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