Archaeological dig

A worker sifts soil at a construction site in the village of Lake George on Thursday. Human remains were found at the site last week. 

After learning about the Revolutionary War remains found in Lake George last week, I could not but help think about the time a former inmate burial ground was discovered in Auburn, New York.

The state was involved in that dig as well.

A local homeowner on Fitch Avenue in that city where Auburn Correctional Facility is located, made the grim discovery in his backyard.

I wrote about this for The Citizen newspaper, The Post-Star's sister paper.

It was in July 2016 that Eric Johnson II found the remains of four people while digging for a fence on the property, but the state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision kept digging and found at least 150 people buried there from 1873 to 1909.

I say "buried" loosely.

I looked up old newspaper clippings and deeds to find out more about this burial site, which included some of the first inmates in the country to be electrocuted. Reports show that the deceased inmates were carted to this field at night, in secret, and covered in quick lime before getting thrown into a pit.

A Syracuse paper described John Lee, the state lot's sexton, trying to deter a woman from coming to visit her husband's grave. When she realized her husband had been buried in an unmarked field, Lee recounted to a reporter that "she fell upon her knees, and covering her face with her hands she sobbed as if her heart would break."

Reports indicate that many family members, too, could not afford to transport their dead loved ones home and pay for a proper burial.

Property transfers showed the fact that the land was a graveyard quickly dropped off the deed (on purpose?), and these men were forgotten.

Nearly a century later, they were uncovered but remain unidentified.

When you read death penalty accounts from back then, the justice system appears questionable in several instances. That's not to say there weren't some very bad people buried there, but there were especially some cases I read about African American men that did not read right.

The information I got from a corrections spokesperson when I asked about the remains said "approximately 150 sets of remains were respectfully removed from their century old graves on Fitch Avenue and during a recent ecumenical ceremony re-buried in the cemetery at Marcy Correctional Facility in Marcy, NY."

It's striking, the difference between the surprise Auburn graveyard and the surprise Lake George graveyard.

While it does not appear these Revolutionary War soldiers were laid to rest in coffins, they were at least laid in separate burial plots. 

The state has 21 archaeologists sifting through the remains, and the state Office of Historic Preservation is the lead on the investigation. At The Citizen, we did not get very much information from the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision for how the remains were removed.

I never got an answer, too, about whether other property owners in Auburn were going to have their backyards checked out. Historical records showed at least 350 people were buried in that plot, and while there were records of other exhumations, who knows?

The state didn't seem too concerned about digging around more to make sure all were accounted for. They said they were working with Auburn "in the event that any more remains were discovered," but here, in Lake George, there is a halt to a construction project and New York State Museum archaeologists are taking time to sift through everyone that's buried there.

— Gwendolyn Craig

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Reporter Gwendolyn Craig can be reached at (518) 742-3238 or gcraig@poststar.com. Follow her on Twitter @gwendolynnn1


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