature exhaustion.”
“There were lot of poorhouses in cities and towns throughout the state so there were a lot of cemeteries like these,” said Robinson. “What’s unusual is that is not often that we find a line of grave sites like this. …
“… It is compelling. It makes you wonder, who were these people? And as one of Cranston’s [police] detectives put it so well, if we don’t protect them now, who will?”
Hebert said that perhaps the most telling detail of these people’s lives is what was not found in the graves.
There were no wedding rings, no jewelry, no hair ornaments, no rosary beads.
There only glass buttons and brass safety pins.