Thursday, October 20, 2016

Skeletons in All the Wrong Places

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was not published by the Exeter News-Letter on October 21, 2016.

Back in the 1980s there was an urban legend, posing as fact, that there are more people alive today than have ever lived. Do the living outnumber the dead? Sorry, calculations of population over the course of history give the debate to the dead. Scientific America’s Ciara Curtin, writing in 2007, ran the math and concluded, “despite a quadrupling of the population in the past century, the number of people alive today is still dwarfed by the number of people who have ever lived.”

We’re pretty sure we know where most of Exeter’s dead are buried since about 1700. Before that, things are kind of murky. There’s no trace of our Native burial grounds in Exeter and no indication that any particular spot was reserved by the Squamscotts in the text of the 1638 Wheelwright Deed. But then, we also aren’t quite sure where the Englishmen buried their dead. Most likely, they followed English tradition and established a graveyard near the first Meetinghouse, which was located near Salem Street by the railroad tracks. Historian Charles Bell places the first burial ground at the meetinghouse site, but noted, “for a long time past no traces of memorial stones have been visible there, and all feeling of sanctity about the spot has vanished.” Benjamin Franklin Swasey, writing in 1907, reminded readers that that particular area was later used as a clay pit for a brickyard. “Many of the bricks used in the building of our Cotton factory, in the Bruce house on Bow street, and other places were from this prolific source. Among those now living who worked there at brickmaking Mr. Francis Boardman remembers of human bones being found there in digging up the clay.” It seems some of our Exeter ancestors are now part of our downtown buildings.

Occasionally, skeletons have appeared where they don’t belong. There’s long been a story told that when Josiah Coffin Smith was digging the basement for his house off High Street in 1787 that a skeleton of an Indian and several pewter spoons were found. Unfortunately, that’s the entire story and it cannot be verified why the skeleton was presumed to be an Indian and not an Englishman. We can suppose that early prejudices would have prevented Smith from believing a ‘civilized’ people would bury a body without a marker, but the missing Meetinghouse graveyard indicates otherwise.

Twice in the early twentieth century skeletons were found at work sites in town. The November 17th, 1911 edition of the Exeter News-Letter reported: “the construction of the Walnut street sewer yesterday morning revealed two skeletons buried about three feet and a half below the surface of the street. The first discovered lay across the line of the sewer, the second nearby and at right angles to the other. Dr. John G.W. Knowlton, deputy medical examiner, viewed the skeletons and the bones of the first discovered were placed with the other, which was not disturbed. Dr. Knowlton thinks they were buried more than 50 and less than 100 years ago. No traces of coffins, wearing apparel or other articles were to be seen. The skeletons were of males. One was a man 60 years old or more and of a height in life of more than six feet. One skull showed a perforation.”

Two years later, Dr. Knowlton was called again: “on Tuesday afternoon workmen engaged in digging a trench for the service pipe which will connect the Kent barn on Chestnut hill with the water main unearthed portions of two human skeletons. The skull of one was in fair preservation, but both skeletons were completely disarticulated. A rusty nail probably came from a coffin. Additional bones were found nearby on Wednesday. They were viewed by Dr. John G.W. Knowlton, deputy medical examiner, who advised that they be replaced as nearly as possible in their long resting place.” 

Exeter’s rogue skeletons kept to themselves until 1970, when Robert Brockelbank unearthed several in the Simpson gravel pit on Kingston Rd. Eugene Finch, retired Phillips Exeter Academy instructor and co-founder of the New Hampshire Archeological Society was called in. Just as in Josiah Coffin Smith’s time, the skeletons were presumed to be Native American, the Exeter News-Letter commenting, “All indications point to a find made by Robert Brockelbank last Friday as the remains of several Indians buried in a banking of gravel he was loading on Kingston Rd.” Finch had the remains taken to the Department of Anthropology at Franklin Pierce College where Professor Howard Sargent determined, “the population represented by the few skeletons recovered from the Kingston site is European and that both males and females are present. The age of the cemetery is uncertain, but the hexagonal shape of the coffins that could be distinguished suggests that it dates from the late 18th or very early 19th century.”

Are there more skeletons waiting to be unearthed in town? Quite possibly. As mentioned earlier, there are more dead than living on earth. Should you find one, the best course of action should be what Dr. Knowlton seemed to encourage. Rebury them as near to where they are found as possible. There, they can rest in peace, hopefully away from any sewer lines.

Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at

Photo: When skeletal remains are found and are not suspicious – merely old – investigations attempt to determine basic information. This photo, dated August 25, 1947, is most likely Eugene Finch, co-founder of the New Hampshire Archeological Society. Finch was called to investigate skeletons found at the Simpson gravel pit in 1970.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Fire Prevention Week

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published by the Exeter News-Letter on October 7, 2016.

