copied with permission
Thursday, July 31, 2003

Some find dead poor more than a number

Ledger to identify graves missing

By Anthony Farmer
Poughkeepsie Journal


They were people too poor, too ill or just too downtrodden to take care of themselves.

They were stashed away by Dutchess County at a home in the country, near Millbrook, starting in the 1860s. Most were forgotten, or had no one left to remember them by the time they ended up at what was known as the Dutchess County Poorhouse.

When they died, they were buried at a cemetery at the rear of the 100-acre property in the Town of Washington that also houses the former county infirmary, which closed in 1998. The grounds also served as a potter's field well into the 20th century for those who died destitute.

There are no epitaphs on their headstones. There aren't even any headstones -- just simple, cylindrical markers poking a few inches out of the ground, numerals carved into the top of each one.
 

Spencer Ainsley/Journal
Grave number 90, on the former Dutchess County Infirmary property in Millbrook, is one of possibly hundreds of burial markers that can't be identified because the ledger that names the dead is missing.

''I feel that these people throughout history have been somewhat misunderstood,'' said Ginny Buechele, a Town of Poughkeepsie resident and genealogist who has taken an interest in the old burial ground. ''There were some intemperate people there. There were some lazy people there. You will find many were elderly, just had no other means of support.''

Those buried there are as anonymous in death as they were in life. The status of the records showing who is buried in each plot is as mysterious as the hidden lives of those who lived at the poorhouse.

But efforts to focus attention on the cemetery and those buried there are gaining momentum.

''They're part of our history that needs to be preserved,'' Buechele said. ''If the cemetery isn't preserved and the records aren't found, it's like they never existed.''

Today, that cemetery is believed to contain dozens, if not hundreds, of graves. It's difficult to tell exactly how many there are since the property is now overgrown with trees and brush.

On a recent morning at the cemetery, traversing the hilly property -- littered with dead leaves, fallen branches and other growth -- was difficult. Locating the small, ceramic markers was even more so, with only slim shafts of sunlight breaking through the wooded canopy.

County Public Works Commissioner Michael Murphy said he knows people in the community are interested in preserving the cemetery and he's working on plans to do so.

''I intend to, by this fall, remove the trees and brush that have grown on top of that cemetery -- make it more attractive than it is now and eventually put some sort of fence or some sort of barrier around the grounds where all of the plots exist,'' Murphy said.

Nature clearly has taken its toll on the graves.

Random order

The numbers don't go along in any order and range from 1 up to more than 600. Some of the markers include more than one number -- like 479/474 -- perhaps indicating that more than one person was buried in a single grave.

Even if one of the markers is located, knowing who is buried in a given grave is next to impossible.

Dan Sanford, a Connecticut resident, discovered his great-grandmother, Ella A. Sanford, was buried at the cemetery while researching his family's history. She had suffered a stroke and spent 12 days at the poorhouse before dying at age 69 in December 1929, Sanford said.

He visited the cemetery five years ago, hoping to learn more about his ancestry.

''I was totally disheartened,'' Sanford said. ''To see it overgrown and sunken, I didn't hold out very much hope.

''It's sad that with the life that I found out she led, to have her husband die, her kids taken away, and just when we think we have her ...,'' he said, his voice trailing off.

Buechele has helped recruit a Vassar College geology professor to survey the cemetery and figure out exactly where the graves are. Brian McAdoo, an assistant professor of geology and geography, used underground scanning equipment to do similar work at a similar cemetery in Ulster County.

Most who are familiar with the Dutchess property and its history agree a ledger exists showing the names that correspond with each numbered marker. But any agreement ends when it comes to where those records are now.

The county Department of Social Services was responsible for the infirmary, up until it was closed in 1998 for economic reasons.

Social Services Commissioner Robert Allers said he believes the ledger was among some records gathered and dropped off at the Dutchess County Historical Society around the time when the infirmary closed.

The historical society acknowledges a box of items was dropped off there by someone with the county.

Joyce Ghee, president of the historical society, said she knows the ledger does exist and remembered seeing it while visiting a resident of the infirmary about 15 years ago.

But Ghee said it wouldn't be appropriate for the society to go through county government records.

''These are public records,'' Ghee said. ''They really have to be protected by government. All we're doing is keeping them safe until government is prepared to handle them.''

Allers didn't see a problem with the public records being sent to the historical society.

''Where else would they go?'' he said. ''They went there figuring that's a place that would keep them.''

No historian

The lack of a county historian or county archivist in Dutchess means county government isn't prepared to handle them, Ghee said.

But for Terre Ahlgren, of Long Island, it doesn't matter who has the records, just that people like her, and Sanford, can pinpoint where their relatives are buried.

Ahlgren's grandfather, John F. Walker, drowned in a shallow brook near the City of Poughkeepsie in 1950 and died. She discovered he was buried at the county-owned cemetery after checking local death records.

The 44-year-old railroad worker had apparently been drinking and fell off the tracks to his death, Ahlgren said.

''When you bury someone, there should be a record. He had a name,'' Ahlgren said. ''He might not have been a good person, but he deserves to have some kind of recognition, and should be able to have his family come and put flowers down for him, say a prayer.''