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 info@exeterhistory.org.

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.

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