Columbus, Ohio USA
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The North Graveyard
A restless resting place
by Beverly Mullet Randall
Photos Beverly Mullet Randall
Green Lawn Cemetery section where most if not all
North Graveyard burials were moved.
October 31 – Hallowe’en, All Hallows Eve, All Saints’ Eve. To the ancient Celts of Scotland and Ireland, this was the night when the boundaries between the living and the dead became blurred, the time when the restless dead returned to haunt the living and create havoc.
For the residents and businesses of the Short North, the boundaries between the living and the dead are often blurred more frequently than just Halloween. Long ago, in the early 1800s, the area that is now the Short North was the outskirts of town for the early Columbus settlers and the site of their first cemetery, the North Graveyard.
Almost from the beginning, the North Graveyard was a restless place. Although it was founded in 1813, the city proprietors were preoccupied with the War of 1812 and the ensuing depression so that legalities of the grounds were not really addressed until the 1820s. For a time, grave robbers frequented the site and a guard had to be posted to make sure the residents stayed put. In the 1840s, new fencing had to be erected to keep cattle and hogs off the grounds. Land was annexed to keep up with demand. Almost as soon as the yard was filled to capacity, there were motions to condemn it and move it. Health concerns, prompted especially by cholera epidemics and greater demand for the land for the Union Depot and other development eventually did force the relocation of the North Graveyard inhabitants to the recently created Green Lawn Cemetery with most of the relocations occurring in the 1870s and 1880s.
The key word when referring to the relocation of the North Graveyard, however, is most. Early on, it became clear that all of the bodies hadn’t been moved. In 1885, City Council passed an ordinance to investigate rumors that bodies buried in the old North Graveyard were being found while excavating the area. In 1913 more were found. As recently as May 2001, several of unmoved graves were discovered during the North Market expansion, turning parts of the project into an archeological site that would provide insights into the lives and burial habits of some of the earliest inhabitants of Columbus.
Ryan J. Weller is an archaeologist with Weller & Associates, Inc. in Grandview, the firm that conducted the archaeological excavation for the city of Columbus in 2001. He thinks there are at least over 200 burials still in the Spruce, Wall, and Vine Street vicinity or about 16 percent of the original North Graveyard population. “People just don’t think about it but as they’re walking over the sidewalks there, they’re walking over bodies still buried only about three feet under where they’re walking. We opened a two-foot trench and found two bodies. You know there’s more there.”
“They had moved the obvious ones with tombstones. Families moved some. Some were left because they didn’t know they were there. Also, the developer was told he could develop the land as soon as the bodies were moved, so there was every impetus to just move them as fast as possible. He obviously didn’t care how he got them out. They said they took bones out in shoe boxes, but we found some almost whole skeletons, so they weren’t that thorough in finding and removing them. They didn’t care when they moved them whether they got all of the body – they usually got the head, arms, legs, but we found a lot of smaller bones that fell out of clothing like finger and hand and foot bones – small bones left in clothes. A ghoul would have done a better job of moving the bodies. You have to figure, though, the ones doing the moving weren’t the richest people. They were making $1or $2 per day maybe; they were probably more interested in getting the job done. It probably looked like the moon surface with hole after hole while they were moving them.” Weller says they found some old bones by an old foundation adding that “there’s no way they could have put that foundation in without seeing those bones. They had to have known when they developed it that they hadn’t moved everything. It’s like the Short North old secret.”
“It sounds morbid and ghoulish but the way we excavate, it’s really not,” says Weller. “I’m very big on respect. When we were excavating a bunch of people came over and said ‘Oh, we always knew this was a paranormal area.’ I told them to stay behind the fence. They were weirdos. We had police protecting the area and fences up because we didn’t want people to steal the bones.” He said that happens a lot. “People want the skulls for candle holders and sometime kids steal them because they don’t know any better. We remove the bones, keep them together, do what we have to do. Taking pictures is part of the process so we take pictures” but, he says, he draws a distinction for what the pictures are used for. He adds that he can’t stop someone from taking their own pictures but feels any pictures taken should be for scientific, archaeological use, not for novelty and sensation.
When excavating, Weller says they heard rumors that bodies were found when the multi-tier parking garage on Vine Street was constructed, some wearing civil war boots. “We moved the bodies we could to Green Lawn, but we couldn’t move the one’s that were in areas not impacted by the project we were working on, so they’re still there. Burial #27 was by the toll booth behind the Yankee Trader – he’s gone, we moved him to Green Lawn. He was tall, over 6 feet tall. He had an extra vertebra in his back and was missing both scapula (shoulder blades) and part of his ribs. I don’t know why you’d bury someone without their ribs.” Weller says the missing bones from Burial #27 is very mysterious and can’t be explained by erosion.
Looking down Spruce Street towards High with historic North Market front view. The majority of the excavations were along Spruce Street.
Stories from the Dig
“Some people we just scared,” Weller said, describing local response to the excavation. “They’d be walking and see a body (in the ground) and would just run. Another time there was a giant rat that came out of the sewer. A lady in high heels saw it, screamed, and ran. I might have done the same thing – it was a big rat.”
“Burial #21 was fairly intact. He had drop-seat pants, and we found lots of buttons that were all different – seven different kinds of buttons. Every time he lost a button he probably replaced it with another one – none matched. Every time we tried to excavate the site, it would rain and would fill the trench with about a foot of water. Finally, I said, ‘We’re taking him out.’ It was raining while we were taking him out. We could be working anywhere else in the trench and it never rained but with him, it would always rain as soon as we started to excavate. I called him ‘Aqua Man.’ He was in a hexagonal coffin – most were in hexagonal coffins. He had extra bones in the scapula (shoulder) area from working the rotation areas of the shoulders and moving them around. He would have been agile and had to have used constant repetitive motion over a long period of time when his bones were forming as a kid. We thought it might have been from some activity like rowing a boat since both arms had it.”
The Short North site is somewhat unique, according to Weller, in that bones of local people from the 1800s are rarely exhumed, or if they are no one studies them; they’re usually just being moved from a family plot to a new location. None of the burials from this excavation were identified as individuals.
“These were hard-working people judging from the bones. The bones were robust and areas of muscle attachments indicated the people were laborers who worked hard. They really earned their money. A lot of children were dying; over half of the burials were children and there was high infant mortality. If you had a disease, you probably died from it. One of the burials was a person who had anemia and died from it. You probably wouldn’t die from that now. A lot died from cholera – there were several cholera epidemics.”
© 2006 Short North Gazette, Columbus, Ohio. All rights reserved.