In September of 1925, President Calvin Coolidge issued a proclamation to observe National Fire Prevention Week. Citing the fire statistics from 1924, which indicated 15,000 deaths and property loss valued at $548,000,000.00, the proclamation declares, “This vast waste is incurred under conditions which cannot fail to arouse a sense of horror and shame, for our experience indicates a major portion of it is preventable.” Coolidge was spurred into action by the National Fire Protection Association, which had been pressing for national standards since the turn of the century. The NFPA has sponsored Fire Prevention Week ever since the proclamation was made.

The date for Fire Prevention Week was set as the week containing October 9th – to commemorate the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. That fire, which was still ripe in the minds of people in 1925, began late on the night of October 8th and burned until October 10th , killing at least 300 people. Legend always laid the blame on Mrs. O’Leary and her lantern-kicking cow, although she has since been exonerated by the City of Chicago. Scores of children knew the alternate lyrics to the tune A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight : “Late last night when we were all in bed, Mrs. O’Leary hung the lantern in the shed, and when the cow kicked it over, she winked her eye and said, there’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight!” We should offer a posthumous apology to poor Catherine O’Leary. It’s a popular camp song to this day.

Although Fire Prevention Week is aimed at all ages, most of us remember it best from childhood. October is still early enough in the school year to make it practical for fire drills. The weather is still warm enough to enforce the, “Don’t stop to get your coat!” rule. The kids are still getting to know one another and their teachers, so compliance is easier. In 1935, it was still common for the governor to declare Fire Prevention Week. Was this actually necessary? The editor of the Exeter News-Letter thought not. In one stroke, Governor Winant signed proclamations for Fire Prevention Week, Casimir Pulaski Day and praise for Parent Teacher Associations. “If the state is to show its sympathy for every good cause by a proclamation in its favor, some other method should be devised to emphasize the supremacy of time-honored festivals, or of those important anniversaries of critical events in our history which no loyal citizen can disregard and still remain a loyal citizen.”

But think of the children. Every year the fire department got the chance to turn elementary school students into a little army of fire prevention soldiers. They were taught to clear out potential fire hazards like rubbish in the basement, to check the electric outlets for hazardous extension cords and to run beleaguered parents through home fire drills. Bolstering the lessons with filmstrip and movie presentations, the kids were thoroughly trained in the hazards of careless fires. The downside to this, of course, was that it fostered annual fire terror that, even if educationally sound, caused many sleepless nights. And adults were terrible role models for fire safety. They smoked cigarettes and cigars – leaving ash all over the place or flicking butts out car windows. Twenty or thirty years ago it was still considered okay to burn leaves in the street. “Watch this for a minute,” a neighbor once said to eight-year-old me, “I need to run inside to get another beer.” At any other time of year the pyromaniac in me would have loved to stand next to the burning leaves calmly raking them toward the smoldering center. But in October – after a week-long indoctrination from Sparky the Fire Dog – this was just way too much responsibility.

In the years leading up to World War II, the Fire Department in Exeter often didn’t have time to lecture classes on fire safety. In 1940, it was reported, “No talks were given in the public schools this week on fire prevention, but each had a fire drill.” Post war years, with their emphasis on Cold War civil defense, increased participation in Fire Prevention Week. Sparky the Fire Dog was created in 1951 as a mascot. Sparky’s counterpart was Smokey the Bear who intoned, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires.” With the encouragement of both, the Exeter Fire Department was able to report in 1968, that the school fire drills were a success. The high school’s 923 students evacuated the building in one minute and 20 seconds. The Junior High’s 680 students shaved 10 seconds off of that, and Lincoln Street School’s 600 elementary kids, perhaps because of their shorter legs, vacated the building in one minute and 45 seconds.

Home smoke detectors, which became common in the late 1970s, took some of the burden off of kids. They no longer had to lie awake sniffing the air for whiffs of smoke every few minutes. Today they’re still encouraged to check the house for fire hazards and practice home fire drills, but at least their only smoke related responsibility is to remind their parents to change the batteries in the smoke detector. This year, the NFPA would like to remind you that you should consider changing the entire smoke detector – they don’t last forever after all. “Don’t Wait, Check the Date” is the slogan to remind us that smoke detectors only last about 10 years. Take care of it, or Sparky the Fire dog will come growling at your door. Barbara Rimkunas is curator of the Exeter Historical Society. Her column appears every other Friday and she may be reached at

Photo: Fire Prevention Week, Exeter Elementary School (Lincoln Street School) around 1968. Firefighter Leslie Gatcomb visits the class of Mrs. Arlene Stewart.